Branching off the state highway that cuts through the Bandipur Tiger reserve is a single-lane road that leads to a cluster of villages which fall under the Mangala gram panchayat. Mangala is located on the northern fringes of the tiger reserve and more than 15 villages are part of this gram panchayat. Many of these are Adivasi settlements, where people belonging to the Soliga, Jenu Kuruba and Betta Kuruba tribes live.
“In my father’s generation, we were inside the forests. We were relocated 30-40 years ago to this place when they decided to make the Bandipur reserve a national park,” says Nagamma S, 49, a Soliga leader who now resides in Mangala village. “Even though we lived just outside the forests, we used to go in and collect everything from tamarind to amla (gooseberry) to medicinal herbs until 20 years ago. The forest department got stricter and we are not allowed to enter the forests at all now. I’m afraid my children and grandchildren will not know anything about the forests or our traditional ways of life.”
Empowering the indigenous
The Forest Rights Act, which was passed on December 18, 2006, is the culmination of decades of agitation by Adivasis and tribal rights groups, and years of drafting and political negotiations. The act was notified a year later and came into effect on January 1, 2008. The FRA seeks to correct “historical injustices” committed against forest dwellers in India. It is also an attempt to improve the lives and livelihood of the Adivasi people, who are among the poorest of the poor in India.
Under the law, forest dwellers or those whose life and livelihoods are dependent on forests can claim their rights under three distinct categories: the Individual Forest Rights (IFR) and Community Rights (CRs) to use and gain access to forest land and resources. They can also claim rights for Community Forest Resource (CFR), through which they can manage and govern forests within the traditional boundaries of their villages. While only a small percent of the 40 million hectares of land in India for which FRA can be claimed has been granted in the last ten years, this is still the largest land tenure rights recognition exercise in the world.
But ever since its inception, the law has been mired in controversy. The reorganisation of land rights were not looked upon favourably by many, especially those at a disadvantage if FRA rights are granted. The various state Forest Departments across India believe they stand to lose the most, since most of the land for which rights will be granted is under their control right now. India’s forest department is in control of over 70.17 million hectares of land across the country. This is about a quarter of India’s entire land area.
The Supreme Court is currently hearing a petition filed by various conservation organisations and retired forest officials who have asked for all those whose claims have been rejected under the FRA to be evicted.
The case against the FRA, which has been under process in the apex court for many years now, was heard in July only to be postponed to September 12, 2019, since many states had failed to present their FRA data.
Back in Bandipur, as part of her mandate as a leader in her community, Nagamma claims to have coordinated applications under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act or the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. In Karnataka, nearly three lakh claims have been made under the FRA, out of which 1.76 lakh claims have been rejected. The state has asked the apex court for a period of 18 months to review and verify all rejected claims.
“We collected FRA forms from as many people as we can and submitted it to the government offices immediately after the law was passed in 2008. When they did not act on it, we even submitted memorandums regarding this many times. There has been little action though and whenever we ask for reasons, they say it is because Bandipur is a ‘Project Tiger’ area,” says Nagamma. She adds, “Even though other Adivasi villages in BR Hills area, a few hundred kilometres from here have managed to get some rights, ours have always been rejected.”
Lack of awareness is the biggest roadblock
Even though no concerted survey has been conducted so far, as a leader of her community, Nagamma estimates that over 800 Adivasi families live in this gram panchayat. These families live in the settlements that are anywhere between a few hundred metres to a few kilometres away from each other. Many of the settlements are less than a stone’s throw away from the BTR’s boundary.
While leaders such as Nagamma are at least aware of the benefits of law such as the FRA, most Adivasi people in the region are completely unaware of the existence of the law. This has been the biggest roadblock in the struggle for claiming forest rights in this region. As Murli Sivaji, 35, belonging to the Betta Kuruba community and residing in the village of Karemala says, “I don’t own any land, even the house we live in, we don’t have a patta for it. We were moved from inside the forest and asked to settle here during my father’s time and we have continued to do so since. I have never really heard of any forest rights.” Sivaji is hired by local eco-tourism resorts as a guide and by the forest department as a tracker when they need his services. He is known for his intuitive knowledge of the Bandipur forests and all the wildlife that it is home to. He adds, “When the forest department need us to do something they treat us one way and the rest of the time they treat us differently. It would be good to have some land or be able to collect forest produce if possible. Already, my income is quite low and it is only when I get some work, so something like this will definitely help us.”
