Researchers and activists working with the tribals and other forest-dwelling communities pooh-pooh Union environment ministry's recent data on encroachment on the forest land. Unless the Forest Rights Act of 2006 is implemented in both letter and spirit, encroachment will remain a contentious issue.
In response to a Right to Information (RTI) application, the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change has informed that about 12,813.97 square kilometer (sq km) area of forest land in the country, which is more than eight times the size of National Capital Territory of Delhi, is ‘encroached’.
In terms of percentage, this ‘encroachment’ figure comes to about two per cent of the country’s total forest cover of 708,273 sq km, as recorded in the India State of Forest Report 2017 prepared by the Forest Survey of India.
According to the environment ministry, which has collected data from the respective states and union territories, Madhya Pradesh tops the list with 5,347.17 sq km forest land under encroachment, followed by Assam at 3,172.15 sq km and Odisha at 785.05 sq km.
“This data of two per cent encroachment in forest land does not make much sense as removal of any kind of encroachment from the forests has proved to be very difficult, much because of the lack of will and other extraneous considerations by the governments and bureaucracy,” Akash Vashishtha, New Delhi-based lawyer and environmentalist, who filed the RTI application in August this year, told Gaon Connection. “Further, since the nature of encroachments and the forest lands or forest areas where these exist is also not known, the proportion is of no relevance,” he added.
Vashishtha had also asked information regarding efforts taken to remove encroachments, but the ministry replied: “The primary responsibility of protection of forests from various threats including encroachment lies with the respective State/UT Governments… You may approach the PIO [public information officer] of the State Forest Department for detailed information.”
Unsatisfied with the information provided by the environment ministry, Vashishtha now plans to file the first appeal before First Appellate Authority. “I am also thinking of legal recourse to this alarming situation of encroachment on the forest land in the country,” he added.
While Vashishtha is unhappy with the response to his RTI application, researchers and activists working with the tribals and forest-dwelling communities are questioning both the ‘timing’ of the RTI application and the data provided by the environment ministry.
“Firstly, the term encroacher itself is highly questionable. Secondly, unless the environment ministry clarifies who is encroacher and the nature of encroachment, the data of 12,813.97 square kilometer encroachment makes no sense,” said C R Bijoy of Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a loose federation of hundreds of tribal and forest dwellers organisations involved in forest rights struggles and the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, commonly known as the Forest Rights Act.
As per the February 2019 Report No 324 of Rajya Sabha titled ‘Status of Forest in India’ nearly 300 million tribals, other traditional forest dwellers and rural poor in the country derive their livelihoods mainly from forest resources.
A July 2015 report, ‘Potential for Recognition of Community Forest Resource Rights Under India’s Forest Rights Act’, published by a global coalition, Rights and Resources Initiative, notes that at least 400,000 sq km, or 56.5 per cent of the forests in the country, are accessed and used by forest dwellers. But, their traditional and customary rights remained unrecognised.
The Forest Rights Act, 2006 legally recognises and vests forest rights and occupation in forestlands by scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers that have inhabited and resided in the forests for generations. It also empowers gram sabhas to manage and govern the forestlands.
“In spite of the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, the Union government and the states have failed to settle rights of tribal and other forest-dwelling communities. Claims of lakhs of people have been wrongly rejected labelling them as encroachers,” added Bijoy.
Meanwhile, a public interest litigation (PIL) challenging the constitutional validity of the 2006 act is already before the Supreme Court of India. The petition alleges the 2006 act facilitates deforestation and illegal encroachment of forest land, thereby impeding the objective of preservation of the forests.
In response to the petition, in February this year, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court ordered forced eviction of over a million tribal and other forest-dwelling families across the country. The apex court ordered time-bound eviction of all those families whose claims under the Forest Rights Act had been rejected by the authorities.
According to the data released by the Union ministry of tribal affairs, which is the nodal ministry for implementation of the 2006 act, 4,198,793 claims (4,054,212 individual and 144,581 community claims) were filed up to April 30 last year, of which 1,866,919 titles (1,796,755 individual and 70,164 community claims) were distributed. This comes to only 45 per cent, or less than half of the claims, awarded the titles.
