Odisha has the unique distinction of being one of the few Indian states where thousands of local communities are actively protecting and conserving their forests.
Odisha has the unique distinction of being one of the few Indian states where thousands of local communities are actively protecting and conserving their forests. These people, who meet their own livelihood requirements from forests, however, are struggling since long to assert their rights over the forest resources due to alleged bureaucratic delay.
Renowned tribal rights activist Gourang Rout says the local communities customarily enjoyed, protected and conserved the forests for ages. Although the ownership of forests was with local rulers in the medieval period, the local communities enjoyed almost unhindered access rights to them for their needs. However, from the colonial period, forests started being targeted for commerce and revenue.
“The traditional and customary rights of the people were often neither recognised nor recorded by the colonial government while declaring forests to be state property. There are numerous examples of rebellions against reservation of forests by tribal communities in the history of the freedom struggle. After series of consultations both at state and national levels — the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, was enacted, recognising local communities’ rights over forests. But, transfer of rights to the local communities is still lacking,” says Dr Rout.
“The unconvincing delay in recognition of Community Forest Rights (CFR) under Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 has resulted in the local communities getting deprived of their entitlements. During displacement for industrial projects and other activities, they do not get due compensation and rehabilitation. The CFR also treats them as accused while collecting forest produce or undertaking agriculture in the lands traditionally held by their communities,” observes Dr Rout.
But he adds that the enactment of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, he adds, was a watershed in the hard-fought and prolonged struggle of adivasis and other forest dwellers of India.
“For the first time in the history of the country, the state formally acknowledged the injustice done to forest dwelling communities due to non-recognition of their rights during the consolidation of state forests. The new forest rights law attempts to right this historic wrong and empowers right holding communities and Gram Sabhas to protect, conserve, regenerate or manage their community forest resources for sustainable use. The state government must realise this and expedite the process of bestowing upon the local communities their rights over forest resources,” observes Dr Rout.