From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Critical Wildlife Habitat (CHW) under FRA
Mains level : Forest dwellers role in its conservation
- The COVID-19 pandemic has driven migrant workers back to their villages, including many situated inside or on the fringes of forested areas, including sanctuaries and national parks.
- Even as they seek to remake livelihoods there, a new battle has emerged between the forest department (FD) and these local communities.
- It pertains to the declaration of a Critical Wildlife Habitat (CWH), which a PIL in the Bombay High Court seeks to get the department to urgently notify.
Try this question for mains:
Forest dwellers are integral to the very survival and sustainability of the forest ecosystem. Analyse.
What is Critical Wildlife Habitat (CHW)?
- CWH is a provision under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA).
- The Act primarily focuses on recognising the historically-denied rights of forest-dwellers to use and manage forests.
- The CWH provision, however, is an attempt to assuage concerns of wildlife conservationists.
- It allows for the possibility that in protected areas (PAs) — wildlife sanctuaries and national parks — these rights could be attenuated, and, if absolutely necessary, forest-dwellers could be relocated in the interest of wildlife conservation.
Forest dwellers vs. Wildlife
- Conservationists believe that wildlife needs absolutely “inviolate” areas — those devoid of humans and human activities.
- Many others believe human-wildlife co-existence is generally possible and must be promoted if we are to have “socially just conservation”.
Achieving balanced conservation: The FRA provisions
- A careful reading of the CWH provisions in the FRA shows that it is open to both possibilities, as long as they are arrived at through a rigorous and participatory process.
- It requires setting up a multi-disciplinary expert committee, including representatives from local communities.
- It also requires determining — using “scientific and objective criteria” and consultative processes — whether, and wherein the PA, the exercise of forest rights will cause irreversible damages.
- It then requires determining whether coexistence is possible through a modified set of rights or management practices.
- Only if the multi-stakeholder expert committee agrees that co-existence or other reasonable options are not possible, should relocation be taken up, again with the informed consent of the concerned gram sabhas.
- For any such process to commence, the Act requires that all forest rights under the FRA must first be recognised.
Issues with the FRA
(1) Concerns of eviction
- Hardline conservationists took FRA as a great opportunity to complete its agenda of evicting forest-dwellers from PAs.
- It has been observed that many villages were resettled when they had rights claims pending, others had their claims illegally rejected or incompletely granted, and several had not even applied to this controversy erupted.
- However, there are settlements in some of these PAs, and of course, people in villages adjacent to all the PAs are likely to have customary rights.
- In spite of the court ordering rapid completion of the rights recognition process, there has been almost no progress on this front.
(2) Issues with expert committees
- The constitution of the expert committees is faulty. They do not contain expert social scientists familiar with the area. Wildlife enthusiasts are sometimes substituted for experts in life sciences.
- Many members have challenged the very constitutionality of the FRA, making a travesty of the idea of “objectivity” in the process.
(3) Criteria judging the damages
- The criteria being used by the committees to determine the threat of “irreversible damage” to wildlife are quite extreme and are not supported by any consensus even among ecologists.
- There are no objective criteria decided yet by these committees.
- The FRA begins by recognising that forest dwellers “are integral to the very survival and sustainability of the forest ecosystem”.
- In that context, the CWH provision should not be seen as simply a tool for evicting forest-dwellers to create so-called “inviolate” spaces.
- It is an opportunity to rigorously and participatorily explore all avenues of co-existence.
- Such co-existence is indeed possible. In general, forest-dwellers harbour both the knowledge and the attitudes needed for conservation.
- Co-managing PAs is, therefore, the most effective and socially just long-term solution, and relocation should be seen as the absolute last resort.
Forest Rights act