Tribals forest rights trampled

Tribals forest rights trampled
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Highlights

Pursuant to grant of Stage-II Forest Clearance for Indira Sagar Polavaram project, the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) has received various representations from the affected villages of Polavaram project, complaining about the non-implementation of Forest Rights Act (FRA).

In pre-Independence era, the Indian Forest Act, 1927, the main forest law, was made to serve the British need for timber. It sought to override customary rights and forest management systems by declaring forests state property and exploiting their timber.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 shortly known as Forest Rights Act (FRA), was enacted to correct historic/dynamic injustice done to tribals,

as crores of people live in forest lands for several generations without having any legal rights to their homes or lands or to forest produce.

The government claims all powers over forests against the people living in it. Under different ‘development’ schemes/projects, several lakhs of tribal forest dwellers were driven out of forests

Pursuant to grant of Stage-II Forest Clearance for Indira Sagar Polavaram project, the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) has received various representations from the affected villages of Polavaram project, complaining about the non-implementation of Forest Rights Act (FRA).

On this, the ministry after various communications with the Government of AP about the non-implementation of FRA, on 2nd February, 2011, sent a letter (annexure-2) to the AP government stating that the Director General of Forests & Secretary (DGF&SS) will shortly visit the area/villages affected by the said project to have on-the-spot assessment of the matter.

D Suresh Kumar wanted to have the copy of the report of that officer, action taken report besides correspondence between the Ministry and the AP government.

He wanted the action taken report based on Swarup Bhattacharya’s letter dated 2nd September, 2010, and the correspondence about it. Seeking those papers he filed an RTI application at the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

In pre-Independence era, the Indian Forest Act, 1927, the main forest law, was made to serve the British need for timber. It sought to override customary rights and forest management systems by declaring forests state property and exploiting their timber.

The law says that, at the time a "forest” is declared, a single official (the Forest Settlement Officer) is to enquire into and "settle” the land and forest rights people had in that area.

They are the supreme judges to decide the rights of the forest dwellers, who do not know how to approach courts and lawyers and never tried to enforce their right to possession and live in areas which are declared as forests by the governments.

This law was not made and used to protect the forest but to convert it into colonies after driving out the aboriginal families who dwelled there since centuries.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 shortly known as Forest Rights Act (FRA), is hailed as a step towards recognising the rights of forest dwellers,

and was made to correct historic/dynamic injustice done to tribals, as crores of people live in forest lands for several generations without having any legal rights to their homes or lands or to forest produce.

The government claims all powers over forests against the people living in it. Under different ‘development’ schemes/projects, several lakhs of tribal forest dwellers were driven out of forests.

The then Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, in his 29th Report, said that "The criminalisation of the entire communities in the tribal areas is the darkest blot on the liberal tradition of our country."

No one gets rights to any land that they have not been cultivating prior to December 13, 2005 (Section 4(3)) and those they are not cultivating right now.

Those who are cultivating land but don't have document can claim up to four hectares, as long as they are cultivating the land themselves for a livelihood (Section 3(1) (a) and 4(6)).

Those who have a patta or a government lease, but whose land has been illegally taken by the Forest Department or whose land is the subject of a dispute between Forest and Revenue Departments, can claim those lands (section 3(1)(f) and (g)). The land cannot be sold or transferred to anyone except by inheritance (section 4(4)).

This historic & truly Independent Indian law provides for rights to use and/or collect the following: a. Minor forest produce things like tendupatta, herbs, medicinal plants etc “that has been traditionally collected (section 3(1) (c)).

This does not include timber. b. Grazing grounds and water bodies (sections 3) c. Traditional areas of use by nomadic or pastoralist communities i.e., communities that move with their herds, as opposed to practicing settled agriculture.

If these rights are not recognized and given as per above referred procedure before the tribals are displaced from villages threatened to be submerged for ISPP, there is no possibility of compensating or rehabilitating them by providing similar rights at relocated places.

Hence the conferring forest rights as per this law is essential before the forest clearance is given to ISPP as per law. It is apprehended that any attempt to drive them out without conferring these rights will place the independent democratic Indian government in the same shoes of British Colonial Government.

Several legislations and rules have provided right to information besides RTI Act. The EIA notification, 2006, which was given under Environmental Protection Act, in Section 7 deals with Public Hearing, which says: “Whenever any developmental project is proposed in a given area,

the project has to first place all the project information and environmental and social impact of the project before the local community which will be affected. Only after this information is placed before them and their views and concerns of the project have been taken, the project will be appraised by the concerned authorities.

Under this EIA notification 2006, III Stage (3) - Public Consultation is prescribed. It says: (i) “Public Consultation” refers to the process by which the concerns of local affected persons and others who have plausible stake in the environmental impacts of the project or activity are ascertained with a view to taking into account all the material concerns in the project or activity design as appropriate.

As per Panchayat Raj act, whenever revenue lands are marked for other purposes like compensatory afforestation, leasing to an industry, etc. the Panchayat consultation is desirable (but not mandatory) which means that Panchayat has to be provided with information about proposed diversion.

For all the proposals for diversion where the FRA compliance required, the consultation with full information of the proposed project and the their written consent is required, as per the circular F. No. 11-9/1998-FC (pt), Government of India, Ministry of Environment and Forests, (FC Division) dated 30.07.2009.

Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) PESA Act, 1996, from section 3 (e) to 3 (m), every provision need to be understood from the requirement of Right to Information. FRA Act, Section 4 (2) (e), says: “the free informed consent of the Gram Sabhas in the areas concerned to the proposed resettlement and to the package has been obtained in writing.”

It is surprising that some officers are not implementing the right to information of the tribals and others in forests guaranteed by legislations.

Especially when there is a threat of displacement, the victims of so-called development are entitled to recognition and certification of their rights under the FRA, and information about which cannot be denied or delayed. If this information is delayed beyond the replacement, it amounts to denial of information and their right to live in forest etc also.

Central Information Commissioner directed the Ministry of Environment and Forests to inform whether forest rights of tribals were recognised, and the written consent of the Gram Sabhas were obtained for the rehabilitation package under Polavaram Project.

BY:Madabhushi Sridhar

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