In Poll-Bound Madhya Pradesh, A Studied Denial Of Legal Rights To Adivasis Over Traditional Forests & Homes

15 Nov 2023 13 min read  Share

Fifteen years after the Forests Rights Act freed 250 million Indians—the majority scheduled tribes—living in and living off forest land from the label of encroachers, the state with India’s largest number and proportion of Adivasis has rejected more legal claims for land and resources under the law than any other. As Madhya Pradesh prepares for state elections on 17 November 2023, we explain how the state has instead evicted its most disadvantaged tribal communities for infrastructure and wildlife conservation projects.

A member of the Baiga community in Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh. Sharing its land with a blackbuck sanctuary, Baiga Chak is home to the Baigas, classified as a particularly vulnerable tribal group. In 2015, seven gram sabhas received the first habitat rights title in the country. Eight years later, the community is unclear of their significance and true potential. Apart from granting land rights, they are meant to offer protection to livelihoods and social, economic, cultural and religious matters, although those details are still not clear/ ASAVARI SHARMA

Bangalore: On 17 November 2023, when elections are held to the Madhya Pradesh (MP) assembly, among its most influential voters will be its most disadvantaged—scheduled tribes or Adivasis, who occupy the bottom-most run of the state’s socio-economic ladder, whether by literacy or public health.

The status of Adivasis, or “original inhabitants” in Hindi, is made clear by development indicators. 

For instance, only about half of MP’s Adivasis are literate, 20 percentage points below the state average, according to Census 2011, the latest available data. 

The life expectancy for MP Adivasi men is 57.4 years (69.5 for all Indian men) and 60.1 years for women (72.2 for all Indian women), the lowest among India’s nine largest and poorest states. 69.6 Up to 86% of severely malnourished children in MP are Adivasi.  

MP has 46 scheduled tribes and three “particularly vulnerable tribal groups”, a  sub-category of Adivasis considered vulnerable and endangered, reflected in their declining or stagnant population growth rate and low development indicators.

In no other state do Adivasis have the political influence that they do in MP, India’s second-largest state by area and fifth largest by population. More than 15 million or a fifth of MP’s 72 million people are Adivasis or indigenous. 

Adivasis have political influence over more than a third or 37% of assembly constituencies: 47 of 230 or a fifth of constituencies are reserved for scheduled tribes, and in 40 more they constitute a deciding section of the voters. 

As they vote, one of the prime Adivasi concerns is likely to be MP’s poor record in the implementation of a 17-year-old law meant to address their disadvantaged status.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 or the Forest Rights Act (FRA), as it is popularly known, outlines the procedure for Adivasis, either as individuals or as communities, to obtain formal titles for lands and resources they have historically occupied. 

What The Govt Has Not Done

Instead of implementing the FRA, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which has governed MP since 2003, has:

–recognised no more than a tenth of the area for which what are called community forests rights (CFRs) could be granted, causing economic hardship and revenue losses 

–not granted rights to gram sabhas or village councils to conserve or manage forests, as the FRA demands

–not freed more than 900 ‘forest villages’ from the administrative control of the forest department by converting them  to regular ‘revenue villages’ with far more freedoms

–evicted Adivasis (here, here and here) for development and even wildlife conservation and tourism projects, often from areas where they have lived for generations

The reluctance to implement the FRA has led to the MP government of chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan rejecting (here and here) more FRA applications than any other state in India. 

A push for a flawed online system, which has rejected three of four forest rights claims, has disrupted a simple process meant to empower gram sabhas, who were meant to give such approvals. 

Territorial disputes between the forest and revenue departments have slowed implementation, especially for marginalised groups, such as women and “other traditional forest dwellers”—people living in and off forests but not categorised as scheduled tribes. 

A majority of such claims by non scheduled tribes remain pending or have been rejected. As in many states,  they are often misinformed about their eligibility under the FRA. Women, despite being recognised as equal owners of their homesteads and farmland under the Act, are frequently excluded as titleholders and are instead listed as dependents.

Even though MP’s main parties, the BJP and the Congress, court the Adivasi vote, there has been little effort to improve the implementation of the FRA, which affects Adivasi lives so significantly. 

