While the FRA is not implemented at all across Tamil Nadu, the fact that the law exists seems to offer solace to the adivasis and other forest dwellers.

Tamil Nadu govt turns a blind eye to Forest Rights Act but the law is empowering forest-dwellersA view of Kattimattam village near Gudalur, Tamil Nadu.
Delve Environment Thursday, June 08, 2017 - 08:35

This is the second story in a four-part series on the Forest Rights Act (FRA). Read part one here.

“Around six years ago, the forest department built a watch tower here, right above my house,” says A Periannan, 60, a resident of Kattimattam. Lean and tall, the life of hard labour that has shaped him is all too apparent. The slight drop of his right foot as he walks is also testimony to this. The watch tower Periannan is talking about was an initiative by the forest department to keep track of elephant movement here.

Kattimattam, located about 20 kilometres from the town of Gudalur in the Nilgiris district, is deep within forest country, surrounded by tea estates on one side and the montane rain forests on the other. About 50 families of varying origins, tea plantation workers from the Tamil Nadu plains and Sri Lanka, Malayalis from across the state border and families of adivasis such as the Paniyars and Kurumbars all call Kattimattam home. Periannan adds, “We told them, don’t build here, that a lot of people live here. We also told them that because there is the FRA, they need our permission to build. It became a big problem, they tried putting a false case on us, saying we had the department officials captured and all that. Finally, in the end, the district forest officer (DFO) agreed to not build without our consent. We managed to stop their violation.”

A view of Kattimattam village.

Listen to Periannan explain how forest-dwellers are secure because of the FRA, and yet it has not been fully implemented.

Image: Periannan, a resident of Kattimattam village

Across the ghats, about 200 kilometres away at the village of Kurumboor in Guthiyalathur panchayat, inside the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve (STR), Subramani R, a resident of the village was fishing in the nearby Mamarathu Pallam stream a few days ago. A forest guard snatched his net away saying this is a protected area and fishing was not permitted inside, despite the stream being just a few paces away from his village.

“When Subramani told us about this, we brought the FRA into play. We filed a complaint at the local police station saying it’s a traditional occupation of the people here and under the FRA it’s an act of violation by the forest guard to take away his net,” says K Ramasamy, the local convenor of the Tamil Nadu Pazhangudi Makkal Sangam (TNPMS - Tamil Nadu Indigenous People’s Group). He adds, “The police asked the forest guard to come in and explain himself. He didn’t have an explanation for his brash use of authority and had no choice but to return the net to Subramani immediately.”

Listen to a Kattunayakar man explain how they stand the risk of getting arrested for using the resources of the forest. Their name literally meaning the 'Kings of the jungle', the Kattunayakar are also a particularly vulnerable tribal group who live in the forest regions of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Examples like this are plenty across the state’s forest regions. Even though the FRA is not implemented, in practice, it seems to have had a change in how things work in and around the state’s forests. 

Transferring governance to the people

A large number of the 49-lakh people who are eligible for rights under the FRA in the state of Tamil Nadu are still unaware of it. Even the several officials from various government departments that are responsible for implementing the law are either unaware, or have not fully understood the law’s provisions. Despite this, in communities that are aware of the law, and where there are officials who see the benefits of the FRA, the law is being applied at least in practice, if not on paper.

“Even though official recognizing of titles has not happened on paper, it has actually happened, at least in Gudalur,” says Stan Thekaekara, co-founder of Accord, an NGO that works for the betterment of the adivasi people in Gudalur. Accord and its affiliated body the AMS have been instrumental in spreading awareness about the FRA and have also assisted in initiating adivasi gram sabhas for the implementation of the law in Gudalur over the last decade. He adds, “In the last few years, adivasis are able to collect honey and other forest produce in broad daylight without any interference. This would not have been possible earlier. I’m not defending the non-implementation. At the same time, I’m a firm believer that it’s not just on paper but also people’s ability to assess their rights that is important.”


