Jan Abhivyakti, led by SRUTI fellow Alok Shukla, has worked closely with the community in around 25 villages in the Surguja district of Chhattisgarh to file claims for Community Forest Rights (CFR) under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The effort included the participation of local youth and Panchayat representatives. Through this, almost 3000 hectares of land was secured with extensive rights over forests, and over 315 hectares of land for common land-use or nistar.
Several meetings with advocacy groups, bureaucrats, policy makers and other stakeholders were also conducted in Surguja to rally support and develop awareness and perspective on this issue. This also helped support the local administration to implement the provisions under the Act. Jan Abhivyakti members worked closely with the Gram Sabhas, forming decentralized models and village committees that motivated and enabled these village groups to democratically claim their rights over community land through the relevant legal framework and constitutional principles. As a result, 7 Gram Sabhas (Fathepur, Ghatbarra, Hariharpur, Parogiya, Saidu, Salhi and Suskum) in two Panchayats of Ghatbarra and Salhi in Udaipur tehsil of Surguja district have received titles to CFR.
Rights which are claimed by a village community (i.e. the whole Gram Sabha rather than individuals), such as nistar rights, those used in Zamindari regime etc and right to access and use of non-timber forest produce (NTFP), and rights to and over the products of water bodies and grazing grounds, are largely referred to as Community Forest Rights or CFRs under the FRA.
The provisions of the FRA entrust the Gram Sabha with the rights and responsibility for sustainable use of these resources; for the conservation of biodiversity and wildlife, ensuring that internal and external factors do not destroy their community forests and for maintenance of ecological balance. This is recognition of the fact that the forest dwellers are integral to the very survival and sustainability of forest ecosystems. Thus these provisions together strengthen the conservation regime while ensuring livelihood, traditions and food security of the forest dependent communities.
This provision has also been beneficial to counter colonial legacies and prejudiced attitudes of local administration machineries, making it more responsive to the real needs of the people. The endowment of these CFR titles is a victory for the communities, as it firmly counters the routine exploitation they face in terms of being forced to pay bribes, or being forcefully stopped from using their traditional and rightful forest and other natural resource. With this CFR recognition in the 7 Gram Sabhas, these villages are now also legally recognized as revenue villages, crucially facilitating access and endowments to civic infrastructure and schemes for education, health, and housing etc. This enables recognition of forest dependent communities, historically marginalized, to be entitled citizens of the democracy; and facilitates relevant development in their lives, livelihood and surroundings.
These CFR entitlements have also secured 60 percent of access to livelihood for about 600 families by enabling collection of Minor Forest Produce (MFPs) and Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP). This has provided for the development relevant, sustainable livelihood growth, while ensuring the conservation of local biodiversity, and the preservation and use of traditional wisdom & knowledge of the communities.
The recognition of CFR in these areas with large percentage of forest-dependent communities has also affirmed traditional land-use patterns rescuing them from destructive, non-forest use such as excessive mining and deforestation that cause irrevocable ecological imbalance and related loss to human beings. The role of local self government through Panchayati Raj institutions in shaping futures of local people, as illustrated in this victory, the significance given to the empowerment of Gram Sabhas as primary decision-making bodies, to guide policy, action and development will go a long way to address and reverse the historical injustice meted out to marginalized communities in India.