How Conflict In The Forest Rights Act Cheats India’s Tribals


What flashes in your mind when you read this word?

Forests are not merely vegetation or animals. Forests have been a livelihood for people. In fact, forests are a personification for some. In India, it’s home to about 100 million tribals and forest dwellers who believe that forest land does not belong to people; people belong to the forest land. The population of forest dwellers is India is approximately the population of Philippines, the world’s 12th largest populous country.

The recent eviction of around 1500 tribals from Devamachi Reserve forests in Karnataka and the unlawful actions like the demolition of houses and farmlands in Himachal Pradesh show that tribals are still at the receiving end.

What Goes Inside The Forests?

Given that you are reading this article online, chances are more that you are not a forest dweller. Though the cultural and technological landscapes in India are fast changing, the symbiotic relationship between tribals and forests isn’t.

A tribal woman in Jhilimili forest of Bankura, West Bengal, coils rope made of Babui grass, a minor forest produce.

Not every tribe living in forests cultivates; tribes that depend on hunting and gathering still exist. Chenchus, tribes living primarily in the Nallamala forest, are one such tribe who are still reluctant in switching to agriculture. They find eating tamarind with mud, termites with jawar roti, squirrels and rabbits healthier than rice, grains and oil.

How Did Independence Affect The Lives Of Tribals?

Tribals were at the receiving end when the British used the forests for commercial purposes; when, in the name of conservation, they divided the forests into reserved and protected areas. However, what the Britishers called ‘protection’ was forest management which meant deforestation and management of the trees that were cut down and other forest produces. Even after independence, the management of forest remained the responsibility of the forest department whereas, the real owners – forest-dwelling tribes – kept away from the resources that originally belonged to them and who were also the de facto conservators of the woods that they worshipped.

Inclusive Conservation

A landmark initiative for an inclusive conservation of the forests came in the shape of National Forest Policy in 1988.

The forest policy of 1988 for the first time shifted the importance of forests as a means of revenue generation to realising its ecological importance. It is an implicit acknowledgement of tribal rights on paper. In the process, it recognised the potential of tribal communities in effective conservation paving the way for the collaboration of forest communities and the government i.e. the forest department.

Ironically, it’s offspring, the Joint Forests Management programme of 1990 has intensified the monopoly of forest officials on the ground.

What’s Wrong With The Joint Forest Management Programme (JFM)?

Forest dwellers could now collaborate with forest officials by jointly forming committees with monetary benefits to forest communities.

Inclusive conservation was the primary objective of JFM. Corruption, state monopoly are the ground realities of it.

Mahua flowers, minor forest produce, being sun-dried in a tribal household of Ayodhya Hill, Purulia, West Bengal.

After the British Era act of 1865, which planted the monopoly of government over forests, I opine that it is the Joint Forest Management that has managed to augment it.

When the tribals need to collect the forest produce, they need to be approved by the forest department, which shows that the basic philosophy of JFM was lost, says Dr Narsimha Reddy, chief mentor of Chetana Society.

For example, Tendu – a minor forest produce used to make bidis – collected by the tribals had to be deposited with the West Bengal Tribal Development Corporation. Tribals seldom get their share of revenue. In fact, Debnarayan Sarkar, of Centre for Economic Studies, says that the forest fringe communities are simply collectors who are pure price-takers in a monopoly market rather than the share of revenue as specified in the JFM agreement.

According to the Forest Policy of 1988, forest committees are to be comprised of villagers. But, in the state of West Bengal, government officials are appointed as members instead, which is a clear violation of the law.

When Were The Tribal Rights Explicitly Recognised?

It’s in 2006 that the Government of India, by law, recognised the rights of not only tribals but also people who are bona fide dependents on forests.

A woman counts Saal leaves before taking them to the market in West Midnapore, West Bengal.

From now on people could own their land in which they have been living or cultivating since years, live in all of the imaginary human-made divisions of forests, and decide on permitting the diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes.

They could collect honey, roots, and tendu among others from the reserved forests. Interestingly, it also provides for the rehabilitation of evicted people in their previously owned lands, which it calls as in situ rehabilitation. However, the Forest Rights Act also has its set of ambiguities.

What Is The Relevance Of JFM In The Wake Of The Forest Rights Act?

JFM was a grand success in states like West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Nagaland. However, Dr Narsimha Reddy says that corruption took centre stage in most of the states. Ironically, JFM committees continue to exist even in areas where tribal rights are recognised.

For instance, Forests rights act vests with the people the power to collect minor forest produce, which includes Tendu. So, by the definition of the Act, people are free to collect and sell it. But, JFM has strengthened the state monopoly in the collection and selling of Bidi leaves.

Many of the tribals are not aware of the rule that they are entitled to 25% of the forest produce. Forest officials often arrest tribals on the charges of stealing.

Saal and tendu leaves are minor forest produce on which livelihood of a large number of the tribal population depends.

The Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education in Dehradun, in 2008, observed that JFM never sought to make the system of forest governance oriented towards recognising rights of forest dwellers. Rather the programmes were mainly conceived as a tool for getting some local participation in predefined goals of conventional conservation by extending some wage labour benefits.

What Should Be Done?

While some say that JFM must be scrapped, some are not supportive of that idea. Dr Narsimha Reddy says that JFM must be brought under the Forest Rights Act. The way out is scrapping the Joint Forest Management scheme wherever the community rights are recognised under Forest Rights Act, recommended the Saxena Committee.

Photographs by Soma Basu