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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 30 New Delhi July 14, 2018

Alienation of Rights to Forest

Sunday 15 July 2018

by Suranjita Ray

Thousands of farmers led by the CPI-M-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha, marched from Nasik to Mumbai in March this year. One of the many demands of the farmers who came together included transfer of forest land to those who have been tilling it for years. Alongside demands for a complete loan waiver, implementation of the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission and increase in the compensation for the peasants who lost crops due to recent hailstorms and pink bollworm infestation, the farmers demanded settlement of their long-pending claims for forest land under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act/FRA, 2006.

In order to correct the historical injustice done to millions of tribal and other forest dwellers across the country, the FRA aims at providing restitution of deprived forest rights which includes both the individual right to cultivate forest land and the community right over common property resources. Though the FRA has been implemented for more than a decade, and is held as a landmark fortitude at recognising the rights of adivasis, it has failed to benefit the majority of the deprived.

Forests: A Source of Livelihood

Forests that surround the tribal-dominated villages, are used for growing rain-fed millets, varieties of pulses, fruits and vegetables. Minor millets such as raggi, gurji, kodo, kosla, jari suan, are a good source of nutrition. Tribal communities, in particular women, argue that the Mid-Day Meals under the Integrated Child Development Schemes provided by the government are mere supplements and cannot substitute their diverse food habits. (Sengupta, 2016: 1) For generations they have been growing the traditional crops in the forest land. They collect tamarind, honey, spices, mahua flower, bahada, harida, amla, lac, antia bark, sabai grass, kendu leaves, sal seeds, neem seeds,bhodsag, khirdisag and tubers like pithokonda, sandikonda, cherengakonda for food, fuel, fodder, manure, and medicinal herbs.

Since forests remain an integral part of the tribal culture and economy, tribal people and forest dwellers continue to be morally responsible for preserving and sustaining the forests. As a tradition of faith, they worship the forests. Though they are referred to as ‘vanyajati’ (forest dwelling communities) or vanputra (forest-dwellers) and ‘lord of the forest’, their rights to the forest have always been the most contested issue. Therefore, tribal resistance has been growing all over the country to protect the forests and their rights to forest.

Although the state has failed to value the socio-cultural significance of forests, it has always been interested in increasing the economic benefits that the forests provide. The policies of the developmental state is therefore based not just on land transfer but a continuous process of acquiring forest land. Over the years, commercial exploitation of forests and large developmental projects resulted in depletion and undermining of forests that disrupted the livelihood of the tribal people. The consequential effect of state policies to tap forest resources for development alienated the tribals from the forest land resulting in loss of livelihood resources and severe disruption of their culture, identity, dignity and freedom.

Increasing Appropriation of Forests

Large hectares of forest land across the country have been diverted for non-forestry activities. Appropriation of forests for development projects, such as defence projects, dams, mines, industries, power plants, and roads, deprived the tribals of their customary rights. Almost 75 per cent of the displaced people due to the development projects are tribals. In 2014, over 7000 hectares of forest land were diverted for development projects and the Gujarat companies had a major share. (Karat, 2016: 10) The Polavaram project in Andhra Pradesh submerged around two lakh hectares of forest land and a majority of the affected were the tribal communities. (Ibid.) The community rights are not approved in several Memoranda of Understanding between the government and big companies which instituted power plants across the country.

The government’s official reports state that lakhs of trees are cut every year for development projects such as widening of roads. The trees cut on the private land are much more than what is reported. During the last six years around six lakh tress have been cut down in Odisha by the Odisha Forest Development Corporation for construction and widening of roads. (Barik, 2017: 2) Between 2014 and 2017, almost 20 per cent of the total trees were lost for 23 road projects in Keonjhar district. In 2016-17 thousands of trees, many of which were as old as 70 years, have been cut down for road projects in Kalahandi, Sundargarh, Sambalpur, Bolangir, Jharsuguda and Jajpur. (Ibid.) Environmentalist Biswajit Mohanty argues that 60 per cent of these trees could have been saved by translocating them. Translocation of trees has been done in Puducherry and Tamil Nadu. Green activists in several States argue that lack of stringent laws against tree felling is a major cause of increasing depletion of the green cover.

