Whose forest is it anyway? Tamil Nadu’s disastrous disregard for the Forest Rights Act

Over a decade since the Forest Rights Act was passed, the total progress made in Tamil Nadu equals to exactly zero.
Whose forest is it anyway? Tamil Nadu’s disastrous disregard for the Forest Rights Act
Whose forest is it anyway? Tamil Nadu’s disastrous disregard for the Forest Rights Act
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This is the first story in a four-part series on the Forest Rights Act (FRA).

The village of Uganiyam is not on Google maps. In fact, apart from people who live in the 1,411 square kilometre Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary and Tiger Reserve, hardly a handful know of the place. Home to about 100 families of the indigenous Oorali tribe, the nearest bus stop and rations shop are a seven-kilometre walk, and the nearest hospital 12 kilometres away.

“The forest department dug a bore well to supply water to the elephants, because of the drought. Now we also take water from that since our village bore well is hardly able to pump enough for us all,” says Raman J, 60, the village headman. A short, frail, old man, Raman was articulate about what his people need. He was also visibly worn out by years of repeating the same requests to officials.

“The only way to make our lives better is the Forest Rights Act (FRA), without that it’s hard,” says Raman. He adds, “The reason they’re not implementing is because no one cares. Nothing ever gets done properly here, we don’t understand why.” Maarai, 60, who is standing nearby adds, “If the FRA comes, we’ll get everything we need and collect what we want from our forest. Right now, if we go to get firewood or even collect gooseberry or some root vegetables, the forest department gives us trouble.”

Vasanthi, 26, a mother of three, also speaks out from the crowd that has gathered, and says, “We’ve given several interviews, lot of officers come. We tell everyone but nothing really changes here.”

Uganiyam village.

Ramar, the headman of Uganiyam village.

Vasanthi and Maarai of Uganiyam village.

For the Irulars and Kurumbars of Bokkapuram, they’d like nothing more than the 9.88 acres of land per family that they have claimed under the FRA. “People here are living under plastic sheets and damaged houses, with no money to fix them,” says M Krishnan, a member of the Betta Kurumbar tribe and a leader of the Mudumalai Palangudiyinar Sangam (Mudumalai Indigenous People’s Group). The village of Bokkapuram is on the fringes of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, with tremendous views of the Nilgiris plateau rising up just outside its village borders. “They had done surveys many years ago and it was decided by our gram sabha that all the families here will get allotted this much land to grow ragi, corn and some root vegetables. Nothing has happened, though and most of us still have to do coolie work to make ends meet.” He adds, “If we get land as promised, then we can also think of living a decent life.”

What is the Forest Rights Act?

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act was passed on December 18, 2006. The act was a 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.  

“The tribal people are the only community in the country who actually knew what freedom was all about because they lived it,” says CR Bijoy, a long-time campaigner for indigenous people’s rights. Coimbatore-based Bijoy and the Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD), a national collective he’s part of, were instrumental in advocating for, framing and bringing about the FRA. Sixty-year-old Bijoy is an inimitable expert on the FRA, mostly because he was one of the people involved in the process that led to the framing of the law. He adds, “The rest, the non-tribal were either enslavers or enslaved, so they don’t know what it means. Freedom.”

The FRA and its legal predecessor, the Panchayats (Extensions to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 are distinct and hold a peculiar position in Indian law. As Bijoy says, “These are the first governance laws based on participatory democracy, not just through representatives but by people themselves. If you look at the legal history of India, essentially what we had was a colonial administration where a subjugated land and people had to be governed. In the revenue, forest and other departments, this whole attitude, culture, continues.” The FRA was a decisive step against this colonial mind set.

Inside the Sathyamangalam Tiger reserve, and a tree house built to safe guard against elephants who pillage the fields.

In terms of sheer scale, the number of people and the amount of land area that the FRA would affect is enormous. According to a 2009 Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) report, there are about 100 million people living on land classified as ‘forests’. The report also states that 400 million people depend on forests for their sustenance. That’s about a third of the country’s population.

In terms of land, the forest department is estimated to have control of over 70.17 million hectares of land, that’s about a quarter of India’s entire land area. The FRA is assumed to be applicable to about 40 million hectares of this land. More than 170,000 villages will be falling under the purview of the FRA.

In short, if implemented at its full scale, it would be the largest land reform instituted by any government in the world.  

As K Jadayappan, 27, a man from the Oorali tribe, whose village Sujilikarai is inside the Sathyamangalam reserve says, “Once the FRA is implemented, many things will change. It will be good for grazing, collecting forest produce, also many of our traditional temples and burial grounds are inside the forest, so we can access them all without fear of being penalized.” He adds, “We’re the ones who have been here forever. So if this law comes into action, things could go back to as they were a long time back.”

Image: Jadayappan and Krishnamoorthy, from Sujilikarai village inside the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve. Both men belong to the Oorali tribe.
Audio: Jadayappan.

How does it work?

