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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
Full case can be viewed on the University of Michigan gala website