Wildlife First vs. Union of India : an analysis

This article has been written by Saloni Mahawar, pursuing a Diploma in M&A, Institutional Finance and Investment Laws (PE and VC transactions) and edited by Shashwat Kaushik.

It has been published by Rachit Garg.

The Forest Rights Act of 2006 stands as an important law in India, with the primary objective of recognising and safeguarding the rights of the people who live in forests. However, its constitutional validity has become a subject of intense legal study, giving rise to fundamental questions about the equilibrium between the conservation effect and the rights of disregarded communities. This has led to important questions about finding the right balance between protecting nature and the rights of ignored communities. This article aims to explain deeply the background of the case, elaborate on the key arguments of both petitioners and respondents, thoroughly examine relevant constitutional provisions, study what the Supreme Court decided, and see how it all affects the Forest Right Act and the people who live in the forest it seeks to empower.

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The case of Wildlife First and Ors. vs. Union of India and Ors. (2019) is a landmark case in Indian environmental law. In 2008, Wildlife First, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court of India challenging the constitutional validity of the Scheduled Tribe and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA). The FRA is a law that grants certain rights to forest dwellers, including the right to live in and use forest land, the right to collect and use forest produced, and the right to manage forest resources.

Wildlife First argued that the FRA was unconstitutional on several grounds. They claim that the FRA violates the fundamental rights of the forest-dwelling communities, specifically Article 14 (Equality) and Article 21 (Right to Life) of the Indian Constitution. The petitioners express concerns about the FRA potentially endangering the basic structure of the Indian Constitution, which safeguards certain core features that cannot be changed. They argued that the FRA  was beyond the legislative competence of Parliament. They argued that the FRA deals with matters that fall under the State List, and therefore, the Parliament did not have the power to enact it.

The people defending the FRA say it’s essential for protecting poor forest communities that have suffered a lot in the past. They also argue that the Act is not against the Indian Constitution but helps correct old mistakes and make things fairer. They believe that we can take care of the forests and help these communities at the same time. The Act, according to them, allows us to manage the forests responsibly and keep them safe for the future.

  1. Violation of fundamental rights- The petitioners claim that the FRA oversteps upon the fundamental rights of forest-dwelling communities, specifically Articles 14 (Equality) and 21 (Right to Life) of the Indian Constitution. They argue that these communities are being unfairly deprived of their right to live and make a living in their ancestral forest homes. They argue that this deprivation contradicts the constitutional principles of equality and the right to life.
  2. The basic structure doctrine-  An essential argument advanced by the petitioners revolves around the perceived threat to the basic structure of the Indian Constitution posed by certain provisions of the FRA. The basic structure doctrine, established by the Supreme Court, firmly upholds that certain core features of the Constitution are absolute and cannot be amended. The petitioners argue that the Act endangers these core features by potentially undermining the protection of fundamental rights and the overall rule of law.
  3. Legislative competence- The petitioners further raise concerns regarding the legislative competence of the Indian Parliament to enact the FRA. They argue that the Act oversteps upon the powers vested in the states, creating a contentious interplay of federalism. The debate centres on whether the Act oversteps its boundaries and intrudes into the domain of state legislation. 
  1. Protection of marginalised communities- The respondents strongly argue in favour of the FRA, positioning it as a vital instrument for the protection of the rights and livelihoods of marginalised forest-dwelling communities. They state that these communities have tolerated the effects of historical injustices, enduring dispossession, and being deprived of access to the very resources on which their survival depends.
  2. Constitutional validity- Respondents strongly maintain that the FRA is not at odds with the Indian Constitution; rather, it aligns harmoniously with its principles. They contend that the Act is a crucial step towards addressing historical injustices and ensuring social justice for forest-dwelling communities. In their view, the Act represents a progressive step towards rectifying historical wrongs.
  3. Environmental conservation- Respondents underline the vital importance of striking a balance between the rights of forest dwellers and the urgent need for forest conservation. They argue that sustainable development can coexist with conservation objectives. Furthermore, they posit that the Act provides the framework for responsible and equitable forest management, ensuring the preservation of these vital ecosystems for future generations.

Purpose of the Act

The Forest Rights Act was made for three main reasons:

  1. Recognising and vesting the rights of people living in the forests.
  2. Secure their livelihood and take care of the forest resources responsibly.
  3. Amend historical injustices when their rights were ignored. 

Provisions of the Act

The Act provides a comprehensive framework for the recognition of both individuals and communities living in the forest. It has helped to secure their tenure rights over forestland, and it has given them greater control over forest resources. This has allowed them to improve their livelihoods and better protect their environment.

For example, the FRA has helped to reduce the number of forest evictions. In the past, the government evicted the forest dwellers from their homes to make way for development projects. The FRA has made it more difficult for the government to evict forest dwellers without their consent.

The FRA has also helped forest dwellers improve their lives by giving them access to education and healthcare.

Challenges of the Act 

Even though it’s a good law in theory, it has some problems in practise. Some people say it’s not working well and it’s even causing more harm to the forest in some cases.

Despite the positive impact, the implementation of FRA has met difficult challenges on multiple fronts. The challenges are:

Lack of awareness- The lack of awareness of the FRA among forest dwellers Many people who live in forests are not aware of their rights under the Act, and this has made it difficult for them to claim their rights.

Lack of resources- The government does not have enough resources to implement FRA effectively. This has led to delays in the process of granting forest rights, and it has also made it difficult to provide education and healthcare services to forest dwellers. 

The government has a key role to play in implementing the FRA. The government needs to ensure that all forest dwellers are aware of their rights under the FRA. The government also needs to provide the resources necessary to implement the FRA effectively.

In addition, the government needs to work with NGOs and other stakeholders to ensure that the FRA is implemented in a way that is fair and equitable. The FRA is a landmark law that has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people. However, it is important to ensure that the law is implemented effectively so that it can achieve its full potential.

The Supreme Court heard the case for several years and finally delivered its judgement in 2019. The Court upheld the constitutional validity of the FRA, but it also made some important modifications to the law. The Court held that the FRA does not violate the right to equality, but it did strike down a provision that gave preferential treatment to tribal forest dwellers. The Court also found that the FRA does not violate the right to life, but it did impose some restrictions on the rights granted under the FRA. For example, the Court held that the FRA does not allow forest dwellers to cut down trees without permission from the authorities. 

The judgement in Wildlife First vs. Union of India is a significant victory for forest dwellers in India. The FRA is now the law of the land, and it has helped to protect the rights of millions of forest dwellers. However, the judgement also shows that there are still challenges to be overcome in the fight to protect India’s forests. The Supreme Court’s modifications to the FRA show that there is a need to balance the rights of forest dwellers with the need to protect the environment.

In addition to the legal challenges, there are also practical challenges to implementing the FRA. The FRA is a complex law, and it has been difficult for the government to implement it effectively. There have been reports of corruption and inefficiency in the process of granting forest rights. There have also been cases of violence against forest dwellers who have tried to assert their rights.

Despite the challenges, the FRA is a step in the right direction. It is a recognition of the rights of forest dwellers and their importance to the conservation of India’s forests. The FRA is a work in progress, but it has the potential to make a real difference in the lives of millions of people.

In the end, this legal fight isn’t just about a law; it’s about finding a way for people and forests to live together in harmony. The case of Wildlife First vs. Union of India is a complex and important case that has had a significant impact on the lives of millions of people in India. The Supreme Court’s decision is a turning point in the ongoing journey towards justice and sustainability in India’s forests. The case is a victory for forest dwellers, but it also shows that there are still challenges to be overcome in the fight to protect India’s forests. 


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