In terms of the area of forest land for which titles have been given, the figure stands at 58,529.97 sq km. Maharastra tops the list with titles granted for 20,286.77 sq km area, followed by Chhattisgarh at 10,819.11 sq km.
But, the data of tribal affairs ministry also reveals that 1,936,201 claims — more than 1.9 million claims —- have been rejected, thus making these families ‘encroachers’.
For instance, in Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the rejection of claims is as high as 96.96 per cent, 63.63 per cent and 58.77 per cent, respectively (see map: State-wise rejection of claims (above 25%) under the Forest Rights Act 2006 (till 30.4.18))
Map: State-wise rejection of claims (above 25%) under the Forest Rights Act 2006 (till 30.4.18)
Experts blame several reasons for poor implementation of the 2006 act. These include lack of political commitment; lack of adequate human and financial resources with the Department of Tribal Affairs, which is the nodal agency for implementation of the 2006 act; unkind and irresponsible forest bureaucracy which influences decision at various levels; poor or non-functioning of district and sub-division level committees, which consider the claims filed by gram sabhas.
Predictably, the February order of the Supreme Court faced stiff criticism from various tribal rights groups. In a joint statement, these groups said: “The order effectively allows for a major dilution of the FRA [Forest Rights Act], reversal of a democratic process to secure rights and justice for millions of tribals and other forest dwellers in India and in effect undermines the centrality of Gram Sabha, a Constitutional Body.”
Following a plea by the Union government to modify its order, the Supreme Court temporarily stayed its February order of forced eviction of people from the forestlands. But, the matter is still pending before the court and the next hearing is expected in November this year.
“We have a historical problem of land record keeping and marginalisation of the tribals,” said Kanchi Kohli, a senior researcher on environment and ecology with New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. “In the recent RTI response of the environment ministry, it is not clear how the figure of 12,813.97 square kilometre encroachment on the forest land has been arrived at. How the ministry has defined an encroacher remains the moot question,” she added.
According to Kohli, affidavits filed in the Supreme Court by the state governments accept the wrongful rejection of claims and the need for a closer look.
Interestingly, as per the Lok Sabha starred question No. 339 (dated April 18, 2005), the forest encroachment in the country stood at 13,430 sq km. A few months later, on 13 December, 2005, the Forest Rights Act was introduced in the Parliament under which individual and community rights titles have been awarded.
According to the Union ministry of tribal affairs, till April 30 last year, individual rights on 17,026 sq km area have already been awarded under the Forests Rights Act, 2006. This is more than the official forest land encroachment data of 2005. On the one hand, tribals and forest dwelling communities are being labelled encroachers, on the other hand, large chunks of forest lands are being diverted for infrastructure and development projects.
A recent study by the World Resources Institute has recorded tree cover loss of 16,000 sq km in the country between 2001 and 2018.
In the last five years, 546.48 sq km of forest land was diverted for over 2,988 development projects across the country. Maximum forest land diversion was in Madhya Pradesh followed by Telangana. Under the Forest Rights Act 2006, former’s claims rejection rate is as high as 58.77 per cent.
In 2013, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s (CAG) report no 21 of 2013 noted that between 2006 and 2012, 1148.77 sq km forest land was diverted in the country.
Forest diversion since 1950 is estimated at be over 60,000 sq km, informed Bijoy. Moreover, since 2006 when the Forest Rights Act was enacted, the environment ministry has diverted 7,407.6 sq km forest land for non-forest purpose, thus, disregarding the fact that forest rights were vested to forest dwellers, implicitly requiring the recognition of rights and consent of the gram sabha where the proposed diversion falls under the gram sabha jurisdiction, he added.
According to Vashishtha, “Permanent encroachments must be the first to be acted against before contemplating any forced eviction of forest dwellers who have been residing in the forests and aiding their conservation.”
Bijoy poses a much larger question. “Since the 1980s, about 15,190 square kilometre forest land has been diverted by the environment ministry for non-forest purposes. This is much more than the recent encroachment figure quoted by the environment ministry. Who then is the biggest threat to the forests of the country?” he asked.