Missing the forest for the trees
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After decades of protest, and a final bitter controversy, the FRA was passed in 2006 in order to address — as per its preamble — the "historical injustice" inflicted on tribals and forest dwellers. It provides for recognition of the pre-existing rights of forest dwellers. These rights include title to the land they have been cultivating (provided the cultivation started prior to December 2005); community rights over minor forest produce, water bodies, and grazing areas; and rights to manage and protect their forests. Most importantly, it mandated that both the recognition process and forest management more generally had to be done through a democratic process, starting at the level of each village.
But in the years since, the act has been actively sabotaged. Claims by forest dwellers about their land rights have been rejected in hordes, often for illegal reasons (such as the claimant's name not being on prior forest department "encroacher" lists). Non-land and community rights have hardly been recognised at all. Both Central and state governments carry on making forest management policies in direct violation of the act. Plantations have been undertaken on forest dwellers' lands, lakhs of hectares of forest have been handed over to companies illegally, and evictions of forest dwellers continue. In every state the process under the act has been violated.
Behind these myriad problems lies one fundamental issue. For too long, officials in forest areas have had enormous powers — and those who lived in them have had none. Such a situation benefitted a lot of interests, all of whom now resist the FRA. Forest officials do not want it because it endangers their control over forests and forest dwellers. Industries do not want it because it threatens their easy access to forest land. Some conservationists do not want it because it undermines their view that conservation consists of excluding all people except officials, tourists and themselves. In sum, the FRA threatens all those who, for whatever reason, find democratic and collective resource control a problem. In this sense, the FRA stalemate symbolises a much bigger problem in India today, one that goes beyond forests alone.
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