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Review of Forest Rights Committees in Andhra Pradesh

Though Forest Rights Act (FRA) was enacted by Indian parliament in 2006 but its genesis is closely linked with almost 60 years of “historical injustice”[1] on various forest dwellers communities (mainly Scheduled Tribes) by state forestry bureaucrats.  We very well know that forested landscape are the main sources of minerals and other natural resources but at the same time they are den of poverty and destitution which leads to conflicted relationship between the state and forest dwellers (on the issue of controlling and managing forests) and eventually resulting in insurgency and Naxalism. At the very basic level FRA provides a legal right to the forest dwellers for the entitlement of forest land and collection of forest produce and grazing, though authors of this paper are skeptical about the prospect of this act by saying that this reform can be a symbolic one than a material one.  The article given, revolves around the constitution of Forest Rights Committees (FRCs) and implementing FRA through FRCs and various intricacies involved in it. The two important question which this paper tries partly to answer are: Does implementation of FRA result in pro-poor institutional reform and will FRA lead to poverty alleviation?

This paper is based on the field study conducted in Andhra Pradesh of five districts (namely Adilabad, East Godawari, West Godawari, Visakhapatnam and Kurnool), further within these districts six panchayats were selected based on how they reflected forest rights deprivation scenarios.

Though FRA has helped a significant number of marginalized people but it’s not a panacea as authors suggested. Why the FRA has not achieved its intended goals is really worth exploring question and for that following points can be taken into considerations-

  • The rights guaranteed under FRA are also subject to state’s eminent- domain[2] in acquisition of lands on the pretext of development projects.
  • Land allotted under FRA is not an absolute titling system (not subject to being taken away from or given away by the possessor) rather in Andhra Pradesh Forest Act there is provision of absolute titling system thus title granted under FRA are not creating ownership over lands.
  • There is no mechanism of promoting gender equality in inheritance under FRA as only customary law is used for succession of property in Scheduled Tribes.
  • FRA has fixed a time limit i.e. 13th December 2005 which means that rights deprived after that time will not be considered.

Andhra Pradesh was one of the first states to implement FRA and it primarily zeroed in on private land rights but common property issues were discarded though this is another matter that ‘welfare language of beneficiaries’ was used than ‘correction of prior injustice’. To implement FRA in A.P. “command & Control” strategy was adopted by the responsible officials which led to minimal window of opportunity for rights redressal. As rules suggest the Gram Sabha meeting should be held at habitation level but this rule was violated and meeting took place at panchayat level, consequently panchayat level meetings could not focus on the specific needs. Apart from these hurdles A.P. forest department added insult to injury by filing writ petition (by arguing that it will lead to degeneration of the forest and the people may misuse the act) in the high court to stay implementation of FRA in the state. A.P. forest department also misinterpreted community rights for forest department local bodies in place of actual village community and hence directed that Van Samrakshana Samiti (VSS)[3] are also eligible for claiming land under FRA. Implementation of FRA at local level by Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) has following steps:-

  • The initial Gram Sabha meetings and formation of FRCs.
  • FRC awareness raising and training.
  • Distribution of claim forms and receipt of submitted claims.
  • Verification of claims.
  • Final issuing of titles.

There could be many issues/challenges involved in each step of implementation of FRA by ITDA, there is no denial of that as people complained that they did not have prior information of Gram Sabha meeting to be held. In some cases it was found that FRC members were not directly elected by Gram Sabha rather they were nominated by powerful people/officials or the Panchayat members themselves became the member of FRCs. So FRCs were flawed on two grounds:  inclusion and quality. Training of FRC members was not satisfactory. Regarding submission of the claims, most of the claims were individuals and very few were collective due to lack of information about it. Just to quote an example, in Visakhapatnam the forest department has discouraged community claims by saying that no survey of forest land have been done under the AP Forest Act and no final notification for that have been issued to date however villagers rejected this premise by arguing that there is no link between notification of the land and people’s right to file claim under FRA.

Conclusion- FRA was implemented in many parts of India, to my mind, with letter but not with spirit, even though with limited success it provided at least legal right on forest land that translates into livelihood security, consequently dignity and social status. On the other hand legal rights enable these forest dwellers to take help of credit market and MGNREGA. I admit that FRA was launched with the motive of pro-poor institutional reform and several people have benefitted out of it but its entire process was anti-poor. I must say that institutions like Gram Sabha and FRCs have been treated as ‘second class citizen’ while implementing FRA hence genuine cases have not been paid attention to but nonetheless FRA has proved a milestone in correcting historical injustices towards forest dwellers.

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[1] Long historical process (since colonialism) of the state extinguishing forest people’s rights and expropriating them has led to  severe livelihood insecurity and poverty on the name of protection and conservation of natural resources and economic growth. Ramchandra Guha calls it “active dispossession of state policies”.

[2] The right of a government or its agent to expropriate private property for public use, with payment of compensation.

[3] An ad hoc administrative body under the control of forest department, to implement Joint Forest Management (JFM) Schemes.

 

Written by Sanjay Kumar Jayswal

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