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FRA Implementation in West Bengal

Are You Talking about ‘Jungle Patta’?

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 attempts to empower forest-dwellers for their own governance. This article examines the validity of conservationists’ apprehension of “land loot” after 10 years of implementation of the act. It shows, with empirical evidence from West Bengal, that actual land recognition is far less compared to what has been stated in the act. In effect, recording of land rights became a contraction of legal access to existing forest resources, which might lead to conflicts in future. The state used this act for political benefits, reducing it to a mere “beneficiary scheme” of panchayat-level governance, with the whole implementation becoming a patta-giving exercise to forest-dwellers.

 

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA) 2006 is perhaps the most radical legislation in the sociolegal history in India that seeks to address the “historic injustices” done to Scheduled Tribes (STs) and other traditional forest-dwellers (OTFDs). It also aims to empower communities with “responsibilities and authority for sustainable use, conservation of biodiversity, and maintenance of ecological balance” (MoLJ 2007: 1). It explicitly acknowledges the injustices done by forest administration during consolidation of state forests and attempts to shift the discourse of forest-dwellers as “encroachers” to see them as “right holders” of their own land. Land rights are specifically important as 40 lakh tribals and forest-dwellers have no legal claim to their own land (Jain 2006). Without any legal documents to the lands they occupy, cultivate, and graze their livestock on, they are extremely vulnerable. For any development intervention, they can be evicted without any compensation, as has happened earlier (Ramnath 2008). Further, as the inhabitants have no titles to their land, they are not eligible to get domiciles or benefit from social welfare programmes (Sarin 2016). By recognising community forest rights (CFRs) over forest resources, the act empowers forest-dwellers to use biodiverse resources sustainably while ensuring food and livelihood security.

The passing of this radical legislation was, however, deeply contested. During finalisation of the bill between 2004 and 2006, the conservationists and forestry administration vehemently criticised and opposed the bill on the plea that it would cause irreversible damage to wildlife. They claimed that this act would result in handing over of 50 million hectares of the country’s 67 million hectares of forests to STs and OTFDs (Saravanan 2009). They strongly objected to the legislation and argued that survival of wildlife is incompatible with increased human interference in the forest. A senior adviser of Wildlife Trust of India argued that empowering villagers to claim forestlands would “pockmark the heart of the tiger country” and there simply would not be any forest anymore (Basu 2007). Some others called it a “sell-out to vote bank politics” (Munshi 2005). The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) of the Government of India has expressed similar apprehension. De-notification of vast areas of forestlands and elimination of legal protection for forest cover will have catastrophic effects on the ecological balance, and more than 60% of India’s forests will be transferred to 8.2% of its population (Dang 2005; Munshi 2005).

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Updated On : 6th Nov, 2019

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