Forest Rights in India

Before India was established as a British Colony, there was no forest policy. Each ruler of various states in India had his or her own approach to manage the forest resources in their territories. The British imposed the so called scientific forest management in India whereby their sole agenda was focused on continuous commercial production of the timber. The formula of the forest management at that time in India was a typical European production based forestry model for, the pressure of man of forests was not as high as in current times.

Conflict over Forest Rights and tribal revolts

The permanence settlement of 1757, the forest act of 1865 and 1878 and the forest policy of 1894 were one of the root causes of rebellions and revolts of the indigenous communities in India. These revolts began from 1794 and continued till 1920s. The target of these rebellions was the new land and forest policies which left them devoid of their traditional rights over forests. But the rebellions were crushed ruthlessly and British kept brining fresh areas under state control, formulating new laws for legitimizing the property rights transferred from communities to state.

In due course of time, forests were declared state property and the rights of the forest dwellers vis-a-vis the commercially valued species were curtailed. In some of the forest areas, there was a complete ban on the human activities such as collection of firewood, fodder, medicinal plants, bamboo etc.

In 1864, the Forest Department was established, which strongly asserted the state monopoly over forest resources and exclusion of the tribal communities from almost all kinds of rights over forest produce. This was the foundation of modern principles of Forest Administration in our country.

In 1894, the first Indian Forest Policy was adopted by the colonial regime. The policy viewed the forests as the potential sources for generating profits and ‘stressed’ on the need to preserve forests of the hilly regions. But the hidden agenda was to consolidate the state’s property rights over the forests. The forest dwellers were not only denied their traditional rights but no role was given to them in the preservation of the forests. This was the beginning of marginalization of the forest dwellers in India.

Following the independence of India, the Forest Policy Resolution 1952 called for the protection of wildlife and preservation of fauna by demarcating the forests for sanctuaries and national parks. This culminated in the enactment of Wildlife Protection Act in 1972. The Forest Policy 1988 deviated from the economic importance for the first time and treated them as ecological necessity as source of goods for local populations. These goods were called Non Timber Forest Produce (NTFP). This policy also set the target of increasing India’s forest cover to 33%.

The 1988 Forest policy paved the way for implementation of the Joint Forest Management (JFM) which included the involvement of local village communities and voluntary agencies in the regeneration of the degraded forests. This was for the first time in centuries that the rights of the local communities over the forest lands were specified.

  • But the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 had already criminalized the forest people and taken away their traditional NTFP and fishing rights, while poaching could never be effectively stopped.

Forest Rights Act 2006

In 1990, a Joint Forest Management Circular was released by the Government of India, which recommended the involvement of village communities, voluntary agencies in the regeneration of the degraded forest lands. However this circular had no force of law behind it.

However, the Forest Act 2006 marked a real water shade in the history of the forest communities in India. For the first time, the Government of India via the Scheduled Tribes and the Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, admitted that ‘forest rights on the ancestral lands and their habitat were not adequately recognized in the consolidation of state forests during the colonial periods as well as in Independent India resulting in Historical injustice with the scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers, who are integral to the very survival of the forest ecosystem”.

This Forest Rights Act 2006 provides the following:

  • Tenurial Security and access rights to forest dwellers
  • Right to hold and live in forest land under individual or common occupation for habitation or for the self-cultivation for livelihood.
  • Right of ownership access to collect, use and dispose of minor forest produce that has been traditonay collected within or outside the village boundaries.
  • Other community rights such as on fish and water bodies.
  • Rights of settlement and conversion of forest villages into revenue villages.

As per this act, Gram Sabha plays pivotal role in ensuring the rights of the forest dwellers, decision making, planning and management for Joint Forest Management.

Defining a Forest Village and a Revenue Village

Forest Village

As per the Forest Act 2006, “forest villages” means the settlements which have been established inside the forests by the forest department of any State Government for forestry operations or which were converted into forest villages through the forest reservation process and includes forest settlement villages, fixed demand holdings,  all types of taungya settlements, by whatever name called, for such villages and includes lands for cultivation and other uses, permitted by the Government.

Revenue Village

A Revenue Village is a small administrative region in India, with defined borders, that is recognized by the District Administration. One revenue village may contain many hamlets.

In the rural areas the smallest area of habitation, viz., the village generally follows the limits of a revenue village that is recognised by the normal district administration. The revenue village need not necessarily be a single agglomeration of the habitations.

Thus, a revenue village has a definite surveyed boundary and each village is a separate administrative unit with separate village accounts. It may have one or more hamlets. The entire revenue village is one unit.

A Revenue Village versus a Hamlet

Normally in India, the ‘village’ is taken to mean the revenue village administrative unit. However due to immense variation in the sizes of revenue villages in different states, larger revenue villages can contain several hamlets spread over a large area.

Impact on Lives of Forest Dwellers living in Forest Villages

The most significant difference in living standards of the tribals living in forest and revenue villages in India is that the tribals of the Forest villages have lived in the state of insecurity and bondage. The dwellers of Forest Villages can’t access various schemes of the state and central governments which are implemented on the basic level of revenue villages. Over 60 years after Independence, the residents of ‘forest villages’ and other settlements and unsurveyed villages in forests remain deprived of access to most development programmes due to the land on which these are located continuing to be recorded as ‘forest’.

  • Whereas officially there are an estimated 2500 to 3000 Forest Villages, unofficial estimates suggest their number to be over 10,000.
  • As no agency other than forest departments can undertake any development work on forest land, most of these settlements remain outside the jurisdiction of any local government, and their residents in some states cannot obtain even domicile certificates (as only the revenue department can issue these, but it does not have jurisdiction over forest land) or even voting rights.

Due to their residents lacking any legal rights over the land, they are treated like ‘non-citizens’ ever vulnerable to eviction or displacement without entitlement to  compensation or rehabilitation.

Conversion of Forest Villages into Revenue Villages

The 1990 Circular of Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF), Government of India had for the first time mandated the conversion of forest villages into revenue villages and settlement of other old habitations. But this circular was lacking legislative backing. Section 2F of the Forest Rights Act 2006 reiterated the MoEF’s 1990 guidelines, and enabled the residents of all ‘forest villages’ as defined above, many created by the forest departments themselves in the past to ensure availability of bonded labour for forestry operations, to get their villages/settlements converted into revenue villages.

Conclusive Note

In 2010, Surma, a tribal village housing around 360 Tharu tribe families, in Uttar Pradesh witnessed to become the first tribal village in a forest reserve area to be converted into a revenue village. This means tribals will now get all the constitutional rights given to a citizen of India.