Tribal people work on tendu leaves in this representative image. Photo: Facebook/Foresters of Odisha
On December 18 in 2006, the historic Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA) was passed in parliament. It marked an important milestone in rectifying the historical injustice done to the tribal community and other traditional forest dwellers. The enactment of the FRA was the culmination of long drawn struggles of millions of forest dwellers, forest rights and civil society groups against loss of livelihood, dispossession of land and resources, and oppressive practices met against the dwellers. In this article, we highlight the trends and challenges in the implementation of FRA in the last fifteen years. The analysis is based on a review of the Monthly Progress Report on FRA published by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), Government of India.
A 2015 report by the Rights and Resources Initiative, Vasundhara and Natural Resources Management Consultants pointed out the FRA has the potential to restore the rights of forest dwellers over at least 40 million hectares or 100 million acres of forest land in 170,000 villages, i.e. one-fourth of the villages across the country. Importantly, at least 150 million people, including 90 million tribal people, are estimated to benefit from recognition of forest rights under the FRA. Against this, only 14.75% of the minimum potential forest areas for forest rights in India has been recognised since the Act came into force. There lays a long road ahead to be achieved.
Even within this lower recognition rate, there is an uneven implementation of FRA across states. For example, Andhra Pradesh has recognised 23% of 29,64,000 acres of its minimum potential forest claim, while Jharkhand, with 52,36,400 acres of minimum potential forest area, has recognised only 5%.
A similar phenomenon is at work within states, where some districts have performed better than others. For example, within a high performing state like Odisha, a district like Nabarangapur has a 100% IFR recognition rate, but in Sambalpur, it is at 41.34%.
The MoTA’s monthly FRA progress report reveals that since 2016, the total FRA claims received has declined. Advocates of the Act argue that this is not because of a delay in claim filing, but rather that state administrations have done too little to facilitate the claim process. A perennial challenge in the enforcement of the FRA at the state level, regardless of the political party in power, is the lack of political and administrative support to implement the Act.
However, a comparison of forest rights claims and recognition status under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) governments suggests that there has been a decline in forest rights claims and recognition in the last seven years. The number of forest claims filed has been almost static for the past three years, so is the case with the recognition rate of claims. A close analysis finds that the gap between the number of claims filed and the number of claims recognised, which was high to begin with, has increased post-2014.
Implementation of FRA: UPA versus NDA
The analysis shows that over 88% of claims of all claims received so far have been recorded during the UPA government’s term. From 2014 to 2021, barely 12% of the total forest claims have been recorded. The decrease in claim filing shows the lack of political and administrative strategies and interest in the enforcement of the Act.
The rate of recognition of forest rates under the NDA is only 27% of all IFR claims received, though, for CFR, it is 69% – better than the UPA’s record. The CFR recognition rate is higher for the NDA than the UPA, which could be attributed to the increased power and collective action of gram sabhas, aided by forest rights NGOs and funding agencies’ support to upscale the recognition of forest rights in the last few years.
The direct economic benefit from forest produce, collective bargaining power, and organised grassroots mobilisations have also led to a higher demand for CFR titles. Even though the NDA has recognised more CFR titles than the previous government, it also has a high rejection rate for CFR claims.
There is substantial evidence that the district administration and sub-division level committee are numb to the forest rights claims across the country. Thousands of claims have been pending for several years because members of the Sub-Division Level Committee (SDLC) and District Level Committee (DLC) do not meet regularly. Contrary to popular belief, district and sub-divisional level forest officers are not cooperating in the forest rights claim process. The district administration and tribal officers at the DLC and SDLC have shown significantly less interest in expediting the process of title filing and hearing.
The biggest challenge throughout the country has been a lack of coordination between tribal, forest and revenue departments at the local level. Equally pathetic is the sedentary attitude of the state-level monitoring committee to supervise the activities of the DLC and SDLC. Claims are arbitrarily rejected without any written explanation to the claimants. Invariably, the claimed forest area for IFR and CFR is not recognised. Lesser forest area against the claimed area is recognised without giving justification. Wherever rights are recognised, little or no attempt is made to enhance the title holders’ livelihood and increase the productivity of the recognised land. Recognition of claims in protected and tiger reserve areas is very low or rejected by misinterpreting the law. It is probably no mere coincidence that over the past few years, as several forest rights claims have been pending and rejected, the Union government has diverted more than 20,000 hectares of forest areas for developmental activities across the country.
Myths about FRA
No discussion on FRA would be complete without dispelling some of the myths that have been built up around it.
Degradation of forests: The FRA is hardly the primary factor contributing to a decline in forest cover. As discussed in a recent paper by Sharachchandra Lele and M.D. Madhusudan, there is no correlation between FRA implementation and forest cover decline. While isolated examples of encroachment by the local community can surely be uncovered, there are countless studies and a lot of evidence to illustrate how forest-dwellers across the country have sustainably managed their surrounding forest. The campaign against the FRA may be a function of parties that have little to do with forest conservation and more to do with vested interests of tourism and corporate business.
Disappearance of tigers: The implementation of FRA in tiger reserve areas has not caused the disappearance of tigers. In fact, the number of tigers has gone up after the FRA came into the picture and the number of animals has increased in reserves where the Act has been implemented. For example, after giving forest titles to the Soliga tribal community in the BRT Hills of Karnataka, a 2013 government estimate shows tiger density to be 11.3 tiger/100 sq km, making it second only to Kaziranga.
It is essential to ensure that the potential of FRA is maximised. Several steps can be taken to achieve the law’s goal. Each state’s intervention strategies need to be different given the distinctive nature of forest history and landscape. To this effect, concerted political and administrative interventions to strengthen the enforcement of the law at the grassroots level would help ensure that forest-dwellers get their statutory rights. The intervention strategies of Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh to upscale the implementation of FRA are worth emulating.
As gram sabhas struggle to file their claims, it will be critically important for the state machinery to create a climate that enables them to exercise rights recognised under the FRA. That means focusing on ground level challenges, coordination between administrative divisions, a sound monitoring system, accurate data set and maps on forest and revenue landscape, orientation for the officers, and a timeline for achieving the minimum potential of the FRA.
It is essential to build a consistent, uniform and transparent database across states and build a fair understanding of lacunas in implementation over the years. The MoTA database, though the best available, comes with significant gaps in pending and carryover claims, the breakup of claims in the process of title recognition at different levels, among others.
Policies that aim to support the post-recognition phase would also help the titleholders improve their livelihood and land productivity. Additional administrative programmes may include integrating line department schemes with the forest rights titleholders and involving the titleholders in the planning and execution of line department schemes.
Lekshmi M. and Anup Kumar Samal are research officers at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Geetanjoy Sahu teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.