Wise Link: Forest Rights Act & Biodiversity Act 

FRA and BDA should work in tandem to strengthen forest governance in Jammu & Kashmir  

THERE are several legislations in India enacted to strengthen forest governance. Some are very old dating back to British India and some have been enacted during the recent past.

Forest Department, Wildlife Department, Wildlife activists, Environmentalists or Tribal Rights activists have differing perceptions about forests and its conservation. The laws like Forest Conservation Act (FCA),Indian Forest Act 1927(IFA),the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA), Biodiversity  Act (BDA) and Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act also called Forest Rights Act -FRA 2006 takes care of various aspects of forest governance. The Forest Rights Act (FRA) was enacted to rectify the historical injustices done with tribals & forest dwellers. FRA is a very progressive legislation which has a potential to change the lives of millions of tribals and forest dwellers living in remote corners of forests in India.

As I have explained in my previous articles, the FRA vests a number of rights over forest lands with forest dependent Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs). The rights include the individual rights over forest lands (Individual Forest Rights-IFR) , Community Forest Rights-CFR and the rights to protect and manage Community Forest Resources within traditional or customary boundaries of the village.

Misconception about FRA 

The officials of the Forest Department are under a misconception that the Forest Rights Act - FRA will let people take control of forest land. This is the reason forest officers are directing their staff on the ground to ensure that there is no “encroachment” of forest land. The Forest Department is trying to fence every inch of forest land in Jammu & Kashmir thinking forest dwellers might claim their right over the forest land and the forest department will lose the authority over it.

I don’t question the intentions of the forest officials but their actions have a negative impact on the ground. Last summer, this author had interaction with many tribals and forest dwellers at Yusmarg (Darwan Basti) who were not even allowed to grow vegetables around their huts (Kothas).The people living in Darwan Basti, Yusmarg told me that they feel more harassed after FRA rollout as the forest officials were harassing them. I had recorded videos of several old men and women in Darwan Basti meadow and uploaded them on social media. The officers of forest department on the other hand denied that they were harassing these forest dwellers. Some officers told me that under the garb of growing vegetables the migratory population changed the nature of forest land which is not allowed at all under Forest Conservation Act or Indian Forest Act 1927.

The forest dwellers in Darwan Basti told me they had better rights before the FRA rollout in J&K post article 370. The Darwan Basti at Yusmarg is inhabited by around 400 households who undertake seasonal migration during summer months from villages like Darwan, Choontinad,Chalyan and Nowgam villages. This has been their tradition for hundreds of years, they told me.

Forest conservation & FRA 

The Forest Rights Act (FRA), if implemented with better intention can be used for forest conservation. What I have observed in the last 2 years is that forest officials are unaware of this provision in the FRA. Section 5 of the FRA 2006 empowers the gram sabha (village council) to protect the wildlife, forest, and biodiversity of the village and ensure that adjoining catchment areas, water sources, and other ecologically sensitive areas are adequately protected. But there is no awareness about this.

My colleagues and I are trying our bit in this direction by writing about FRA and using social media platforms to highlight the issue but that isn’t enough.

However, the Govt has to play its role through the Forest Department,Tribal Affairs Department and involving universities and NGOs to create awareness about the Forest Rights Act. NGOs,research institutions, Forest Department, Tribal Affairs Department need to link FRA with conservation and protection of local biodiversity and environment. There is an inbuilt mechanism in the FRA itself. The section 5 of Forest Rights Act 2006 reads :

Duties of holders of forest rights. -The holders of any forest right, Gram Sabha and village level institutions in areas where there are holders of any forest right under this Act are empowered to-

a) Protect the wildlife, forest and biodiversity.

b) Ensure that adjoining catchments area, water sources and other ecological sensitive areas are adequately protected.

c) Ensure that the habitat of forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes
and other traditional forest dwellers are preserved from any form of destructive practices affecting their cultural and natural heritage.

d) Ensure that the decisions taken in the Gram Sabha to regulate access to community forest resources and stop any activity which adversely affects the wild animals, forest and the biodiversity are complied with.

