Promise and Performance: Ten Years of the Forest Rights Act in India

Background of the Forest Rights Act

In its preamble, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA for short), recognizes the historical injustice meted out to scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers. It seeks to secure traditional rights over forest land and community forest resources, and establish democratic community-based forest governance.

FRA emerged as a legislative response to a national grassroots movement to record the rights of forest dwelling communities whose rights were not recorded during the consolidation of state forests in the colonial regime and in the post-Independence period, many of whom have been displaced for industrial and conservation projects without rehabilitation due to beinglabeled ‘encroachers’ on forest land. Section 4(5) of the Act requires that no member of the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes (ST) or Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) shall be evicted or removed from forest land under his occupation till the recognition and verification process is complete. The process of recognition and verification laid out in FRA is currently the only legal process for determining the genuine right holders and their rights on forest land.

FRA recognizes 14 pre-existing rights of forest dwellers on all categories of forestland, including PAs.

The major rights are:

• Individual Forest Rights (IFRs) and Community Rights (CRs) of use and access to forest land and resources;
• Community Forest Resource (CFR) Rights to use, manage and govern forests within the traditional boundaries of villages; and
• Empowerment of right-holders, and the gram sabha, for the conservation and protection of forests, wildlife and biodiversity, and their natural and cultural heritage (Section 5, FRA).

The law is significant in seeking to democratize the process of rights recognition by making gram sabha the key authority in the rights recognition process. FRA has also created space for Informed Consent of the gram sabha for diversion of forest land. These rights and the gram sabha’s empowerment, taken together, can transform and radically democratize forest governance and conservation regimes in India. For the millions treated as ‘encroachers’ on their forested habitats and others who were deprived of any say in the matters related to the fate of forests on which their cultures and livelihood depend, FRA implies restitution of their citizenship rights and a right to live with dignity.The CFR provision, taken together with Section 5, is the most significant and powerful right in FRA, as it recognizes the gram sabha’s authority and responsibility to protect, manage and conserve its customary forests for sustainable use and against external threats. This report, therefore, has a special focus on CFR rights.

Objectives and Structure of the Report

This report seeks to highlight the potential of FRA, assess its achievements, identify the bottlenecks, and find the ways forward. Its objectives are to:
• Make a quantitative estimate of forest land that has the potential to be recognized as CFR area, and compare it to the actual forest area recognized as CFRs across the country;
• Assess the qualitative potential of FRA for gender equal development, poverty alleviation, climate change and biodiversity conservation;
• Compile the progress of recognition of other major rights under FRA, such as IFR, CR and habitat rights;
• Identify the major institutional and procedural bottlenecks in FRA implementation; and
• Identify the ways forward.

The report is structured in three sections. Section I discusses the methodologies used for the study. Section II provides a quantitative assessment of the potential CFR area and the qualitative potential of FRA for development, poverty alleviation, climate change, and biodiversity conservation. It discusses the performance of FRA and carries out a promise and performance analysis for CFR rights. Section III discusses the major bottlenecks in meeting the potential of FRA and provides the ways forward.