“Here people have no idea about the FRA and there are no strong community leaders or NGOs like in other regions who can take this law forward to the people,” says Madha C, of the Jenu Kuruba community, who lives in the village of Adinakanuve, which falls under the Mangala panchayat. Madha is an outlier among Adivasis in Karnataka, having completed his BA Sociology, the first from his community to do so. Originally hailing from the HD Kote region in Karnataka, he shifted to Bandipur after he married into a family in Adinakanuve. Sitting outside his thatched roof hut, right next to the forest boundary, Madha is well aware of the FRA and the benefits it can bring to his people, having been active in its application in his home village. A key benefit of the FRA is the economic empowerment of the Adivasi people. If granted CR or CFR rights, the people will have access to collect and sell Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP). They will also be able to cultivate on the land allotted to them and sell them in the markets without any restrictions. Another benefit of FRA is that it provides a certificate of ownership of land and housing under the IFR clause. This is still a distant dream for many of India’s Adivasi people.
Madha finds the situation in Bandipur abysmal when it comes to the FRA. He adds, “Unsurprisingly, the Social Welfare Department, whose job it is to make Adivasi people aware of the FRA is not present here at all. As things stand now, I really don’t see how anyone here can avail any rights under the FRA. A lot of mobilisation is required before any positive development happens.”
The last bastion of conservation
Officials of the Forest Department present an alternative perspective when it comes to FRA. They allege that the law is being misused in many cases and granting rights might lead to loss of protected areas and habitat for wildlife. As DK Singh, a former Karnataka Forest Department official who retired as the head of the state forest force says, “Bandipur forest area is completely free of humans and that is why the wildlife is able to thrive here. While we are not against the tribal people getting rights, we also want to make sure it is not being misused.” He adds, “Many times these communities are encouraged to get these kinds of rights only to be later misused for creating resorts or for other such purposes. We don’t want that to happen in Bandipur.” While there have been cases of illegal constructions of resorts on wildlife corridors in the buffer zones of both Bandipur and neighbouring Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu, the link between granting of forest rights leading to misuse of land in and around the forests is still tenuous and unproven.
Sanjay Gubbi, Bengaluru-based applied conservationist who has worked in the Bandipur region for more than two decades also expressed fears of rights being misused. “I believe that wherever people are able to establish that they have legitimate rights, they should definitely be given them. Having said that, I know of cases in Bandipur where tribal lands have been taken over and resorts have been built. These lands should be returned to the tribal people.” He adds, “The fear for conservationists is that big industry might find a way to set up shop and begin exploitation of the land for mining etc. I think the FRA is a great law and whenever the claims are correct, the rights should be awarded to the tribal people.”
Meanwhile, as things stand, for the Adivasi people of the Bandipur region, doles and welfare measures and seasonal jobs provided by the forest department as well as the numerous resorts and tourism ventures are their only hope. On the one hand, conservationists and forest departments are attempting to prevent the successful granting of forest rights, while on the other they are the only providers of employment for many Adivasi people. This dichotomy is only serving to add to the frustration of the Adivasi people who are forced to choose between fighting for their rights and antagonising their employers. As Sivaji says, “If we own our land we don’t need to ask anything from anyone else, we can also have something to give our children, whether something like this can really happen, I don’t know. As of now, my family and I are able to earn an income only because the forest department and tourism resorts ask us to come work for them.” He adds, “At the end of the day, for us, the forests and its animals are like family, we are not afraid of them neither are they of us. It is humans we are afraid of really. My family and my people will live here near the forests till we die, if we get shifted to any city or town, I think that will be the end of us.”
Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru. He tweets @sibi123