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Centre`s freeze on settling forest rights in tiger habitats to continue

New Delhi
8 Jan 2018

The Centre will continue its freeze on recognition of rights of tribals and other forest-dwellers over forest lands, as mandated under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, until the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) frame rules to identify critical wildlife habitats or inviolate areas, sources privy to developments said. The decision to not recognise rights under FRA was first taken up in March 2017 when NTCA sent a directive to the state governments.

The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST), which recently held a meeting and a hearing with the NTCA on the issue, said that freezing of rights was not "the ultimate decision". In a meeting on January 2, NCST made it clear to NTCA that until the environment ministry prepares rules to identify critical wildlife habitats, no tribals or other forest-dwellers should be displaced. It had also asked NTCA to get the rules vetted by them once they are prepared.

When asked about its view on the NTCA and environment ministry`s decision to freeze recognition of rights, NCST Secretary Raghav Chandra said, "This is not the ultimate decision."

We are not saying don`t give them titles, it is their decision. We have made it clear that they should not be displaced." NTCA officials, meanwhile, said that the forest-dwellers would continue to extract forest produce even as they were not given titles over forest lands. In an earlier hearing, NTCA had told NCST that conferring rights to under FRA to forest-dwellers in critical wildlife habitats of tiger reserves amounted to a "repetitive process, which was already taken care by the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972".

The pendency of the framing of rules, delayed for over seven years, and the subsequent decision to freeze recognition of rights under FRA is impacting thousands and lakhs of forest dwellers who reside inside national parks and tiger reserves. Critical wildlife habitats are essentially areas inside the national parks and sanctuaries that have to be kept inviolate, free of human encumbrance for long-term conservation of tigers. They are to be identified scientifically and then relocation of forest-dwelling communities has to undertaken as a last resort, with their consent.

"The Forest Rights Act and Wildlife Protection Act require that rights be recognised even in critical wildlife habitats and thus the decision to freeze recognition and recording of forest rights inside tiger habitats is illegal," said Shankar Gopalakrishnan, National Secretary of Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a federation of tribal and forest dwellers organisations from eleven states.