The future of more than 16 lakh Adivasis and their claim to forest land and resources continues to be uncertain. The Supreme Court on November 11 was expected to rule on the constitutionality of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, which grants them these rights. But the verdict has not yet been delivered and there has been no communication about a new date for the ruling.

The Supreme Court’s decision will be crucial in affirming or overruling its 2019 order directing states to begin evicting forest-dwellers whose claims had been rejected. The court order was issued on a petition filed by Wildlife First, Nature Conservation Society, and the Tiger Research and Conservation Trust, which claimed that the Forest Rights Act had provided cover for large-scale, illegal ownership of forest land.

The Forest Rights Act was introduced in 2006 to recognise and rectify the historical injustices perpetrated against forest-dwelling communities. It recognised the symbiotic relationship that forest-dwelling communities had with forest. It created a set of community and individuals rights to access and use the forest.

However, this has been altered under the influence of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, especially in “protected areas”. According to the Wildlife Protection Act, protected areas refer to a National Park, a sanctuary, a conservation reserve or a community reserve as notified under some of the sections of the act.

Several villages have been displaced to areas with no forest produce, denying residents and access to the forest as well as their livelihoods. The reason cited for this has often been a threat to wildlife conservation. The Forest Rights Act, however, is central to the protection of forest rights and the way forward is making it more efficient, instead of weakening it under the garb of wildlife conservation.

Who benefits

A study on policing of wildlife offences in Madhya Pradesh by the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project, for which the writers of the article work, found that the poor implementation and violations of the Forest Rights Act led to the criminalisation and deprivation of forest-dwelling communities.

In effect, the benefits of this act have been systematically withheld from those entitled to receive them. Instead, forest-dwelling communities face eviction due to the demarcation of protected areas and wildlife conservation measures.

Our research found that the Forest Department had filed under the Wildlife Protection Act for hunting or catching fish and crabs, which are a part of the staple diet of forest-dwelling communities. This is in clear violation of the Forest Rights Act that recognises community rights of uses or entitlements such as fish and other products of local water bodies.

Such cases, therefore, are illegal, except if they pertain to the species of fish that are granted protection under the schedules of the Wildlife Protection Act. It criminalises the already recognised rights of forest-dwelling communities under the Forest Rights Act.

A woman from the Warli community in Chari village, near Mumbai, in this photograph from February 2004. Credit: Reuters.

There are also “illegal entry” cases against people collecting forest produce such as bamboo or honey – essential to the livelihood of these communities – around “protected areas”.

The passage of the Forest Rights Act was supposed to halt the criminalisation of forest-dwelling communities under the Wildlife Protection Act. Instead, our research shows that the state has found ways to reduce the Forest Rights Act to a paper tiger.

Protectionist policies under the Wildlife Protection Act deprive forest-dwelling communities of the ability to respond to changes around them and inhibit their access to resources on which they have been traditionally dependent.

The efforts at conservation by the state and other agencies fail to take into account the needs of forest-dwelling communities. They end up creating a binary between humans and forests, and criminalise those who are part of both these categories as “hunters”, “encroachers” or “trespassers”.

Bureaucratic lapses

Sections 2(b) and 4(2) of the Forest Rights Act grants an exception for the continuance of the rights of forest dwellers even in protected areas notified as “critical wildlife habitats”. It requires the government to first determine whether coexistence is possible and if there is any permanent damage being caused to forest animals and their habitat.

If resettlement has to be carried out, resettlement packages must be proposed and accepted by the local gram sabha. But as seen in the case of the country’s tiger reserves, this procedure is not followed properly or even ignored.

According to the latest guidelines, interim notifications and official documents that are not all fully available to the public, there have been several instances across the country where forest land has been restricted as core areas. Even entry into these areas is prosecuted, though there is no clear distinction between the core and buffer areas.

Uncertainty prevails among the forest-dwelling groups as land has not been demarcated and the rights to it have not been fully determined. Those residing in these areas are pushed out through “voluntary relocation” drives. Additionally, increasing the borders of sanctuaries and national parks every few years to allow more area for wildlife is a persistent concern and a challenge to the assertion of forest rights.

These findings highlight that the Forest Rights Act is yet to benefit forest-dwelling communities. Only states such as Odisha, Karnataka, and Chhattisgarh have recognised community forest rights in sanctuaries and national parks. This guarantees more protection from than what is granted under individual forest rights, which is limited to four hectares under the Forest Rights Act.

But even this cannot be considered a sufficient safeguard against the large-scale rejection of claims that has only increased since the petition was filed in the Supreme Court. The impending judgment underscores how fickle the safeguards offered to forest-dwelling communities are, while nestled within a regime that turns to criminalising these groups, propelled by wildlife conservation.

Afrah Asif is a law student at NALSAR University of Law, and works as a Research Intern with Criminal Justice And Police Accountability Project, Bhopal.

Garima Sidar works as a Research Consultant with Criminal Justice And Police Accountability Project, Bhopal.

Also read: How the discussion on wildlife conservation has sidelined the rights of forest-dwelling communities