By Dr Palla Trinadha Rao
The Forest Rights Recognition Act (FRA), 2006, enacted a decade ago with the aim to undo historic injustice done to tribals and other forest dwellers by recognising their pre existing forest rights has achieved a dismal progress in Andhra and Telangana States. FRA recognises the podu (slash and burn cultivation) land rights , several sets of community forest land usage rights and community forest resources rights (CFR).
The most critical right which has a bearing on forest governance and on the welfare of tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers is over Community Forest Resources which provides Gram Sabhas the right to conserve, protect and manage forests.
A study undertaken by the author of this article, as part of national-level studies commissioned by the Community Forest Rights-Learning & Advocacy Process, anchored by two national level prominent NGOs, Vasundhara and Kalpavriksh, reveals that, as compared to the approximate potential of 35.85 lakh acres of forest land over which rights need to be recognized under FRA, only individual forest rights have been recognized over 1.98 lakh acres, i.e. only 5.03% of the estimated forest area for both individual and community forest rights.
In Andhra Pradesh, approximately 24.56 lakh acres of forest land is situated within the cadastral boundaries of 2,982 Revenue Villages as per Census of India, 2011. These forests lands are under the statutory domain of the Gram Sabha. Additionally, there are 66.60 lakh acres of forests outside the village boundaries in the state.
As per the tentative estimate of the potential forest area for the implementation of the FRA, at least 20% of these forest lands located outside village boundaries which will be around 13.19 lakh acres also come under the territorial Jurisdiction of Gram Sabha under FRA. Thus the total potential forest land coming under the control of Gram Sabha is estimated to be at least 37.75 lakh acres. Since individual forest land rights (podu) over 1.98 lakh acres which were already recognized by the Government of Andhra Pradesh are also located on the same forest lands. Therefore, still the Government of Andhra Pradesh has to recognize the community forest resources rights of the people over the minimum 35.85 lakh acres of forest landscape.
Approximately, 37.04 lakh acres of forest land is situated within the cadastral boundaries of 2,641 revenue villages in Telangana (Census of India, 2011). Additionally, there are 29.40 lakh acres of forests outside village boundaries in Telangana. The individual forest land rights were already recognised over 3.31 lakh acres (7.71%) of the total estimated potential forest area 42.92 lakh acres for CFR. Thus the Thus the minimum potential forest area for recognition of CFRs in Telangana is estimated to be 39.57 lakhs acres.
The CFRs and habitat rights of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) are not yet recognized in Telugu states. The Gram Sabhas were constituted at Gram Panchayat level against the habitation or hamlet level as envisaged under the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Area (PESA) Act, 1996 in the Scheduled Areas. Neither individual forest rights nor community rights are recognized in the protected areas.
Both the states are trampling the forest rights of tribals in the process of diversion of forest lands under different projects. Especially under Polavaram Project in Andhra Pradesh, the Government of Andhra Pradesh is relocating the tribals without recognizing their forest rights under FRA. In the name of plantations under the ambitious Harita Haram programme, the Government of Telangana is evicting the tribals from their podu lands against the provisions of FRA. I nspite of clear directions of the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs in 2013 to the then governments of united Andhra Pradesh for withdrawal of the titles given to 1669 Vana Samrakshana Samithis (VSSs) over 9.43 lakh acres instead of Gram Sabhas, not yet withdrawn by both the Telugu states.
The fossilized colonial mentality of the forest department is blocking the progress of implementation of FRA. The district collectors who are the chairpersons of the district level committees are unable to overpower the forest officials and slowing down the implementation of the law. Several title deeds are pending for release at the District Level Committees for want of the signatures of the district forest officers. It is imperative on the part of the Governor under Fifth Scheduled of the Constitution to review the progress of FRA in the Scheduled Areas of Telugu States to uphold the tribal rights over the Community Forest Resources.