Tribal people of India have been living in forests for generations where they collected and lived off of forest produce. Their traditional rights however have always been neglected and inadequately recognized in the name of national interest. This article traces the different forest rights legislation enforced in India from the time of the Britishers to the current democratic system. The plight of tribal people in pre and post-independent India has been highlighted. The article also talks about constitutional provisions that may govern tribal societies and their relevance with regards to implementation and representation. What other steps Indian govt. Must take to ensure proper working of forest rights legislations have also been discussed.
All over the world today, the emphasis is on economic development, so much so that ecological and sustainable development has taken a backseat. Historically, humans and forests co-existed in harmony. Tribal people played an important role in ensuring that the symbiotic relationship between the two does not harm nature and the ecological balance which is set in place. Hinduism, which is the most prevalent religion in India, is a religion of many gods. In the past, to worship pagan gods, almost 10 percent of all forests were designated as ‘sacred groves’, which were protected by strong sanctions.
Provisions under the British govt.
By the time Britishers set their empire in India, most of the Indian communities had migrated and settled in various parts of the country. However, some people continued to stay in forests and their societies were named ‘Adivasi’ or scheduled tribe. The British people realized the value of forests for economic advancement and also of Indian teak which was very valuable at the time. To establish firm control over the forest areas, they passed the first Indian forest act in 1865. With the amendment of 1878, forests were brought under the direct control of the state. This took away from the locals their right over the land. Forestlands were divided into protected, reserve, and village forests. Reserved forest is an area or piece of land which is protected under the provisions of the Indian forest act or its state equivalents. Unless permitted by the authorities, all activities are prohibited in this area. Any forest produce was taxed by the local government under the command of the British. The land that belonged to the tribal people and any rights they had over such land could be withdrawn at any moment as it was only seen as an allowance to the Adivasis.
In 1894, the British govt. Declared its first forest policy resolution which was meant to save the depleting forest conserves caused due to the overuse of resources. Instead, it made state control of forests even more concrete and exploitation more severe. After this, the Indian forest act of 1927, the forest policy of 1952, and the forest conservation act, 1980 were passed. These acts did not refer to any provisions regarding the role of communities that are local to the area or the concept of jfm (joint forest management).
After independence, the Indian govt. Carried forward the thinking that forests were to be protected regardless of the issues faced by local communities. National interest was above individual interest and ‘maximum utilization of land with the least costs’ was the need to ensure industrial development.
Under the 42nd amendment of India’s constitution, forests were moved from the state list to the concurrent list under the 7th schedule, which brought them under the center’s purview.
The tribals had no legal documentation to prove they were the owners of the land, and thus, in the eyes of the state, they came to be known as intruders or unlawful inhabitants. There were many tribes left without any right to the land which was originally theirs because they had no legal entitlement to it anymore. They turned into people without origin and those who invade the very land that in the past, created their livelihood. These people who were constantly displaced for ‘growth’ projects were not given any successful alternative rehabilitation or livelihood. With no choice but to scratch out a meager living by any possible means, their contribution towards unsustainable exploitation of forest resources and its possible destruction for sustenance increased.
Forest Rights Act, 2006
The watershed moment for tribal development came with the scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers (recognition of forest rights) act 2006. This legislation recognized the rights of tribal people. Section 330 of that act comprises many rights that include the right to live and reside in forest land, collective rights, the right to possess, use and dispose of minor forests production, right on or above the land in dispute, right of conversion of patta. Lease or lease contribution, right to conversion of all forest villages, right of protection, regeneration of agricultural land, biodiversity and intellectual rights, biodiversity, and cultural property as well as conventional awareness. fra acknowledges and protects human rights in the protected territory; living scheduled tribes and other typical forest dwellers who have ‘resided primarily in’ forests for centuries, are ‘dependent on forest or forest property’ for the bona fide essentials of life and occupied forest land before 13 December 2005, but whose privileges were not recognizable. Sets of rights shall be recognized in the form of individual, group, territorial, and development rights, including any rights not defined but excluding hunting. but more than the govt, local people have a role to play in the development of such laws. The inclusion of local people in the forestry management schemes will ensure that corruption is at the minimum and their needs are generally met.
