Promise and Performance of the Forest Rights Act, 2006: The Tenth Anniversary Report

The passage of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) promised the reversal of a major ‘historical injustice’ which dates back to the colonial times. Setting up of the forest department on the one hand, and leasing out/settlement of large tracts of forests in favour of private landowners like the zaminders on the other, denied traditional forest communities of their customary rights and access to forests. The FRA further promised justice and economic wellbeing to not only the traditional forest dwelling communities but also to the large number of settlers who were brought particularly to the forest landscapes of North Bengal as indentured forest labour. Has the FRA succeeded in delivering justice to more than 1 Crore forest-dependent people of West Bengal, particularly in relation to the entrenched power of the status quo forestry institutions and related commercial interests?   

West Bengal covers only 2.7% of India’s land area but supports 7.55% of its population (2011 census), leading to a population density of 1,028 persons / km2.  Of the state’s 9.13 crore population, 5.49% are Scheduled Tribes (mainly Santals) many of whom reside in forest areas, and many more households in rural areas depend on forests for their livelihoods.  

As the state gradually annexed forest lands from the mid-19th century, (recorded forest area is currently 13.38 % of the state’s geographical area), they deprived local people of a wide range of customary rights. These deprivations, which largely continue to the present, include: extinguishment of customary collective management, control and use rights; restrictions on cultivation in forest areas, de-recognition of established villages and eviction of families without rehabilitation; creation of indentured/bonded labour ‘forest villages’.  

There was surprisingly little change post-Independence, and indeed the Forest Department enclosed even more forests.  Between the 1950s to 1970s, whilst state revenues from timber grew, the relationship between the Forest Department (FD) and local people deteriorated into outright hostilities in which many people, both villagers and FD staff, lost their lives whilst the forests rapidly deteriorated.

The situation varied across the different regions of the state. In the southwest conflict was to some extent mitigated after the 1970s, as the ‘Joint Forest Management’ (JFM) model came into being both in South West Bengal and across India. From the late 1980s JFM was extensively adopted: States issued administrative orders under which local people’s livelihood use of village forests was tolerated in return for their protecting forests or plantations. Although this led to improved forest condition, no rights or control whatsoever were devolved.

In the forested landscapes in North Bengal the situation has been quite different:  the Forest Department created so called ‘forest villages’ from the late 19th century onwards for a captive labour force of tribal forest peoples through a system that was essentially a bonded labour relationship.  The system continued after independence, and it was only after intense mobilisations in the 1960s that the FD even conceded to pay wages to the labour.  However, the forest villagers remained without revenue village status where they had no rightful entitlement over their village/homestead lands and so have not been able to access even routine developmental services.  As protected areas spread many now find their struggle for rights further compounded.

While the provisions of the Forest Rights Act 2006 promise redress of the major rights deprivations in West Bengal, foresters severely contested the passage of the Forest Rights Act 2006, and the antipathy on the part of the Forest Department has persisted into the implementation phase. As a result, West Bengal presents a dismal and pitiful scenario so far as implementation of the FRA is concerned. From the very beginning, the official process has been overshadowed by political imperatives and bureaucratic indifference. There has been no attempt whatsoever to follow the statute in letter and spirit. The first set of administrative orders were issued in March 2008, by not the Backward Classes department, which is the statutory nodal agency in West Bengal for implementation of FRA, but the Panchayat Department. This and the subsequent orders issued by the Backward Classes department contained major violations of the law.  Since then, the process for FRA implementation has never been thoroughly revisited. Our study has found that the implementation of the Act shows extreme disparity with what is prescribed in the Act and Rules.