Netas using Forest Rights Act for political gains, says book
Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF) B.K. Singh's third book, "Forest Rights Act - Accelerated Deforestation" deals with the loopholes in the Forest Rights Act (FRA) that was promulgated to undo the injustice to the forest dwellers but was used by politicians as a land distribution exercise for electoral gains
Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF) B.K. Singh's third book, "Forest Rights Act - Accelerated Deforestation" deals with the loopholes in the Forest Rights Act (FRA) that was promulgated to undo the injustice to the forest dwellers but was used by politicians as a land distribution exercise for electoral gains.
It carries evidence of the misuse of the Act that has led to the loss of 10 million hectares of forest land. Citing several cases of deforestation the book makes a strong case for repeal of the Act.
Forest rights have been granted to individuals and communities over more than 5 million hectares in the country after FRA 2006 came into existence. Another five million hectares have been illegally deforested, occupied and claimed. Although these claims are once rejected but claimants are still in occupation of forest land. On the plea from Central and State governments, Supreme Court has stayed their eviction and ordered reopening and fresh verification of cases.
However, in the name of reverification fresh applications were filed leading to another spate of deforestation. He states that several claims were bogus.
Singh writes that even with clear evidence that though no injustice was meted out to any forest dwelling scheduled tribe or any other traditional forest dweller (OTFD), FRA, 2006 was passed under pressure from vested interest groups, who have conspired to destabilize the ecological security of the country.
All encroachments prior to April 27, 1978 were regularized except scheduled tribes who encroached forest land after 1980 and were in its occupation as on December 13, 2005, no one else has legitimate claim on forest land.
However, the OTFD needed the proof of 75 years of occupation as on December 13, 2005 or else they could not claim their rights over the forest land.
"The law has been misused and communities have rushed to file claims for vesting of rights. Politicians across party lines in various states have interpreted FRA as a land distribution exercise and have fixed targets for the districts. Many states witnessed large scale fresh deforestation for occupying forest lands and claiming individual forest rights over these lands," Singh says.
In Karnataka, the book mentions how a wave of occupation of forest lands took place after the former chief minister Siddaramaiah led Congress government came to power in 2013.
"Shivamogga became the most vulnerable district where the encroachments for claiming rights were prevalent. Hirekerur also saw a wave of clearing tree growth in forest lands as was prevalent all over Shivamogga district. The Revenue Minister of the State Kagod Timappa from Sagar in May 2017 addressed a gathering of farmers at Hirekerur and instigated them to occupy forest lands or reoccupy encroached forest lands by clearing the plantations grown by the forest department. The minister did not inform the gathering that the claims would be justified only when the forest lands are occupied and cultivated by STs as on or before 13-12-2005 and by OTFDs for 75 years before this date.
This was the mischief on his part and his action jolted the efforts of conservation by the forest department. After the Revenue Minister instigated the villagers to clear tree growth/ plantation crops and occupy forest land, villagers cleared 50 hectares of plantation area in Kamalapur in July 2017.
Apart from planted trees, natural trees of native species and sandalwood were also felled. The plantation in the area was raised in 2006 after evicting encroachments on forest lands. While attempting to reoccupy 50 hectares of forest land, 30 persons had cut down 1,000 grown up trees... The Forest Department swung into action and detained 80 persons responsible for cutting trees in the 2006 plantation.
However, the FIR showed the names of 30 able bodied persons who led from the front and organised the cutting of trees. Ladies and old persons were not named in the FIR and were freed. 30 accused persons were produced before Magistrate and were remanded to judicial custody," the book reads.
Further investigation further revealed the involvement of the rebel Congress MLA B C in instigating the Kamalapur villagers to cut trees on forest land to strengthen their claim applications under FRA, 2006. Patil in 2019 joined BJP and later won the by-election from Hirekerur assembly constituency. One of the conditions he had reportedly put forth before joining the BJP was to withdraw the above mentioned criminal case filed by the Forest department on 30 accused persons. With the approval of the Cabinet, the case has been withdrawn by the government.
The intricate details of the misuse of the Act in Maharashtra exposes the NGOs' who have grabbed the land.
Under the FRA the rights for management of community forest resources can be vested in the communities who have been traditionally managing the forests.
"States like Maharashtra have vested rights in the communities to manage forest in the jurisdiction of some Gram Sabhas, who had earlier no experience of managing the resource. Government has also earmarked funds for writing management plans for such forests and NGOs are grabbing the funds for the said task, although they have no expertise in it. The management of forests of Bamaragarh forest division in Ghatchiroli district has been vested in the communities in many Gram Panchayat areas. There are very few patches left for the management by the Forest division," the book mentions.