A Kattunayakar tribesmen is seen perched on top of the tree to cut firewood, and a house in Kattimattam village

MS Selvaraj of the Vivasayigal Thozhilalargal Munnetra Sangam (Farmers and Workers Progressive Front), also based in Gudalur, agrees. He says, “What’s happened is that wherever there’s a movement, people have understood that there’s an act and therefore we can’t be kicked out from here. The Kattimattam incident is an example of this.” Selvaraj’s VTMS has been at the forefront of the struggle for FRA. They have also assisted in formulating gram sabhas and forest rights committees in 59 villages, which declared themselves as being under the purview of the FRA.  He adds, “On a case by case basis, the FRA is useful. People are also building houses, getting power connections, water supply and anganwadis. For all of this to come, it is helpful. But even though this is there, now and then the forest department says, ‘don’t develop here, this is our land’. So, the problems are still there.”

The road that cuts across the Mudhumalai Tiger reserve.

Across the state, there are an ever-increasing number of examples where there is tacit agreement to allow for certain provisions of the FRA, while denying others. While on the one hand there is lethargy from government departments to carry out their task in implementing the law, there is also a recognizable shift in how forest dwellers and their requests are treated, especially in districts such as the Nilgiris, where awareness about the FRA is high. As CR Bijoy of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD) says, “A law is only a law. How it manifests in society doesn’t depend on the law or the court, it depends on social and political structures. The law becomes a political instrument to assert and use. In the case of the FRA, it’s basically a transfer of governance. Unless and until everyone sees it as this, it will never go to a reasonable place.”  

The official perspective

According to records with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), a total of 3,723 Individual Forest Rights (IFR) Titles are ready and waiting to be distributed in Tamil Nadu for a few years now, no CRF claims has been approved. This is out of a total of 21,781 claims that have been filed, 18,420 of these are IFR claims and the remaining 3,361 are for Community Forest Resource (CFR) claims.  

Officials in the forest department say they are not to blame for this lack of implementation. “The main difficulty in Tamil Nadu is that the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department, which is the nodal agency for FRA implementation, is sorely in need of more manpower,” says Srinivas Reddy, Field Director of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in the Nilgiris. Reddy belongs to the 1991 batch of the Indian Forest Services and has extensive knowledge, and experience with the department and the forests of the Nilgiris. He adds, “There’s no antagonism against the act from the forest department. In most cases we’re helping out because the district administration doesn’t know about the act. We are only cautious that people don’t create false records. In many places, it’s been found through satellite imagery that people have taken extra land and are claiming that they have control of their land. So, we want to prevent these things from happening.”

Asked about this, Ponraman, in-charge of the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department in the Nilgiris says, “We should implement within one or two months. Shortage of staff is a problem but otherwise all documents are ready and we’re working with the resources we have.”

Kattunayakars of Chambakolli village

Given that confusion and lethargy seems to be the rules of the day, NGOs and activists working towards complete implementation of the FRA have found loopholes to deal with this state of affairs. “Once claims are sent from the gram sabha to the sub-divisional level committee, we’re planning to file a petition to the high court stating that they are delaying implementation, which is bound to be the case.  So, till the SDLC acts on this, we’re going to try and get a stay order, asking for the officials to leave things be, until either the SDLC reviews the claims or the court passes a verdict," says Mohan Kumar, a member of the TNPMS in Sathyamangalam

While this compromise culture is proving effective in the short term, in the long run, this limbo is only bound to affect the adivasis and forest dwellers adversely. As Manju, a 35-year-old Kattunayakar man from Chambakolli village near the Mudhumalai Tiger Reserve says, “It’s good that things are changing, at least a little. But as long as we don’t get the land titles, there’s always a fear that we can be kicked out of our homes at any time.”

The third part of this series will look at how the forest rights act is changing ideas of conservation in India’s enormous protected areas.

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Chennai. He tweets @sibi123.

All images by Sibi Arasu.

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