In spite of the law recognizing traditional forest dwellers’ rights to own land, 63% of districts in the state of Maharashtra have zero compliance. However, Gadchiroli district is the only exception.
The Forest Rights Act, 2006 recognizes forest dwellers’ rights to own and govern forest land in their possession. The thrust of the Act is to ensure local and self-governance of the forest rights by the community. With the forest being an invaluable resource, procuring land titles has been met with reluctance by government officials thereby making the implementation of the law slow or uncertain. Despite hurdles such as claim process delays, Gadchiroli district is a shining example with 66% of the title claims already processed.
Community Forest Rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2006
The Forest Rights Act, 2006 (The Act/FRA) was legislated by the Parliament of India to recognize the rights of traditional forest dwellers and Scheduled Tribes to forest land and resources. These rights, among others, included ownership and protection of land already in possession of the forest dwellers prior to December 13, 2005. The aim of the Act was to promote self-governance of forests and forest resources by local and forest dwelling communities. During our field study, we found many success stories in areas where there was evidence of effective implementation of the Act and direct community benefits. However, it was clear that these communities were still riding the learning curve in terms of exercising these rights in conducting business and earning their livelihood. Overall, the implementation of the Act had been poor due to various issues such as the limited admissibility of documents as evidence and claim process delays. However, we did find one district in Maharashtra to be a shining example, with 66% of community forest right claims having been processed. The take-away in the successful implementation of FRA in Gadchiroli district was the joint effort between the community and government officials. This was a model that could be replicated elsewhere. However, the reluctance of the Forest Department and government officials to follow this model and process claims in other states made the effective implementation of the FRA slow or uncertain across the country.
The Forest Rights Act, 2006
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, was a historic piece of legislation that restored the rights of traditional forest dwellers to access, manage and govern forest lands and resources within village boundaries. These lands had been controlled by the forest department since the colonial era. Since 2006, under the law, traditional forest dwellers and STs could claim either individual or community forest rights (CFRs), thus taking ownership of the process of protecting and conserving forests in their areas. They could also gather and sell minor forest produce, such as tendu leaves (used to make traditional Indian cigarettes called bidis) or bamboo, which it had been illegal to do before the law was enacted. These rights over forest resources, therefore, allowed for positive livelihood outcomes and, in effect, also provided for the evolution of a livelihood-sensitive but ecologically sustainable system of local self-governance among forest dwelling communities.
Colonial era laws that had persisted through the post-independence period in India had denied forest dwellers rights to state forests until the enforcement of the Act. Under the British colonial regime, large pieces of these forested areas were brought under the legally classified category of “forest land” to serve as a direct source of timber or for the development of timber plantations. The customary rights of people living on or off the lands, now called forests, were first overridden by the British and subsequently remained inadequately recognized in the 60 years after Indian independence. Thus, traditional forest dwellers were treated as encroachers and evicted from forest lands, resulting in mass protests that eventually led to the passage of the Forest Rights Bill, 2005. Demands for regularization of rights based on land use and the use of village elder testimonies as proof of occupation raised the tenurial security issue. This presented a larger philosophical argument in favor of policy changes to the pre-independence classification of forest land, which had criminalized tribal and other forest dependent communities. The movement eventually gained momentum, leading to the passage of the FRA in Parliament in December 2006.
The Act was met with opposition from wildlife conservationists and environmentalists. Organizations such as Vanashakti, a group based in Mumbai, ran a highly professional electronic media campaign, the first of its kind in India’s policy making history. Influential conservation groups such as Wildlife Protection Society of India, the Bombay Natural History Society and the Center for Environmental Law labeled the Act as a “land distribution program”. These organizations raised concerns that the formal recognition of land rights would lead to encroachment of forests and have serious impacts on “protected areas” such as tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries and on the conservation of species. The campaign also raised concerns about the fate of endangered species of flora and fauna in the forest areas. The group criticized the Forest Rights Act as having the potential to cause floods and droughts and contribute to global warming. They also viewed it as an effort to keep “tribals in the forest” instead of assisting their “development” by facilitating their assimilation into mainstream society.