A 15-page document, the FRA’s basic purpose is to recognise the rights of forest dwellers and make conservation more accountable. As Bijoy says, “The essential framework of the law is provided by the tribals themselves.”  

Colonial forest laws that existed earlier were essentially framed to facilitate commercial extraction of timber and other forest resources. These forest laws were designed to remove the indigenous people and other forest dwellers, millions of whom were suddenly seen as encroachers.

Up until the FRA was implemented, regardless of how ancient your connection to your place of habitation goes, if it happens to be a forest or near a forest, then you will enjoy no claims or rights over that land. In terms of forest management too, all decisions are centralised, with little regards to local, indigenous knowledge systems. Since the forest regions span a huge expanse in India, this of course affects millions of Indians.

When the FRA was notified, the hope was to strengthen local self-governance and provide sustainable livelihoods for people. Forest dwellers can now sustainably use the resources their forest provides, as they have done so historically. Also, for the first time in India, the FRA provided a mechanism by which people can be involved in thinking, formulating and practising conservation and management of natural resources and the forest. They also have a say on what kind of development will take place in their regions and if the forests were to be cleared out for industrial projects, it can be done so only with their consent. The Dongria Kondh people of Niyamgiri, Odisha and their victory in stalling mining projects in their region, are a case in point.

The FRA was also seen as a legislation that will tackle the threat of Left Wing Extremism (LWE). 

Regions with Maoists presence in India are also inevitably forests or tribal regions. “The FRA is seen as an effective government agenda which can push Maoist activities out,” says Sreetama Guptbhaya, program co-ordinator with Oxfam India, who has worked closely with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) with regards to the FRA and its implementation over the last decade. “Government reports have acknowledged that wherever people got their FRA rights, Maoist activities saw a drop. This is also one reason why Maharashtra, Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have been more active in FRA implementation than the rest of the states.”

While only three per cent of the minimum potential for Community Forest Rights has been achieved, it is still the largest land tenure rights recognition exercise in the world with over 27 lakh acres of land being allotted under the CFR provision across India. A minimum 7.8 crore acres of land still remains to be allotted though. Maharashtra, Odisha, Gujarat and Kerala are among the states which have seen successful implementation of the various FRA provisions. Tamil Nadu, along with a handful of other states have made a progress that totals to exactly zero with regards to FRA implementation.

Tamil Nadu’s shameful record

According to the latest reports on FRA implementation, approximately 4.4 million claims have been filed across the country and more than 1.7 million titles have been distributed. In this, even though 21,781 claims have been filed in Tamil Nadu out of which 3,723 titles are ready for distribution, not a single land title deed has been issued so far.

The state’s forested area is a little more than 56 lakh acres and it is estimated that an area of 19 lakh acres can fall under the provision of community forest rights. A total population of 49 lakh people—the same as the entire population of Chennai—will be eligible for acquiring rights through the FRA in Tamil Nadu.

Ignorance of the law, lack of a strong political clout at the state level among adivasis and other forest dwellers as well as a bureaucracy that feels the law challenges them seem to be key reasons to why the FRA is at a standstill in the state.

“In Tamil Nadu, the Forest Departments holds quite a tight leash and no CFR rights have been recognized so far,” says Sharachchandra Lele, Senior Fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). “The law taking power away from them is a major threat to the forest department.”

The series of legal obstacles to the FRA filed by parties with vested interests in the non-application of the law such as retired forest officers’ groups and large-scale land owners were finally cleared with the Madras High Court clearing the purported stay order on the FRA in February 2016. More than a year since, there is little movement on the ground with regards to issuance of land titles. Various stakeholders such as the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department, the revenue department and the forest department either keep passing the buck or assure that implementation is around the corner. Non-state actors such as NGOs as well as the claimants themselves are also unclear about when the provisions of the FRA will be actually implemented.

 “Tamil Nadu is in an unusual situation compared to rest of country,” says Shomona Khanna, who practices in the Supreme Court and is familiar with the intricacies of the FRA. “A stay order in the Madras High Court issued in 2008 was vacated only last year. The order just says that before giving pattas take the court’s permission. Unfortunately, that was taken by implementing authorities as a stay on implementation per say.”

Ajit Menon, Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) who has observed FRA’s workings closely in the Nilgiris district says, “The implementation of the FRA in Tamil Nadu has been pretty much of a disaster because of legal challenges mostly by conservationists.” He adds, “What we have observed is that the FRA has been an instrument used by many actors to claim rights to forest land and also to suggest others might not have the same types of claims because they have not been in Gudalur (A sub-district in the Nilgiris) long enough. It is therefore a political instrument and also one that is mapping out identity and belonging claims.” 

Amidst all this, over the decade or so since the FRA was notified, a certain reaffirmation of the forest-dependant people’s rights seems to have taken place on the ground. “Even though the law is not implemented, the officials are a little scared now, they are willing to compromise,” says K Jadayappan of Sujilikarai. He adds “We do have a good card to play in that way.”

We take a closer look at this culture of compromise in the second part of this series.

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

All images by Sibi Arasu.

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