Even though govt. Has control over the forest areas, the concept of trickle-down economics should hold, that is, the economic development of India should trickle-down to different strata of the society. The forest rights act, therefore, has to ensure that the costs and benefits arising from protected areas are equitably shared and the Adivasis are given certain benefits for the same.
Constitutional Provisions for Tribal Development
Part 3 of the Indian constitution deals with the fundamental rights of the citizens. Article 14 promises equality before the law and the right to freedom is promised by article 19 of the constitution. Other than this, article 15 (3) of the constitution says “nothing in this article shall prevent the state from making any special provision for women and children.” Though what is meant by “special provision” is not concrete. Article 16 (4) says “nothing in this article shall prevent the state from making any provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favor of any backward class of citizens which, in the opinion of the state, is not adequately represented in the services under the state.” This may be applied to tribal habitat in a broad sense of empowerment but their implementation is dependent upon the state and its commitment to reformation in society. Art. 46 of the constitution provides that “the state shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the society and in particular, of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.”
However, many tribal communities across our country have a shared belief that any changes which affect the interests of tribal people, even when they aim to improve the condition of Adivasis, are executed by a government that is motivated by considerations that are selfish and may be unrelated to tribal welfare. Like the interests of powerful people, corporates, and lobbyists. This belief is not groundless when we think of the historical treatment received by the tribal people by the govt. Even though our society is multicultural, every community is unique in the way they live their life, their culture and diversity and the law must be able to incorporate the different cultural standards of people so that one community does not dominate the universal standards. To pacify the damage done over the years, the govt. Needs to make sure that tribal people are taken in confidence and their rights are granted accordingly.
There are gaps in the new forest legislation act, as it is only a decade old. However, the difficulty is experienced in the implementation and upliftment of the tribal society due to it. Ironically, tribals themselves speak of unhappiness with some clauses of the act, arguing that the government reduced the legislative framework to maintain its control over forests and their resource.
There’s no doubt that targets set by the govt. Are in themselves laudable. Until now, however, tribals have existed in a state of confusion underneath the constant threat of expulsion. Their whole lives were a “lawful twilight zone”. Therefore, they have to be instilled with the trust that the rights to these benefits are safe and cannot be revoked or annulled arbitrarily. Govt. Must take them into confidence and make policies that benefit the scheduled tribe of our country. National interest may be more important than individual interest but it cannot deny people basic rights and certainty of livelihood.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What is the latest forest rights legislation?
The latest forest rights legislation is the scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers (recognition of forest rights) act, 2006. This act was enacted to protect Adivasis from being socially and economically marginalized and balance their right to life and livelihood with the right to environment.
- In certain parts of the country, the population density is so low that there are only a handful of persons in a village. How are forest rights committees to be constituted in such villages?
In the case of villages with very low population density, such as in the upper Himalayan regions of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and other such states, a combined gram sabha of a cluster of villages can meet and constitute a forest rights committee for implementation of the fra.
- What are the areas to which fra applies?
It is stated in section 1(2) of the forest rights act that it extends to the whole of India except the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Section 3(1) describes the various forest rights which are recognized and vested under the fra on all forest lands.
-  Sahana Ghosh, Faith and healing in the sacred groves of Madhya Pradesh, MONGABAY, (Jan 31, 2020), https://india.mongabay.com/2020/01/faith-and-healing-in-the-sacred-groves-of-madhya-pradesh/.
-  Indian Forest Act, 1927, DRISHTI, (Sep 3, 2020), https://www.drishtiias.com/to-the-points/Paper2/indian-forest-act-1927
-  INDIAN CONST. art. 246
-  The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, art. 330
-  Land and Human Rights Standards and Applications, United Nations Human Rights, OHCHR