Forest Rights Act welcomed with reservations

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New Delhi, Jan 1 (UNI) The Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a federation of tribal and forest dwellers' organisations from eleven States, today extended a qualified welcome to the enactment of the Forest Rights Act and Rules from today, saying the key provisions of the Act had been diluted in making rules.

The Forest Rights Act comes into force a day after the Centre notified the critical tiger habitat, a move the rights group has been alleging was aimed at taking away large parts of forests from the purview of the Act.

The Campaign has its reservations on several points: According to the Act, the gram sabha plays a key role in determining who has rights to which forest resources. However, Rule 3(1) now defines the gram sabha as the gram sabha of the panchayat, which would include several villages.

This will make democratic functioning impossible (as the number will simply be too large); further, in many areas forest dwellers will be the minority, it argues.

The expert group on the Rules had also recommended a clear procedure for such hamlet gram sabhas to work, and the Joint Parliamentary Committee had recognised this when recommending that hamlet-level gram sabhas should occur in all areas, but now this Rule will make the law impossible to implement in many areas, acording to the NGO.

Moreover, the Act contains clauses that allow for exclusion of many real forest dwelling communities by introducing very ambiguous criteria ("reside in forests", "bona fide livelihood needs", 75 years of residence'' while excluding those who were forced into the forest by the government itself). This will make proving eligibility difficult, and the Rules make no effort to address this ambiguity, it says.

Instead, the government has rejected a clause in the Rules recommended by the expert group - stating that those who use hired labour, such as contractors, traders, etc., should be excluded from being eligible. There is also no procedure provided by which non-ST forest dwellers are required to establish that they fulfil the Act's requirements, while STs are required to produce an ST certificate.

Finally, Rule 11(a) requires two types of evidence for a claim meaning that documentary evidence will be required in many cases, which many forest dwellers do not have.

''In sum, this will mean this Act will be misused both to take over forest land and for the government to exclude many of us,'' the NGO said.

The current Rules again make no mention of the Act's provisions on transparent and scientific wildlife conservation, which instead has been covered by guidelines issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests guidelines that are self-contradictory as well as illegal, the NGO said.

As a final point, the Rules fail to deal with many of the procedural complexities of the Act. They provide no procedure for conversion of forest villages and unrecorded settlements into revenue villages, for exercising the right to rehabilitation after illegal eviction or forced displacement, for exercising the right to habitat, for penalising officers who violate the Act, or for development rights, it said.


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