While the government in Odisha has taken up plantation of trees alongside the roads, the loss of trees for road projects has been massive during the last few years. Forests are disappearing due to land acquisition for development projects. In 2013, land acquisition for the POSCO mega steel project near Paradeep town saw felling of as many as three lakh trees, of which 2.25 lakh came under the forest classified category and 75,000 were of fruit-bearing species. (Ibid.) In order to set up the Vedanta alumina refinery in the Niyamgiri foothills of Lanjigarh, several trees were cut to lay a road to the hilltop.

The mining project that threatened 1660 acres of forest land was withdrawn only after long protests by the tribals and forest dwellers to save their rights to forest. Social activists Prafulla Samantra and Lingaraj Azad filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the legality of the project. Based on the directive of the Supreme Court, an environmental referendum was conducted for the first time to find out whether mining in the Niyamgiri hills would tantamount to an infringement of the religious, customary, community and individual rights of tribal people and forest-dwellers. A unanimous resolution was passed that opposed the mining project by the Vedanta Aluminium Limited and Orissa Mining Corporation.

But what is disconcerting is that the govern-ments in several States have reduced the rights of the gram sabhas. In Jharkhand, amendments of the Chotanagpur and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Acts have ensured that the gram sabhas have little role to play. (Karat, 2016:10) In Maharashtra, the government promoted committees to have all the rights of forest management without any powers to the gram sabhas. (Ibid.) The Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) have also failed to prevent the dominant class—officials, middlemen, contractors and traders—from benefiting from land transfers. The officials have failed to acknowledge the provisions in the FRA which favour the tribal people; instead they implement the Act to the disadvantage of the latter.

Although the provision in the FRA is to call the gram sabhas at three levels: (i) actual settlements—hamlets, (ii) revenue villages, and (iii) panchayat level, in many States such as Odisha, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Jharkhand, the gram sabhas are called at the third level. This prevents an analyses of the actual situation and averts participation of the tribal people. Ironically in many States the Tribal Development Consumer Co-operative, Large Area Multi-Purpose Societies and Agency for Marketing Cooperative Societies operate through private traders and moneylenders as sub-agents.

Similarly, while Joint Forest Management was initiated to enable the self-governing communities to manage common pool resources and enhance people’s access to forests and its produce, in practice it has resulted in increasing the powers of the Forest Departments. Other than Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP), plantations like teak, eucalyptus, bamboo make forests a good source of income for the government. Therefore, Forest Departments have diverted large acres of forest land for such plantations. The traditional crops no longer grow in forest land. The ban of the danger chas/podu cultivation (shifting cultivation) practised by tribal communities in the hilly regions has further deprived them of the minor millets, which they grew on podu land.

Without any consultation with the tribal communities, a series of legislations have been pushed through by the government, such as amendments to the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2015, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Act, 2016, alongside a host of amendments to the FRA. These legislations undermine the rights and protections guaranteed to tribals and forest dwellers in the FRA. Although the CAF Act is a measure to counterbalance the forest loss, wherein the Ministry of Environment and Forests fixes a monetary value to be collected as compensation for forests destroyed before issuing forest clearances to a mine, dam or industry, the growth of the fund reveals enormous destruction of forests across the country. States are appropriating huge funds in the name of compensatory afforestation. These funds are used to undertake plantations in private and common property resources. In fact, critics argue that the CAF Act was passed to manage Rs 50,000 crore fund which was to be used for plantations in 2016. (Sahu, 2018a:11) Consequently, plantations on recognised individual and community forest areas have been forced by governments in several States, such as Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, without the consent of villagers or gram sabhas. (Ibid.) Thus, in contravention to the FRA and Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, the role of the gram sabhas in protection of forest resources is ignored in the CAF Act. The village communities are merely consulted in the planning of compensatory afforestation. In fact, 70 per cent of the compensatory afforestation projects across 10 States are on the existing forest land including dense forests. (Choudhury, 2018: 9)

The vulnerable tribal group—the Juang community in Rangamatia village in Keonjhar district of Odisha—is at loggerheads with the Forest Department since 2016 as the latter ‘unilaterally demarcated dense community-conserved forests’ in the village for the “compen-satory afforestation” project, tied to forest clearance for an iron ore mine by the Tatas in the district. (Ibid.) Despite the opposition by 2500 gram sabhas across the country, the Forest Department has floated thousands of afforestation projects which include existing old-growth forests. (Ibid.) Thus the Forest Departments are taking over common land and other resources in the villages and further land appropriation is permitted in the name of the CAF Act.

