TODAY -

Forest rights more than nine-tenths

Sujit De *



I breathed a sigh of relief when the Supreme Court of India stayed its February 13 order directing the eviction of over eleven lakh forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes (FDST) and other traditional forest dwellers (OTFD) across sixteen states whose claims for forest land rights have been rejected under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006.

The apex court has now given the States four months time to file affidavits. The government, represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said, "The eviction of the tribals may be withheld… the eviction of tribals…. would cause serious prejudice to them who have been residing in forests for generations… Many are poor and illiterate."

To this Justice Mishra said whether the Centre was in a "slumber for the past three years". He observed that the February 13 order was only a follow-up of the court's order on January 29, 2016, which had directed the eviction of encroachers into forest lands. The Solicitor-General has rightly pointed out that the forests and tribals are to co-exist and the 2006 Forest Rights Act is a beneficial legislation which should be liberally construed in favour of the poor.

Indeed, India passed an excellent piece of legislation in the form of the 2006 Forest Rights Act. Previously, millions of forest dwellers had no legal rights whatsoever to their homes, lands or livelihoods. It was the government officials who enjoyed all the powers including legal privileges resulting in deaths and destructions of both forests and forest dwellers.

We need to speedily implement the 2006 Forest Rights Act and do what China has done. China has given direct rights of over 100m hectares of forest area to its traditional inhabitants, which helped it reduce poverty and protect environment.

In our country, community rights have been recognised only in less than three per cent of the forest area. However, in those area, it has been seen that making traditional inhabitants managers of their forest land not only improves their lives but betters the environment as well.

Moreover, if you actually possess something, you have a stronger legal claim to owning it than someone who says it belongs to him or her. The saying ~ "possession is the nine-tenths of the law" is not a law but a logical rule that has been recognised for ages. Even in the legal battle between the rightful owner of a property and the person who has been in the possession of the same for a long time, the latter is considered to have a better position.

Earlier it was said "possession is nine points of the law". It means that a possessor satisfies nine out of eleven factors that constitute absolute ownership. However, "nine-tenths" came in common parlance to highlight that custody is ninety per cent of legal ownership.

Indeed, the forest dwellers claim for the forest land must be more than the nine-tenths of the law as there exists no actual owner of forest land.

In the name of improving the quality of services, a large part of the education and health sectors have been dished out to the market players. As a result, education and health ~ the two legs on which the common people can stand ~ have largely been hijacked from them.

Now, in the name of stopping deforestation if forest dwellers are banished and then the commercial sector is allowed to manage the forest land, then what will happen is not difficult to guess.

The environment and the lives of the forest dwellers got improved where traditional inhabitants become managers of their forest land. So, we need to immediately implement the 2006 Forest Rights Act in the remaining 97 per cent of the forest area.


* Sujit De wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is from Kolkata
This article was posted on March 12, 2019.


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