Electronic media campaign
Maharashtra- the paragon of FRA
In Maharashtra, the Adivasi (tribal) groups played an important role in the enactment of the Act and hence pushed for its rapid implementation. Maharashtra recorded the highest percent of CFRs in the country with 15%◦ of potential achieved (see Exhibit 1). Apart from a strong grassroots movement, a periodic push from proactive individuals within government agencies at all levels, including district collectors, secretaries of the Tribal Department and the Governor’s office, ensured the implementation of the Act. However, within Maharashtra, implementation was uneven, due to several factors: centralized training programs were held at district headquarters with the result that there were limited attendees; claimants had difficulty providing the “recognized” evidence insisted upon by implementing officers; filing of claims was limited to areas where active advocacy groups were present; and there was limited or total lack of awareness about the Act in many areas, among others.
A district-wise analysis of Maharashtra provided a very skewed picture of CFR implementation. Out of the 33 districts in the state, 30 districts had a mere 0-33% compliance rate for processing CFRs claims (see Exhibit 2). However, one district, Gadchiroli, had an implementation rate as high as over 66%. What was the explanation for this? One possible reason was that a strong campaign in Gadchiroli district aimed at the mass filing of CFR claims resulted in joint action. A combination of proactive advocacy groups, grassroots movements and sensitive district collectors led the effort to generate awareness about the FRA. By August 2009, Mendha-Lekha and Marda became the first villages in the country to have their CFR rights recognized. Training programs at all levels, establishing a format for CFR claims, and streamlining of documents supporting CFR claims led to better monitoring and implementation of the Act. In other districts of the state, implementation continued to be poor due to a lack of district-level initiatives.
Local and Self-Governance
The Act empowered the Gram Sabha with the right and responsibility to: (a) protect wildlife, forest land and biodiversity, (b) ensure that community forest resources were used sustainably and that access to them was regulated, and (c) protect ecologically sensitive areas. In addition, Gram Sabhas in certain districts devised formal plans to harvest and safeguard forest produce. For example, Bortolla village in Kurkheda Block of Gadchiroli district implemented pheras (rounds), where a group of villagers patrolled the forest on a rotational basis to stop encroachment and poaching. In another approach to the issue, the people of Yerendi were able to successfully arrest poaching by fining neighboring villagers who were caught in the act. In another instance, the Saleh Gram Sabha disallowed the setting of forest fires, which were believed to increase the seasonal yield of tendu leaves. And, as an example of sustainable governance, Yerendi Gram Sabha devised a new source of revenue by selling unutilized dry firewood to other villages in 2017, earning INR 3,200 in one season
Independence in governance
The Gram Sabha’s Intervention in the Bamboo and Tendu Trade and Positive Livelihood Outcomes
To ensure the success and sustainability of biodiversity and forest conversation efforts, the Gram Sabha’s independence in trading and harvesting bamboo and other non-timber forest products (NTFPs) or minor forest products (MFPs) was a crucial aspect of forest rights. The Gram Sabha had the discretion to choose among institutions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for technical, business and other assistance. This freedom allowed the Gram Sabha to choose not to trade with private companies that might indiscriminately commercialize their forest rights. In Maharashtra, more than 85% of the total bamboo production was from Gadchiroli alone. A good example of the Gram Sabha’s collective bargaining and effective business management practices could be found in Gadchiroli. Prior to the implementation of the Act, a bamboo bundle would sell for INR 15 as opposed to INR 100 in 2017. The proceeds were divided between the laborers and the Gram Sabha in the ratio of 60:40. During our discussion with Ballarpur Paper Mills, the sole buyer of Gadchiroli bamboo, the company stated that the ease of doing business was greater when dealing with the Gram Sabha than the Forest Department. For example, the company paid the Forest Department INR 650 per bundle as “royalty” as opposed to INR 45 (the maximum rate) to the Gram Sabha. However, since the quantity of bamboo supplied eventually reduced due to the Gram Sabha’s effective biodiversity practices, the company began purchasing bamboo from the neighboring states of Madhya Pradesh and Assam; this was also due to competitive pricing as a result of the availability of cheap labor in those states.
Tendu leaves were a major NTFP, providing employment to at least 7,500,000 people who plucked the leaves for a daily wage. The effective implementation of FRA in the tendu trade gave communities, especially women, who were traditionally engaged in this industry the capability to earn a livelihood. The Act gave the “gatherers” the opportunity to become owners of the tendu plantations. This was important because in areas where bamboo was not present, tendu leaves were the main source of revenue for these forest communities. In fact, the seasonal income from selling NTFPs such as tendu during the dry, lean seasons of late April-May (before the arrival of the monsoon and the start of agricultural activities in June), was of utmost importance. This income created the corpus of money needed for agriculture. Without this income, these communities had little choice but to approach moneylenders or banks for loans. The April-May period was also a popular and auspicious wedding season in India, with the result that community members often resorted to taking unproductive loans to meet wedding expenses. The additional income from the tendu trade during the lean income period, as seen over the last two seasons in the Korchi block of Gadchiroli district, reduced the financial burden of performing social and cultural activities for the people of these communities.
