Tuesday 4 March 2014

Forest Rights and Injustices

By Jiten Yumnam

Many rejoiced at the adoption of Forest Rights Act in 2006 as an ultimate beginning to undo historical injustice for indigenous communities living in and depending on forest for survival. Across India, hopes filled the hearts and minds of many, firmly confident the Act can deliver justice for them for the injustice perpetrated for so long. One wonders if the Indian State actually is keen on undoing historical injustice for indigenous and other marginalized communities, especially in a context where India’s corporate greed is fast expanding, in its move for super power status globally.                 
A glimpse of FRA implementation in selected places across India would expose grim realities and unfolds multiple challenges. While several states implements FRA, such as Orissa, Andhra Pradesh , most North East States are reluctant to implement the Act and States like Tamil Nadu are stuck in legal entanglements, as several opposed the implementation.      
In Manipur, indigenous communities affected by the Mapithel Dam of the Thoubal Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project, during the according of “Forest Clearance” on 31 December 2013 after thirty three years of project approval, urged upon the Government of India to implement the Forest Rights Act, 2006 to ensure project authorities comply requirements to take ‘consent’ of affected communities through their traditional institutions. With these untimely demands, both the Government of India and the Government of Manipur were caught unaware as the project is already in advanced stage of construction, envisaged for completion in March 2015. The matter reach the National Green Tribunal, which sought the opinion of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) and Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF), whether FRA should apply or not in the case of Mapithel Dam. MOTA and MoEF clearly understands that for any recommendation to implement FRA would mean the project would be delayed inconsiderably and the investment of Government to the tune of 1387 Crores by 2011 count will simply be in a limbo.  
What followed is history as MoTA wrote two contrasting letters to MoEF, one to comply FRA and second not to comply, referring to a controversial 1993 agreement for rehabilitation and according it’s directions to MoEF as an ‘exceptional’, ‘unique’ and “not to set as precedent” tag.  So, in the case of Mapithel dam, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs upheld an agreement, which affected communities classified as historical injustice. In a glaring instance of connivance between the Government of Manipur, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Ministry of Environment and Forest of the Government of India, the later Ministry, in its hastiness and to save the project from FRA implementation, accorded the much pending “Forest Clearance” on 31st December 2013, without even conducting a site visit for Mapithel Dam from its regional office. In Manipur, with respect to FRA implementations, interesting precedents has already been set while trying not setting ‘precedents’. The sincerity of the Government of India to undo historical injustice is lucid clear in the context of Mapithel Dam and its affected peoples.   
In Andhra Pradesh, the FRA implementation in forest areas near Vishakhapatnam and Srikakolam Districts, rather than serving as a means to promote indigenous peoples access to traditional forest land, rather promotes alienation and detachment from it, especially in community settings, where communities traditionally managed and used their forest land. The combination of meagre allocation of land to those claiming traditional forest land and the unusually high number of rejections of claims only legitimize the conscription of land and expansion of Reserve forest areas. The focus on individual claims and limited efforts for community claims and the high rejection of community claims, poses another huge challenges for communities in accessing their traditional forest land. The FRA implementation process itself constitutes another form of land grabbing in many parts of India.  
Corporate interest on forest land runs extremely high in Andhra Pradesh. In many areas where there are corporate interests, such as those demarcated in exclusive processes for Bauxite mining and also for construction of Polavaram dam in Khammam District, the State Government refuses to implement FRA. It’s key to establish the underlying links between the meagre allocation of land to tribal, the high rejection of claims, the extensive consolidation of land by Forest Department and the increasing corporate interest and corporatisation of land and resources in places like Andhra Pradesh with the World Bank, assuming an interesting role in the process of problematic land allocations.
The overwhelming yearnings for land titles in Andhra Pradesh and other region is quite understandable given the historical injustice and processes of usurping of forest land by the Forest Department and denying communities rights and access over forest land under V th Schedule of Indian Constitution. However, given the current pattern of land allocation, it has become an urgent issue to address the injustice and violations involved in undoing historical injustice.  
One may also ponder as to why Forest Department, the Revenue Department usually rejects claims and allocates meagre land, as in Andhra Pradesh. One may also introspect as to whether there are other hidden agendas? India is embarking aggressively on polices and action plans to mitigate climate change and it already subscribed to a regime of false climate change, such as REDD +, reducing emission from deforestation and degradation, targeting forest and degraded land for carbon trading under the Clean Development Mechanism of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. There seems to be relevance with consolidation of forest land and global carbon trading. Andhra Pradesh’s State Climate Change Action Plan emphasized on REDD+ targeting forest land.   
The state of affairs on undoing “historical injustice” is far from satisfactory and need a serious review. The FRA implementation process cannot be allowed to become another part of perpetuating historical injustices. One wonders if the issue is the problem with the law, or the problem with the implementation, or the problem with the forest dwellers, due to their ignorance of the complexity of the procedures. Bureaucracy runs high, corruption runs rampant. Stories of surveyors demanding bribes from communities runs high in many places where act is implemented. A serious challenge again is the clash of worldview of those conducting the surveys and decision makers, at least in Andhra Pradesh and the communities’ way of life and survival dependence with their forest.
The challenge of Forest Department usurping and consolidating forest land through FRA implementation is an alarming and dangerous trend in Andhra Pradesh, which all right thinking people should be conscious of. The management of forest by Forest Department has been a long contentious issue. The management of forest by Forest department is as good as reasons for its loss. The recommendation of the Forest Departments of Manipur and Mizoram to divert 27,000 hectares and 1370 hectares of Forest land in Manipur and Manipur to be submerged for the construction of proposed 1500 MW Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project only indicates the ever preparedness to sacrifice forest land to serve interest of corporate greed and power at the cost of communities survival needs. It’s key to demystify as to why Forest Department seeks to consolidate forest land in its control, especially in an era of increasing of globalization and economic liberalization, where everything is perceived as sources of endless profits. 
Manipur today confronts an increasing process of corporatization of our land and natural resources. India’s Look East Policy after its economic liberalization actually accentuates such realities. There is increasing pressure on our forest land to the multitude of development processes and mega projects. The Trans Asian Highway, the Trans Asian Railway, the Mapithel Dam, the Tipaimukh Dam, the extensive militarization process etc, the proposed Oil exploration and the planned mega dams under the Manipur Hydroelectric Power Policy will entail huge destruction of vast forest land of Manipur, which will have serious implications on food sovereignty of indigenous communities.
It is high time to uncover the practical challenges of implementation of FRA. The act can serve as a strong deterrent against destructive development processes for communities hell bent on defending their land and forest against any forced diversion as the act elucidates the need to take ‘consent’ of communities affected by such decisions through their traditional institutions. That’s what the communities affected by Mapithel dam opt to acheive for. And it’s equally pertinent to note the hidden agenda of those with high interest on forest land, of corporate bodies interested in mines, to build dams or to trade the forest for rich profits in carbon trading mechanisms, where forest dwellers are left at sea to even understand the process.
Respecting communities’ intrinsic survival rights and dependence on forest is the most fundamental need of the hour. Communities not only survive through intrinsic relationship with forest, but they are also the best guardian of forest. With it survives the multitude of diverse floral and faunal species. In North East context, adopting cautious moves before insisting on implementation of FRA and especially gaining experiences from realities beyond borders can help safeguard and promote communities’ rights over forest land. The FRA should rather be a process to recognize collective rights over land and resources and not to undermine it. And this is more applicable in North East India where indigenous communities have collective ownership of their land and where their survival and way of life revolves around such land ownership pattern.      

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