The webinar on Adivasi Forest Rights Act (FRA) was conducted on 16 August 2020, in the backdrop of the Government of Kerala order dated 2nd June 2020, which set aside the Records of Rights (RoR) granted as per the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), to convert forest land titles to revenue titles. The webinar was organized by the Dalit-Adivasi-Women-Civil Rights Collective in Kerala. The speakers included experts on FRA from the domains of community activism, academia, environmental activism, and social activism.
The key issues raised in the webinar were centered on the Government Order GO (MS) no. 2020/2020/RD dated 02-06-2020 that set aside the RoR granted to Adivasis under the FRA and converted these lands to ‘government land’ under the Kerala Land Assignment Rules 1964 (Section 2(e)) in the districts of Idukki, Kottayam, Thrissur, and Ernakulam. The order followed the demand from certain Adivasi groups to convert their RoR under the FRA to revenue land that could be sold to non-forest dwelling communities. The status of implementation of FRA in the state was also discussed.
As per the said government order, as many as 15,000 Individual Forest Rights titles are at risk of conversion to revenue land titles. According to M. Geethanandan of the Dalit-Adivasi-Women-Civil Rights Collective, Kerala, and coordinator of Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha, there is an attempt to build a political narrative that RoRs under the FRA is not beneficial for Adivasis. He also stated that while some Adivasis may not need an RoR under FRA, as many as 32% of the 4,00,000 Adivasis in Kerala need to access Minor Forest Produce (MFP) for their livelihoods. Changing forest RoR to revenue titles is essentially denying the Adivasi communities the entitlements that have been designed to address historical injustices inflicted on them.
A law as progressive as the FRA, which enshrines the fundamental values of democracy, is capable of preventing the theft of traditional Adivasi lands. Dr. Amitha Bachan of Hornbill Foundation argued that there is a preference for revenue titles based on the false notion that loans cannot be availed against FRA RoR. However, that FRA land is non-transferable is often fraudulently hidden from Adivasi communities by the state government. The unique nature of the FRA is that any occupation of forest land by non-Adivasi/traditional forest dwellers is illegal.
Dr. Abhilash T. of Centre for Development Studies raised an important question of whether the government will take the accountability fo landlessness among Adivasis if they are alienated from the revenue land. He stated that if the government’s intentions are pure, their focus should be on implementing forest rights rather than granting revenue land titles.
At the heart of the issue is the fact that the government order ignores the provisions of authority given to the Grama Sabha as per the FRA. (section 5(1)). P.G. Janardhanan of Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha stated that this blatant ignorance could lead to the weakening or the loss of Grama Sabhas’ power in the FRA process. Additionally, the order creates a conducive environment for the quarry mafia to take over the land, leaving Adivasis vulnerable to landlessness. This would further lead to Adivasis becoming members of labour camps and going hungry.
M.R. Chithra, the Adivasi activist, stated that FRA RoRs are not about two to three acres of land but about maintaining Adivasi traditions. Adivasis inherently have integral relationships with their land, and do not think of selling land; selling land according to her is a notion built in the communities by external actors fraudulently. She also pointed out the complete failure on the part of the Scheduled Tribe Development Department in creating awareness among Adivasis about the FRA. She called attention to the fact that the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic on Adivasis was compounded by the poor implementation of FRA. In the Nilambur region, honey collected from the forests has not yet been sold due to stringent control exercised by the Forest Department through Vana Samrakshana Samitis. She argued that had the FRA been implemented properly, they could have sold the honey themselves in the market instead of being forced to rely on these structures. The FRA is also progressive as it gives entitlements to women and men. The improper implementation of the FRA affects the socio-economic standing of Adivasi women and is a big failure on the part of the ST department.
In a similar vein, Divya Kalathingal of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences pointed out the collusion between the forest and tribal departments in relocating Adivasis in Noolpuzha Panchayath from the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.
The panel also explored the fundamental right to life and liberty enshrined in the constitution. C.S Jiyesh contended that the order violated Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and hence cannot be operationalized within a legal framework. He also made a key distinction between notions of value and assets and stated that the Adivasi understanding and relationship with the forest is one of value that cannot be defined in monetary terms.
There was a general consensus that the implementation of the FRA in the state was deeply flawed with very little importance being given to Community Forest Rights (Section 3 (d)) and Habitat Right (section 3(e)). Environmental activist John Peruvanthanam called attention to the fact that there is no discourse around the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act in Kerala. He called for Adivasis’ right to self-governance and stated that environmental and social justice need to go hand in hand. The panelists also observed that since 2006, there has been a systematic attempt by both the state and conservationists alike to dilute the FRA. The PIL filed by conservationist groups (Wildlife First v. Union of India) and legislations/policies, such as the Draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2020, Draft Indian Forest Act, 2019, are a testament to that.
There was a unanimous call for the withdrawal of the government order by the panelists due to its illegality and its ignorance of the landmark legislation pertaining to Adivasi entitlements. The demands for revenue titles from certain communities ought to be carried out within the framework of FRA (3(1)(h)), wherein the procedures of Grama Sabha consultations and consensus are followed.
Nisha Subramanian is an MPhil student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.