Under India’s Scheduled Tribe and Other Traditional Forest Dweller (Recognitions of Forest Rights) Act 2006 (FRA) individual and community resource rights titles are being offered to eligible households and village assemblies in tribal (adivasi) dominated regions of the country. As of February 2014, more than 1.4 million forest titles covering more than 2.2 million hectares of forest land have been distributed. Fieldwork data from Koraput district, Odisha provides some interesting insights into how the Act’s implementation in this region has become a bone of contention for adivasi voters, local leaders, insurgents, state agents and the national government in the current elections.
From the 1960s, unrest over land and forest rights deprivation in the region made it an easy target for Left Wing Extremist (LWE) groups. Despite efforts by the Indian government and donor agencies to pump resources into the region, its inaccessibility coupled with conflict over national forest policies made program implementation challenging. The need for greater clarity of land rights has long been recognised as a means of addressing LWE activity as well as longstanding tension over forest access and mineral rights in the region.
Between 2004-09, the United People’s Alliance Government (UPA) focused on addressing historic injustices by the Indian state to forest-based groups and pushed for the nationwide implementation of the FRA. Key factors underlying this initiative included efforts to gain political support in Central India’s adivasi belt by controlling the expansion of LWE and preventing further exploitation of forest-based communities by the mining industry.
Initially, the FRA met resistance from many State Forest Agencies and State Governments and was slow to take off in all but a few states including Odisha. Here, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which has already served three consecutive terms in the State and is a favourite in the upcoming 16th Assembly Elections, acted promptly on the Act. With its sights set on the 2009 elections in southern Odisha where adivasi voters tend to float between BJD and Congress, the BJD understood the significance of the FRA as a strategy for attracting forest-based votes in the region. To increase the pace of FRA implementation, the State Government set up an internal goal of contacting at least 60% of potential FRA beneficiaries in the 8 months leading up to the 2009 elections.
Data from Koraput District indicates that local school teachers were instructed to help achieve this target by visiting villages, helping potential claimants to complete their claim forms and estimating the amount of land used by the claimant’s family. Many potential claimants remained unaware of their visits and ignorant of the FRA’s provisions and significance for them while claimants helped by these teachers often had no idea how much land the teacher was claiming on their behalf, or where it was located. The target-oriented nature of the claim-settling process ensured that many FRA claims were made in 2008-09, but were frequently incomplete (with no demarcation, joint verification, sketch map or GPS record of the forest land claimed) causing long delays in the receipt of land title certificates. Nevertheless, the strategy was politically successful as the BJD (Jayaram Pangi) reaped the benefits of the goodwill generated from welfare schemes targeted at adivasi voters (notably the FRA) and won the Koraput Parliament seat from Congress (Giridhar Gomang).
After the 2009 elections, however, the many of the initial FRA applications were denied clearance on the grounds of a lack of clarity over land status and miscommunication between government departments administrative challenges while the hasty implementation of the Act was criticised by voluntary organisations and adivasi leaders in Odisha. At the same time, a series of nationwide protests and grievances brought to light the inappropriate ways in which the FRA was being implemented and the inability of the agents involved to understand the Act’s original provisions. In 2012, the FRA was overhauled by the new Cabinet Minister for Tribal Affairs, Mr Krishna Chan Deo, who emphasised the need for correct procedure and in the settling of forest rights and focused greater attention on community (instead of just individual) forest rights.
In 2012-13, as part of an agenda to strengthen their support base in central India in advance of the current elections, Congress initiated a convergence program to link individual FRA beneficiaries to a range of other state-funded benefits. These include access to subsidised cement/brick (pukka) housing, the provision of 50 extra days of guaranteed employment to adivasi households (under the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme – MGREGS) and the promotion of land development on FRA parcels through schemes like the National Bamboo Mission and National Horticulture Mission.
Although data on the spread of these benefits indicates a clear bias towards FRA villages situated in core LWE areas, this strategy has attracted significant political support from existing and potential FRA beneficiaries who stand to gain significantly from these interlinked benefits. Reflecting this, broader adivasi, land and mining agendas have played an important part in recent election campaigns in Koraput. Congress has brought high stature leaders like Mr Rahul Gandhi to focus on the party’s adivasi agendas by highlighting its understanding of adivasi -forest relationships and emphasising the achievements of the FRA and MNREGS. The BJD has made similar efforts and since January 2014, Chief Minister-Naveen Patnaik has visited the region twice vouching for its local candidate (Mr Jhina Hikaka) and emphasising the party’s support for schemes like Re. 1 Rice (where below poverty line families can buy rice for 1 rupee/kg), homestead land distribution, old age/widow pensions, rural electrification and the improvement of village roads; all of which are likely to benefit adivasi households. Other pre-election announcements have included promises of increased rights over local environmental resources for adivasis and a tough stand against LWE in the area.
At the heart of current election campaigns in Koraput lies a competition to take credit for the welfare, environmental, employment and resource-related schemes currently available to adivasis. Yet a brief look at regional and national party manifestos indicates a rather more confused perspective and forest rights activists have questioned the commitment of the major political parties to the FRA, generating fears about what will happen, post elections, to this significant Act.
Dr Sarah Jewitt is an Associate Professor in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham. She has expertise in gender, rural development, sustainable agriculture, food security, rural household energy, indigenous knowledge systems, forest management and common property resources. She has been undertaking research in South Asia since 1989 and has undertaken micro-scale ethnographic fieldwork on local agricultural and forest management systems in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. Her current research interests are focused on the gendered nature of household energy, cookstove and sanitation choices and the implications of these choices for health, food and economic security.
Kamla Khanal is a research student at the University of Nottingham researching on the status of women forest land owners of India by exploring gender related concerns that affect men and women in tribal forest villages of Orissa, India.