By Sharachchandra Lele & MD Madhusudan
Ever since the draft Forest Rights Act (FRA) was conceived back in 2004, hardline conservationists have opposed it tooth and nail. Their main claim has been that the FRA would lead, and now is leading, to deforestation, something our country can ill-afford. Unfortunately, these claims have been based, first on a misunderstanding of the FRA, and then on poor and misinterpreted field data. It is important that these canards be put to rest as the FRA is discussed in the Supreme Court.
Recognizing or Distributing?
The first major right under the FRA confers individual rights to habitation and cultivation (IFRs). The critics of FRA immediately assailed it as a forest give-away. Some of them even took the maximum limit on IFRs (4 hectares) and multiplied it by the number of Scheduled Tribe families in mainland India to declare that millions of hectares of forest would be lost. But the FRA specifies clearly that only lands under actual habitation or cultivation prior to December 2005, and that too up to a maximum of 4 ha can be given as IFR. This means that there is in fact no giveaway of physically forested land, but rather, a recognition of rights over pre-existing habitation or cultivation on lands recorded legally as forest.
Is it possible that the intent and letter of the FRA is fine, but faulty implementation has led to massive deforestation? Certainly, no law can be perfectly implemented, and there have been instances of politicians encouraging villagers to occupy forested land after the FRA was passed. But what is the evidence of such misuse, and on what scale?
One circumstantial evidence used are Forest Survey of India data that indicate a decline of 679 km² of forest cover across 188 tribal districts of the country between 2009 and 2011 (the peak period of IFR claim recognition). Closer examination, however, reveals that two-thirds of this ‘loss’ was in north-eastern states, where FRA has virtually not been implemented. Whereas, Jharkhand, which recognized forest rights over 145 km², showed an increasein forest cover of 83 km²! So the correlation with FRA implementation is non-existent.
Another oft-quoted—and disingenuously used—piece of evidence is a study by The Energy & Resources Institute (TERI) from Maharashtra, which notes that IFRs were granted on 1,748 ha of standing forest. The TERI study was based on a report by Logicstacks Solutions, a consultant appointed by the Maharashtra Forest Department to use satellite imagery and verify whether IFRs were properly granted. The TERI study unfortunately fails to mention that the 1,748 ha of erroneous recognition was a part of 51,599 ha, pertaining to 35,044 approved claims that were verified. In this big picture, an overwhelming 97% of IFR claims (and extent) were correctly granted. This is the largest verification of IFR recognition, and it actually provides overwhelming proof of fairly conservative recognition!
The only other case where satellite imagery was used to verify a large number of IFR claims is an interesting bottom-up experiment in Gujarat’s Narmada district. ARCH, an organization working with forest-dwellers, provided Gram Sabhas with printouts of Google Earth imagery overlaid with IFR claim boundaries, and the Gram Sabhas used them in approving, rejecting or modifying the claims before forwarding them for government approval. The Gujarat government, doubting the veracity of this screening, sent them to GEER Foundation for cross-checking. GEER checked almost 4,600 claims using their own satellite imagery and reported that more than 96% of the claims were acceptable!
FRA benefits conservation
Clearly, there is little evidence to show that recognition of IFRs under FRA has led to large-scale deforestation. But the FRA also has the potential to strengthen forest conservation by virtue of its Community Forest Resource (CFR) rights clause. This gives communities statutory control over the forests they use, and powers for sustainable management. Moreover, this clause has given communities a voice in the forest clearance process. So far, permission for diverting forests to non-forest activities only required endorsement by the forest bureaucracy and a central committee. Now, in CFR areas, it also requires consent of the relevant Gram Sabhas. The Niyamgiri mining case is an outstanding example of villagers exercising this right to prevent deforestation. Unfortunately, CFR implementation has lagged far behind its potential.
Instead of blindly opposing the FRA, and using bad science to make untenable claims about supposed misuse, the cause of forest conservation would be much better served if conservationists support a sincere implementation of the FRA. By settling, once and for all, the historical injustice in how forest boundaries were drawn and how forest management rights were taken away, the FRA has the potential to take Indian forests towards secure, decentralised, democratic and pro-sustainability governance.
Sharachchandra Lele is Distinguished Fellow in Environmental Policy and Governance, ATREE, Bengaluru and M D Madhusudan is Scientist and co-founder of the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysuru. Views expressed are personal.