The Forest Rights Act or FRA was enacted in 2006, following collective pressure from a massive social movement to correct the historical injustices imposed since the colonial takeover of India's forests. Community Forest Resource (CFR) Rights recognized under FRA transfers collective rights and responsibilities to forest dwelling communities for sustainable use of their customary forests.
However, just like any other decentralization reform that adopts a rights-based approach, the implementation of the FRA has been poor, as the rights and responsibilities are transferred without ensuring communities' capability to exercise those rights and carry out the responsibilities vested in them. Recognition is the first step, however, the actual claiming and recognition of community rights itself has been an onerous process.
A paper by Gupta et al ‘Promoting a responsive state: The role of NGOs in decentralized forest governance in India’ advocates that actualizing this rights-based approach, cannot happen without an adequate support mechanism, which is currently missing.
Transitioning to responsive governance
The paper examines the issue of ‘responsibilization’, which offers an interesting lens through which the activities in the post-rights recognition phase can be examined.
Responsibilization, as understood by some decentralization scholars, is viewed (critically) as imposing technocratic goals on local communities through administrative deconcentration (or its many variants) without the transfer of power.
Rights-based approaches are supposed to be different, as they transfer both rights and the authority to manage the forest to statutorily defined downwardly accountable institutions. However, in reality, the rights-based approach may also result in responsibilization if it does not include building the capability of communities to exercise their rights and carry out their responsibilities.
In many countries, the push for and shift to a rights-based approach happened due to pressure from civil society, including both informal social movements and NGOs. NGOs working on tribal or rural development issues, act as a bridge between the community and the state to enable the transition to responsive forest governance.
Studying the role of NGOs in actualization of rights-based approaches
The study conducted in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra uses the example of the Forest Rights Act in India to examine the activities of such non-state actors to understand their role in enabling the communities to exercise their forest use and management-related rights and responsibilities. It also investigates the role played by non-state actors (NGOs) in serving as a bridge between the state and the communities and enabling responsive governance.
Maharashtra has seen the greatest initiative taken in the recognition of the CFR rights provisions and at least 18 NGOs have worked on it. Four NGOs that were actively involved in the social movement demanding rights for the forest-dwelling communities and in helping villages stake claims, and now aiding communities in asserting and exercising their rights in the post-rights recognition phase were selected for the study.
The questions asked were: What activities do NGOs perform within the community to help carry out its responsibilities? What activities are focused on agents or aspects external to the community, such as engagement with the state and markets? Finally, what difference do NGOs make in the villages in comparison with villages where NGO intervention is absent?
Discussion and conclusion
- Shift from either subservient (pre-JFM) or responsibilized (post-JFM) forest governance to responsive governance by the state is excruciatingly slow and difficult. The study shows that unless the rights holders are aware of what their rights entail, have the required capacities, and are mobilized to defend their rights when necessary, they will neither be able to adequately exercise their rights nor have the capacity to discharge their responsibilities.
- Awareness about the exercise of new rights and responsibilities devolved under the CFR rights provisions of the Forest Rights Act does not exist or happen automatically. There is no systematic effort by the state to make this happen, and, consequently, NGOs are filling this gap by working in multiple domains. They directly engage with the communities, conducting training workshops to educate community members and build their capacities.
- The study compared processes occurring in villages that lack NGOs’ support with those that are supported by the NGOs. It was found that the awareness about community rights and responsibilities in the two types of villages was completely different. The reason for this was the efforts of the NGOs on three fronts: mobilizing and building the capacities of villagers to exercise their rights, enabling market engagement, and ensuring the state's responsiveness.
- Commonalities outweigh differences: Common to the four NGOs studied for this research is the goal of community empowerment—the aim to ensure that communities are able to effectively exercise their CFR rights granted under the Forest Rights Act. Nevertheless, these NGOs have their own strengths and idiosyncrasies that stem from their respective backgrounds and histories. These individual features influence the types of activities the NGOs perform. Nevertheless, the commonalities outweigh the differences in terms of the extent of the support they have provided to communities and the multiple domains in which they have to work in order to make CFR rights effective.
- Risks inherent in NGOs being involved in the implementation of decentralization reforms: The risks include possibly limited impacts, lack of transparency, perpetuation of villager dependency on outside agents, and (if the state funds the NGOs) loss of the autonomy of the NGOs to act as a watchdog on state actions, limited reach of NGOs in comparison to the scale of the decentralization task.
- There are many steps involved in the exercise of CFR rights. These steps, though not spelt out in the law, place enormous demands on an inexperienced village community. This requires the state to be highly responsive to the needs of communities during the post-rights recognition phase. The NGOs are filling the gaps left by state inaction or weaknesses in empowering local institutions to discharge the responsibilities vested in them under the Forest Rights Act. The relevance of the work of NGOs is evident from the observations in the non-NGO supported villages, where the implementation of the Forest Rights Act was limited due to the limited awareness and capacity of the community.
- Although the work of NGOs might not be scalable, their involvement in implementation of the FRA currently provides an extremely valuable (even if limited in scale and stop-gap) support system. It can also be treated as a pilot to enable policy-makers to understand the steps required to be taken by a state agency to ensure the implementation of the Act beyond the rights-recognition phase.
The study can be accessed here