Expanding horizons – working on Forest Issues (1988-onwards)
Meanwhile, tribals of the neighbouring villages were keeping a close eye on what was happening in the SSP villages. In 1988, people from some villages of Shoolpaneshwar Sanctuary, located south of river Narmada but falling in Dediapada taluka approached ARCH regarding harassment by the Forest Department. They wanted ARCH to help them in solving these problems.
Although these villages were located just south of river Narmada, to go there, one had to take 150 km. detour, because of the hilly terrain. Also, ARCH was still deeply engaged in the important work of proper implementation of the R&R Policy in SSP. Hence, ARCH was very reluctant to open this new front. But the villagers persisted and requested that before deciding they should at least visit their villages once and see their condition.
ARCH’s co-founder, Trupti, visited the respective villages and witnessed the desperate conditions in which these tribals were living. On one hand, they were living a life of absolute poverty, facing starvation and hunger during summer months. On top of these were facing daily harassment and atrocities at the hands of the Forest Dept staff.
Examples: Forest Department officials would not allow them to cultivate the little plots of forest lands they were cultivating. They would destroy the standing crops, take away their bullocks and agricultural implements, and routinely beat up and detained both the men and women. Whenever tribal women, working in their fields, heard the sound of any approaching vehicle, they would quickly run away to the hills. Such was the terror of Forest Dept officials in these villages.
More strikingly, these people were living in the midst of forest, which was full of wealth. But they had no rights over the forest products, which belonged to the Forest Dept. After the area was declared a Sanctuary, they were not even permitted to collect minor forest produce from the forests. They were not allowed to construct new huts for their children after their marriage. Essentially the Forest Dept officials treated tribals as enemies of the forests.
Having witnessed the extreme poverty and the suffering of these tribals, Trupti decided to work full time for their cause. She started organizing them, motivating them to be free of fear and to not to put up with the atrocities of the Forest Dept officials. She encouraged them to file police complaints against the atrocities committed by the Forest Dept officers and also helped them in defending their rights against the false cases filed by the officers against them.
Trupti pursued a degree in law specifically to help them better in fighting these cases. ARCH also filed various Public Interest Litigations in the Gujarat High Court, seeking protection of the tribal lands against evictions by the Forest Dept. The High Court granted Stay against eviction of these tribals from the lands they were cultivating.
All this gradually led to a situation where the Forest Dept officials stopped harassing the people, and tribals could finally cultivate their lands in peace without being afraid. As a result their standards of living also improved and starvation during the summer months became gradually a thing of past.
This was reassuring, but still there had not been sufficient progress in gaining legal recognition of their rights over lands they were cultivating and forest produce. This severely restricted further improvements in quality of their life.
National Campaign for the Forest Rights of the Tribals (2002-2007)
In 2002, in an ongoing case on the issue of Forest (widely known as Godavarman Case), an order was passed asking the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MOEF) to file an affidavit on the extent of encroachment on the forest lands by tribals and others. MOEF misinterpreted this SC order and issued a circular in May 2002 asking state forest departments to remove all encroachments from forest lands within a period of three months. It also stated that Forest Officers would be held personally responsible, if any cases of encroachment were found after this period.
This led to a number of atrocities in many states. These were rainy days and in many cases Forest Dept officials went with elephants to destroy the crops and huts of the tribals. Such attempts led to a huge outcry in all states. Many NGOs and other Civil Society Groups working in the tribal areas came together under the banner of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD) to launch a national movement against these evictions.
ARCH was one of the founding members of CSD. It also formed together with other groups, a state level coordination of about 40 groups and NGOs called Adivasi Maha Sabha (AMS), Gujarat, which was also part of CSD. CSD launched a national campaign against these evictions and succeeded in getting the MOEF to withdraw its circular, but there still needed to be a more permanent solution to this problem.
Thus, after the formation of the UPA government in Delhi in 2004, CSD sought an appointment with the PM Manmohansinh on this issue. He gave an appointment to the CSD delegation, of which Trupti from ARCH was included, and gave them a patient hearing. After listening to all the problems the PM said that this would require an enactment of a new legislation for the protection and recognition of the rights of the tribals and other communities living in the forests and that this law should be drafted by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MOTA) and not MOEF. He also instructed that CSD representatives be included in the committee for the drafting this law.
This was the beginning of the long deliberations in CSD on what should be the content of the proposed new law. Long discussions were held where provisions of each section of the proposed Act were discussed in detail. Trupti from ARCH actively participated in all of these discussions. After being introduced in Parliament, this Act was referred to the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), which also held public hearings on the content of this Act. ARCH and other members of CSD also made detailed submissions to the JPC.
In December, 2006, both houses of Parliament unanimously passed the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, or the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in short. MOTA notified the Rules under this Act after one year, on 31st December, 2007 and from 1st January, 2008 this Act became effective for implementation in all states of the country.
The Forest Rights Act
What is the Forest Rights Act?
The Act recognizes the individual and community forest rights of the tribals and other traditional forest dwellers who have been living in the forests for generations.
“Government doesn’t give rights, they can only recognise the rights that are already there.” —Ambrish Mehta
Includes right to hold the forest lands occupied by the individual families for habitation or cultivation, provided they can show that they have been occupying these lands from December 2005 or before. They cannot lease or sell these lands, but can pass it to their heirs. Thus for the first time they get long term security of tenure over these lands, enabling them to invest in land improvement measures like farm-bunding, land leveling, irrigation and other infrastructure.
Includes the right to own, collect, use and dispose off all minor forest produce including Bamboo and also the right to protect, conserve, regenerate or manage the forests as Community Forest Resources. The right to minor forest produce also includes right to sell them with or without value addition.
Authority of the Gramsabhas
The Act also recognizes Gramsabhas (village Assemblies consisting of all adult persons of the village) assisted by the Forest Rights Committees (FRCs) as the authority to initiate the process of verifying both individual and community claims for Forest Rights. They receive claims, verify them, prepare maps. Approved claims are sent to the Sub-divisional Level Committee (SDLC), and then on to the District Level Committee (DLC) for a final decision.