The enactment of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill 2006, changed considerably by 16 last-minute amendments, has evoked contrasting responses. On the one hand it has been hailed by various tribal rights groups in the country as a landmark in the prolonged struggle of tribal and other forest dwellers of India, as the Indian State has finally admitted that it has committed an historical injustice by denying some of the rights of forest dwelling people. On the other hand, even the forest rights groups and activists who had campaigned for this bill in the first place, such as the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW) and Campaign for Survival And Dignity (CSD), are expressing discontent at the dilution of the recommendations that they had helped the Joint Parliamentary Committee put together, in the final version of the bill.

A look at the context of other political developments taking place in the country around the same time the Act was passed, adds further to the difficulty in judging it. At the very time when this Act was being opposed on grounds that it will destroy forests, the Central government changed existing environmental regulations so that mining and damming forest lands would be considerably easier. Grants of mining leases to private companies increased enormously in forest areas. Meanwhile, the drive to forcibly acquire land for industries to set up tax-exempt Special Economic Zones was on in great force. Is it a mere coincidence that the Act comes at a time when major economic policy decisions in the country are so contrary to its spirit?

Disempowering details

The Act, in its final form, provided many improvements over the Bill that was first introduced in Parliament. As proposed by the JPC, the cut-off year for encroachment 'regularisation' - a term for okaying what was previously considered unacceptable - was moved from the original 1980 to December 2005. And while the original bill included only scheduled tribes in its ambit, the Act includes all non-tribal traditional forest dwellers too. The process for the identification of protected areas has been made more transparent, with communities being given some rights in the process of identification and decision-making regarding protected areas; the ceiling on ownership of land has been raised to four hectares per nuclear family; rights to minor forest produce have been recognised, albeit in a limited way; the role of gram sabhas and panchayati raj institutions in decision-making and as authorities in the legislation has been strengthened; and most important, penal provisions for punishment of forest dwellers have been removed.

But buried within this sweeping recognition of the rights of forest dwellers is a thicket of legislation that effectively makes these gains difficult to obtain, in practice. For instance, even as 'encroachments' up to December 2005 were regularised, the Act decrees that only those families who have been living in forested areas for three generations should be recognised as traditional forest dwellers. Another example: the Act says that its protection is only for those forest dwellers who are dependent on forests for 'bonafide livelihood needs', but the terms 'bonafide' and 'livelihood' are not defined anywhere in the Act. Such plays on words - forest dwellers' claims are genuine, but they are not genuine forest dwellers; bonafide livelihoods are protected, but some livelihoods are not bonafide - are evident throughout the legislation. Thus, even as the Act recognises community rights and authority to conserve and protect forests, wildlife, biodiversity, community and water resources, it does not provide for procedures or powers needed to exercise these rights.

Even as 'encroachments' up to December 2005 were regularised, the Act decrees that only those families who have been living in forested areas for three generations should be recognised as traditional forest dwellers.

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Further rights are also explicitly dimished by fencing definitions. The Act removes fuel wood, which is a crucial requirement of all forest dwellers, from the original list of Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) provided by the JPC. Instead, NTFP has been defined as produce of 'plant origin', leaving out basic mineral products like stones, slates, boulders, soil etc, and also water products like fish and weeds out of its ambit. The exclusion of these crucial items will only extend the clashes with the Forest Department over fishing and other activities, and continue the process of criminalisation of forest dwellers trying to meet their legitimate livelihood needs. Similarly, instead of the status for gram sabhas that the JPC suggested - 'authority for determining the nature and extent of individual or community forest rights or both' - the Act gives the gram sabhas the authority to merely 'initiate the process' of rights determination, leaving the actual determination of rights to sub-division level committees.

A series of clauses for protection of rights of forest dwellers, including the right to sell NTFP to persons of their choice, the right to a fair support price for these products and right to benefits from exploration and exploitation of natural resources and the right to compensation in case of damage have been removed altogether. In addition, clauses making the government responsible for protecting the rights of forest dwellers and taking punitive action against private or corporate intruders, preventing acquisition of land without the prior consent of the gram sabha and without adequate compensation and rehabilitation have also been removed, considerably diluting the power of the Act to protect rights.

Other important provisions that have been removed from earlier draft versions include:

  • A subclause providing equal rights of female members of all traditional forest dwelling communities and special provisions for female-headed households and widows has been removed completely;

  • A clause giving communities full powers over determination of land-use patterns has been removed;

  • An entire portion giving the details of the procedures to be followed in conflict resolution between gram sabhas - which gives them power to constitute committees in this regard and makes the subdivisional committee responsible for coordinating between them - has been removed;

  • A clause giving forest dwellers ineligible for protection under this law rehabilitation through employment has been removed.

A new political plane

The sum of such legislation is that while the Act apparently provides for protection of forest dwelling communities and their rights, on virtually every front it assails their ability to obtain the protection. The Tribal Affairs Minister P R Krindiah promised to address some of the wide loopholes in the law and clarify its provisions at the time of framing rules for its implementation. How far his assurances are fulfilled in the actual process of rule-framing will speak volumes about the government's intentions. These intentions must be seriously suspect, given the ongoing inclination to open up forest areas for further industrial exploitation. Neither the Forest Department, with its coercive bureaucratic apparatus, nor the timber mafia is likely to vanish as a result of this law. The clash of views between forest rights groups and conservationist organisations too will not disappear overnight, providing ample fodder for anti-forest stances in government.

Still, the Act marks an important milestone - the entry of the Indian forest communities' struggle into a more decisively 'political' phase in their battle for rights and choices. While fighting state hegemony over forest lands and resources, forest communities and their movements must also be alert to forces of privatisation which are advocating 'pro-community' legislative and policy reforms in the forestry sector for their own hidden agendas. The World Bank, an aggressive promoter of development projects in forest areas, supported this Act, raising suspicion. The politicisation of the rights of forest communities provides a new platform from which to engage these twin threats.