In 2016-17, the Maha Gram Sabha negotiated wages of INR 450/goni (bag) of tendu leaves as opposed to INR 120/goni in 2014-15. Further, as the Act ensured community engagement, there was greater transparency about tendu trade practices and activities. For example, on reviewing previous tender documents, the Gram Sabha was able to confirm that the produce was partly siphoned off as the quantities mentioned in the tender documents by the Forest Department were much less than the amount of leaves plucked. It was clear that the Gram Sabha was still riding the learning curve. It had to understand the intricacies of the tendu market and the procurement and harvest patterns of other states. For example, Basheer Shah, a tendu leaf contractor, charged INR 10,000 per bag, however, the Gram Sabha received only INR 8,000. Thus, the Gram Sabha settled for a profit of 20% less than the actual market price even after circumventing contractors. Further, due to the monopolization of the trade by local politicians and the landed aristocracy, the Gram Sabha faced a major challenge in connecting with the customer, i.e., bidi companies. A better understanding of the national market and seasonal demand would possibly help to bridge this gap in the future.
CHALLENGES AND WAY FORWARD
Maharashtra was among the best performing states in the country in terms of recognizing and supporting community forest rights claims and activities in the post-recognition phase. Nevertheless, there were several issues and challenges that impeded the effective and uniform implementation of CFRs across the state. In fact, there was uneven implementation of the FRA across districts and states of the entire country. As of November 2016, Maharashtra was ahead of all the states in India, meeting 20% of its minimum potential. Data showed that if Gadchiroli district was taken out of the picture, Maharashtra’s average performance would be 10% of its minimum potential instead. On a national level, the absence of political and administrative will was a key obstacle in achieving the potential of the FRA. There were ongoing and persistent institutional challenges such as the continued low awareness about CFRs, and the lack of district-level training/meetings, dedicated staff at the state and district levels, and lack of mistrust between Gram Sabhas and the Forest Department. The Act also met with many operational challenges such as pending claims due to objections raised by the Forest Department, a high rate of rejection of CFRs and discrepancies in titles.
Better and more effective implementation was needed to strengthen the Act. Proper and periodic training of officials at the state and district level was crucial for better penetration and understanding of the Act at various levels. There was a need to streamline the claims filing process and for government officials to work in close coordination with tribal and civil advocacy groups. The government also needed to provide technical assistance to Gram Sabhas that were exercising their right to harvest and sell forest resources such as tendu leaves and bamboo. Since the Gram Sabhas were still in the process of learning from their experiences, they were often subjected to high handedness from contractors and other traders and exploited, particularly with regard to contracts that were not transparent and included hidden middlemen costs. It was vital that state officials assist the communities in putting an end to these exploitative activities.
On a positive note, new governance structures were evolving — the Gram Sabhas and other collectives that were being formed in rural and forested areas were a growing phenomenon, and they were enhancing livelihoods and creating positive ecological outcomes. The Gram Sabhas had a critical role to play in deciding on the technical and other forms of support needed to prepare management plans for forest communities. Their ideas and decisions would dictate how these transformations took place and how aspects of governance would be restructured. One idea led by Mendha Lekha GS and the collective effort of many clusters of Gram Sabhas across Gadchiroli district was to teach the youth about the achievements made in natural resource management in forest areas over the last 10 years to enable them to prepare management plans for forest resources. For this, one male and one female member from each Gram Sabha would be selected through a transparent recruitment process including a written examination.
Giving ownership over minor forest produce to the Gram Sabha was one of the most radical interventions in Scheduled Area legislation as far as livelihood and cultural issues were concerned. The administrative and political dispensations by the government had the potential to facilitate a never-before attempted socio-economic turnaround of forest-dependent communities across India’s forested regions. With the provisions of the FRA and its subsequent clauses favoring the ownership and management of natural resources by local communities, it would be interesting to see how the bottoms-up approach to governance would unfold.
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