Studies find that developmental projects result in fragmentation of large forest blocks into smaller patches, which permanently destroy habitat for many species. (See also India Environmental Damage, 2016) Compensatory afforestation through plantations of trees, particularly monocultures, can never replace the diverse, complex flora and fauna which is destroyed in forests. In fact, loss of forests results in collapse of an ecosystem and not just loss of trees. Compensatory afforestation cannot substitute for natural forests, which are permanently lost. Therefore, dense forests shouldn’t be diverted for developmental projects.

One of the studies on the ongoing land conflicts in India by Land Conflict Watch reveals that two-thirds of the land conflicts are related to common lands. (Sahu, 2018a: 11) The study finds that 44 per cent of all 536 cases of land conflicts involve forest land and 118 cases are due to the violation of the FRA. Since conflicts over land acquisition have taken new intensity due to the increasing race by the corporate world to control natural resources, land acquisition has gained support on many grounds. The utilitarian argument favours potential utilisation of the untapped resources for increased production, economic growth and development to benefit the majority. The developmental approach defends exploration of natural resources to develop the interior backward regions. Lack of clarity in the laws on the customary rights of the tribal people over the natural resources has also seen an increasing violation of such laws. Compensations to the displaced, if any, due to industries, mining, dams, Special Economic Zones, have been justified under the policy of Rehabilitation and Resettlement. (Ray, 2010)

Summing Up

While the government in Maharashtra assured the farmers in the recent protest in Mumbai to settle their pending claims for forest land within six months, 62 per cent of the claims have been rejected on technical grounds. Due to lack of training in the FRA the ‘common belief is that tribal claimants are encroachers and their claims are diversions of forest land’. (Cited in Iyer 2018: 2) This is a major cause for rejection of most of the claims. The Tribal Development Department in Maharashtra is currently implementing a ‘Van Mitra’ (friends of the forest) programme to train the officials. (Ibid.)

The interference of the Forest Department in handling title distribution is a big impediment. The provision in the Act that states that the claim to forest land can be on the basis of dependence on the forest land for one’s living, has been largely misinterpreted. Most of the claims are rejected either on the ground that there is no proof that three generations of Other Traditional Forest Dwellers have been staying in the forest land or due to the unavailability of satellite map showing cultivation attached to the claim and lack of any courtimposed penalty for cultivating forest land. (Ibid.) In fact, in Rajasthan, the Forest Department acknowledges a claim only if the claimant is listed as a violator in their records and given penalty.

Many claims are rejected by the Sub-Divisional Level Committees at the second level of processing followed by the gram sabha. Though the gram sabhas have formed Forest Rights Committees (FRCs) as required by the law, they have failed to conduct joint mapping by forest officials. (Ibid.) Most of the claims under the FRA are reported from areas where civil society organisations are active and facilitate people to negotiate the legal and bureaucratic hurdles. At other places, even the formation of the FRC has been difficult.

We find implementation of the FRA in its true spirit in States where villagers have asserted their rights and gram sabhas have passed resolutions against tree felling by the Forest Departments. In 2011 the villagers of Pondi in Baiga Chak area in Madhya Pradesh opposed timber-extraction and confiscated loads of timber cut by the Forest Department. As a result the Forest Department had to give in writing that it would stop all operations and refrain from any further felling without the permission of the gram sabhas. (Cited in Moudgil, 2017) Similarly, in 2015-16 the tribal communities of 35 villages in Maniguda and Bissam Cuttack blocks in Rayagada district of Odisha protested against the planting of eucalyptus by the Forest Department till it finally agreed to plant saplings of indigenous trees. (Sengupta, 2016: 1) The diversion of forests for non-forest activities has reduced due to the protests by villagers in a few villages in Kalahandi district of Odisha and Narmada and Dong districts in Gujarat. (Sahu, 2018b: 11) In Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, transfer of almost 5.86 lakh hectares of forests to the jurisdiction of the gram sabhas has resulted in increasing income from the NTFPs such as tendu leaves and bamboo. (Ibid.) This has not only improved the livings conditions of tribals and forest dwellers but has also reduced migration. (Ibid.) The recognition of community rights over forests has reduced the incidence of forest fires. Since forest produce, particularly NTFP, is an important resource for the livelihood of tribals and forest dwellers, the living conditions of the latter has improved in a few villages of Komna and Khariar blocks in Nuapada district of Odisha, due to the struggles by the villagers to protect minimum wages, remunerative prices, storage and subsidies for those who cultivate, collect and sale the minor forest produce. (Ray, 2006) Therefore in villages where the gram sabhas are active, the community rights to protect, conserve, regenerate, and manage the forest for sustainable use are protected. The Minor Forest Policy Resolution, 2000, which has handed over 68 Minor Forest Produce items to the PRIs to collect, store, process and sale to the primary gatherers and collecting agents without royalty on them, is an important step towards empowerment.

