Instead of correcting ‘historical injustice’, faulty implementation of the Forest Rights Act is only fanning discontent among tribals

Despite the tribals bearing the biggest share of the burden of many sided displacements and alienation from their land, there was a flicker of hope when during 2005-2008 when the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, (briefly called Forest Rights Act or FRA) was passed and its rules framed. This Act hoped to correct the ‘historical injustice’ that had been caused to farmers.

The background to this injustice was that in colonial times, vast areas were arbitrarily declared as forest department land without any consideration for the rights of the people obtaining their livelihood from this land. Rather the people were called encroachers on their own land and were subjected to all kinds of repression, including imprisonment, cruel beating and money extortion.

The stated aim of the FRA was to correct this injustice by devising a procedure for regularising the land holdings cultivated by the tribals. The procedure provided by the law was that tribals and other traditional forest-dwellers would submit their claims, these would be examined and if found to be correct, then legal entitlements will be provided to them. It was widely believed that the overwhelming majority of claims will be accepted.

But the real picture emerging from the implementation of FRA so far is very different. Firstly, the number of rejection of claims is very high. Those whose claims are rejected are often not even informed about it. Secondly, a significant number of deserving allottees have been simply left out as they could not send their claims on time.

Lastly, even in the case of those whose claims were accepted, more often the acceptance is only for a small part of the land being cultivated. Most claims of community land are being rejected. Hence the FRA, as presently implemented, may instead of correcting ‘historic injustice’ has the possibility of actually accentuating it.

Three kinds of displacement may be caused as a result of this faulty implementation. Firstly, those whose claims have been rejected will be displaced. Particularly in the case of those classified as ‘other traditional forest-dwellers’ but not as ‘scheduled tribes’, the rate of rejection has been extremely high in many places.

Secondly, those who could not place claims properly are likely to be displaced after a certain time period (not made clear in most cases) has passed. Thirdly, even in the case of those whose claims have been accepted but for only a relatively smaller part of the land cultivated by them, they may be displaced from a part of their land holdings earlier occupied by them. In addition, a lot of valuable community land will be lost.

The scenario for such large-scale displacement is being rapidly created right now. So the question that has to be asked is if a law meant to protect tribals creates such displacement, how will they trust the Indian State again, ask activists.

In Madhya Pradesh alone, about 2.5 lakh claims have been rejected. It has been estimated that an equal number of cultivators could not present their claims properly. Assuming on a conservative basis only four members per family, it is likely that in this single State about 20 lakh people are likely to be displaced unless an urgent intervention to prevent this possibility is made very soon.

Similar is the situation in most other places as was revealed very clearly in a series of public hearings held as a part of the jan satyagraha yatras recently held in many parts of the country.

If the government is really serious about preventing large-scale displacement and the resulting discontent among tribals and other forest-dwellers, an immediate review of the implementation of FRA should be taken up and corrections should be introduced. More specifically, the high rate of claim rejections should be brought down significantly. The tendency to reduce land cultivated in most cases should be checked.

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