FRA & BDA Need to be Linked

Last year, on April 10th 2021, five village panchayats in Sopore area of Baramulla district adopted a joint resolution by invoking section 5 of the Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA) for protection of the biodiversity of their respective villages. The village panchayats namely Tarzoo A , B C , Darnambal and Rakhe Haigam passed a joint resolution for protection and conservation of a huge chunk of forest land ( around 170 acres). This land was being used to dump municipal solid waste by Municipal Council Sopore with the support of district administration Sopore.

I had been personally in touch with these village panchayats for a long time and had been trying to guide and assist them in conservation of local biodiversity. After consulting some experts, we thought of using Section 5 of Forest Rights Act 2006 and invoking Biodiversity Act 2002 as well.

Through a joint resolution, the village panchayats of Tarzoo A,B & C and Dharnambal impressed upon the Government especially Deputy Commissioner Baramulla and Pollution Control Committee and Municipal Council, Sopore to stop unscientific garbage disposal in Ninglee Tarzoo area which was a severe threat to the environment and biodiversity in their area. The Member Secretary J&K Pollution Control Committee (PCC) acted swiftly and directed the Regional Director PCC Kashmir to initiate action.

The illegal garbage dumping site was not only causing a threat to the environment and wildlife but the land being encroached actually belonged to the forest department for which Municipal Council Sopore had not obtained any written permission. The forest officers were not acting as district administration was supporting the municipal council.

What the forest officers could not do for many years,the resolution under section 5 of FRA did in days.

The resolution adopted by gram sabha (deh majlis) had an impact and the forest department also came into action. The forest range Ninglee with the help of local people not only prevented Municipal Council (MC) Sopore from dumping its waste in the forest land, but they even removed the encroachment by closing the approach road to the land. The Municipal Council Sopore then started using a small patch of state land which belongs to Panchayat. The locals are fighting to get that site also cleared and the district administration has sought some time until they find a suitable place to create a scientific landfill site for Sopore town. The fight is on but the locals have resolved that they would invoke FRA & BDA to get the area cleared of unscientific waste dumping. Infact the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had taken cognizance of my article published in a local daily few years back on this issue and then High Court Division Bench also intervened. The Tarzoo Ninglee residents also invoked the Biodiversity Act, 2002 to get the forest land cleared of municipal solid waste (MSW). The three biodiversity management committees of Tarzoo area jointly send a memorandum to several places and that also had an impact.

Community Control of Forests 

The best practices about linking up of Forest Rights Act (FRA) and Biodiversity Act (BDA) can be best seen in Nayagrah district of Odisha . I had a chance to visit Ranpur block of Nayagrah district last year in November. The Forest Rights Committees (FRCs) constituted under FRA are so serious about forest and environment conservation that people can’t even cut a tree in the forest village. The local communities have more control over forests than the forest department. The people around Ranpur forest area have already been working for conservation and protection of their forests and forest resources including the wildlife for last 24 years under the banner of Maa Maninag Jangal Suraksha Parishad (MMJSP) which is a confederation of around 132 community based forest protection groups  in 132 villages. Arkito  Sahu the Secretary of the Maa Maninag Jangal Suraksha Parishad has been putting his sincere and tireless efforts to organize the people in 132 villages for protection and conservation of forests. Vasundhara, a noted NGO based in Bhubaneshwar has also been working around Ranpur area from 1995. This NGO has helped MMJSP with institutional support like the documentation of their work and to involve women in forest committees which has been a very tedious task. 

It is very important to link up Forest Rights Act & Biodiversity Act to ensure sustainable environmental conservation practices which will in turn strengthen the forest governance in J&K. In this regard I had a detailed meeting with Principal Chief Conservator of Forests J&K (PCCF) Mr Mohit Gera recently. Mr Gera who is also the Head of Forest Force in J&K, assured me that sensitization workshops would be held on FRA & Biodiversity Act and the committees constituted at village or district level would be given proper training about these legislations.

  • Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

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Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow and Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement. Feedback [email protected]

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