However, studies based on surveys such as the State of Forest Report of the Forest Survey of India document that 67,9000 hectares of forest cover has been lost in 188 tribal districts primarily due to encroachments by tribals and forest dwellers between 2009 and 2011. (Goenka, 2018: 13) These studies find that a majority of the tribals and forest dwellers claim individual rights rather than community rights over the forests. And since there are overlaps in the claimed forest lands, once the individual claims are settled, it is difficult to settle community rights over the same land. (Ibid.) On the contrary, there are counter-arguments that settlement of small individual claims rather than large community rights are preferred by the Forest Departments as the communities’ plans for collective conservation and protection measures often conflict with those of the Forest Departments. In fact, the de facto veto power of the latter in approving claims is often used to acknowledge only the documentary evidence of its records as acceptable evidence, ignoring all other evidences submitted by the claimants. (Cited in Moudgil, 2017) There are huge gaps between the claims and awards. Despite the provision that anybody can appeal against the rejection of a claim, a major flaw in the grievance redressal system is that the rejections are often not communicated. At many places, the villagers are not even aware of the existence of such a law.

Therefore, it is significant to take immediate remedial measures lest their vulnerability to eviction and deprivation of customary rights to the forests will increase. Denial of such rights may lead to an increase in encroachments of forest land. The State forest laws, in particular laws related to cultivation, collection and selling of minor forest produce need to be amended to benefit tribals and forest dwellers. By assuring customary rights over the forest land under the FRA to the latter, their livelihood can be improved alongside promoting sustainable forest management and development. There is a need to conserve and regenerate the forest eco-system for a sustainable livelihood. A coherent policy for enhancing the status of forest alongside agro-ecological system by integrating patterns of land-use including forest land, irrigation, and pastures is therefore important.


Barik, Satyasundar (2017), ‘Odisha Felled 6 Lakh Trees in Six Years for Road Projects’ in The Hindu, March 22, page 2.

Choudhury, Chitrangada (2018), ‘Anti-Forest, Anti-Forest Dweller’ in The Hindu, April 5, page 9.

Goenka, Debi (2018)’, Forest Rights and Wrongs’ in The Indian Express, March 28, page 13. › India › Environmental Damage (2016), ‘In Just 30 Years, India has Lost Large Forests to 23,716 Industrial Projects’, June 4, accessed on June 1, 2018.

Iyer, Kavitha (2018), ‘62% of Tribal Land Claims Rejected in Maharashtra: Official Figures’ in The Indian Express, June 5, page 1-2.

Karat, Brinda (2016), ‘Rights for the Rightful Owners’ in The Hindu, December 15, page 10.

Moudgil, Manu (2017), ‘Forest Rights Act (FRA) is a Game Changer but There’s Still a Lot of Ground to be Covered’, August 10, accessed on June 1, 2018.

Ray, Suranjita (2006) ‘Political Economy of Hunger: A Case Study of Kalahandi’, Ph.D Thesis, University of Delhi, Delhi.

................ (2010) ‘Developmental State and the Struggle for People’s Land Rights’ in Mainstream, Vol-48, No 29.

Sahu, Geetanjoy (2018a) ‘A Path Through the Forest’ in The Indian Express, March 19, page 11.

....................(2018b) ‘Minor Forest Produce Major Returns’ in The Indian Express, June 11, page 11.

Sengupta, Anuradha (2016) ‘The Forest on Their Plates’ in The Hindu (Sunday Magazine), September 25, page 1.

Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at suranjitaray_66[at]

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