India's Forest Rights Act -The anatomy of a necessary but not sufficient institutional reform
Institutions relating to forest management in India have a critical impact on the livelihoods of hundreds of millions who live in forested landscapes and have had their rights deprived through state appropriation of forest land. India’s Forest Rights Act 2006 is undoubtedly a landmark legislation providing the legal framework for major pro-poor institutional reform in the governance of the country’s forests. By aiming to belatedly recognise the pre-existing rights of India’s forest dwelling communities through a transparent and democratic village assembly based process, the Act has the potential of restoring the enclosed commons to communities and private land to individual cultivators. This would thereby effect a major re-distribution of control over forest resources in favour of severely marginalised forest dependent people. By empowering village assemblies to protect, conserve and manage statutorily recognised community forests for sustainable use, the Act aims to reform the existing system of state ‘fortress conservation’ combined with centralised resource extraction towards one centred on community controlled forest, wildlife and biodiversity conservation which also ensures livelihood and food security.
This paper examines the contents of the law to analyse whether its detailed provisions, the outcome of intense contestation between different socio-political forces, are likely to fulfil its ambitious mandate. The procedural details outlined in the Rules are assessed for their adequacy for the recognition of different rights and the extent to which legitimate claimants may be excluded. The paper also discusses some of the unique provisions of the law and the early patterns of their implementation evident in different states. Finally, the paper discusses the complementary institutional reform required for strengthening the law’s provisions and the limited attention this has so far received.
The analysis shows that due to the technical challenges and political contests during drafting of the Act and the subsequent Rules for implementation, a number of dilutions, ambiguities and omissions contained by them make implementation highly contingent upon whether implementing agencies follow the spirit of the Act or seek to obstruct it or minimise its impact. Areas of dilution / ambiguity / omission may be summarised as; 1. Limitations on the full identification of the rights deprived groups, 2. Adequacy and safeguards within the implementation procedures and its timetable, 3. The local institutional basis for the claims process, and 4. Effectiveness of awareness raising for prospective claimants.
For each of these areas limitations are reducing the scope for redressal of rights deprivations with the contest for rights now shifting to demands for complementary institutional reform in the powers and mandate of the forest bureaucracy.
Discussion Paper Series, Research Programme Consortium for Improving Institutions for Pro-Poor Growth, Manchester, UK, No. 45. 34 pp.