Why The FRA Is Important

With growing evidence (here, here, here and here) that Indian economic growth is not producing enough jobs for those who live off the land, Article 14 reported in October 2023 how the FRA could address this insecurity significantly: by providing legal rights to more than 250 million, including 90 million Adivasis, in about 170,000 villages who depend on forests spread over 85.6 million acres—the size of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar combined—while keeping intact India’s fast-disappearing forests.

The FRA is meant to reverse “historical injustice” of the colonial era (here and here), which saw forest-dwelling communities as encroachers on the land they used and lived on. 

Adivasi women make their way back from a forest to their village in Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh. Forest produce, such as fuel wood, mahua flowers, tendu leaves and bamboo are an integral part of Adivasi livelihood. Community forest rights help secure access to forest produce and free communities from daily harassment by officials./ ASAVARI SHARMA

Forest dwellers who have lived in and depended on any type of forest land on or before 13 December 2005, can claim individual or community forest rights to protect, regenerate or manage forests, to live in or on which to grow food for themselves, graze cattle, fish, own and harvest “minor forest products” traditionally collected within or outside village boundaries for “sustainable use”. 

As of June 2023, governments had granted 2.2 million individuals and more than 100,000 communities legal titles for rights over more than 178 lakh acres of land or about the size of Punjab and Manipur combined.

The Adivasi Factor in 2023 Elections

The Congress appointed Kantilal Bhuria, a prominent Adivasi leader, to lead the election campaign committee in the state. The Bharatiya Janata Party launched a series of yatras (journeys) named after Durgavati, the queen regent of the 16-century Adivasi kingdom of Gondwana. The party's Adivasi leaders include forest minister Kunwar Vijay Shah, Rajya Sabha members of Parliament (MPs) Sumer Singh Solanki and Sampatiya Uike and Lok Sabha MP Himadri Singh.

More than a quarter century after the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996, MP finally notified the rules to give effect to the Act in 2022. The Act, which aims to safeguard the interests of tribal communities by ensuring self-governance, applies to 89 tribal-dominated blocks of 20 MP districts. 

“This clearly comes with an intention to appeal to the Adivasi community,” said Geetanjoy Sahu, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Mumbai. “However, when it comes to forest rights, there is no such intention.” 

“Historically and now, the state has never been sympathetic to the FRA, which addresses the most critical issues Adivasis face today—tenurial and livelihood security,” said Sahu. “Unlike other states in the central Indian region, there have been no efforts by governments here to create an enabling environment for the implementation of the Act.” 

Maharashtra led the way in recognising community forest resource rights and then issued multiple orders to operationalise the management of such areas by gram sabhas, said Sahu. Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand both had a clear political mandate to accelerate the recognition of rights.

Half Of All Individual Claims Rejected

The most significant issue plaguing FRA implementation in MP is the rejection of forest rights: 54% of individual claims and 36% of community claims face rejection or remain pending. 

MP had the highest rate of rejections for community claims and the second highest for individual claims nationwide, according to a 2018 study. Some attribute these high rejection rates to a lack of political and administrative will. 

"There has been a consistent effort to minimise the quantity and quality of rights being recognised under the Forest Rights Act in Madhya Pradesh,” said Ran Singh Parmar, secretary of the Mahatma Gandhi Seva Ashram, a nonprofit. “Both individual and community claims have been rejected in high numbers.” 

“When individual claims are approved, there is almost always a reduction in the area recognised from what was applied for, without any consideration of actual eligibility,” said Parmar. “Titles are not handed over to claimants immediately after approval but rather 'distributed' like schemes by VIPs at convenient political forums or before elections."

An Adivasi woman dries corn outside her house in Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh. Denied individual forest rights because the state government has left the forest rights law largely unimplemented, Adivasis like her lack secure ownership over their homes and fields./ ASAVARI SHARMA 

Research shows that the area for which community forest right titles have been granted in MP is no more than 10% of the potential area that could be recognised. 

This 10% represents only rights to develop or access forest resources, not to manage and conserve rights of gram sabhas and are limited to administrative boundaries and forest compartments not traditional boundaries, as the FRA allows. 

A Flawed Digital Solution To Lack Of Due Process

In 2019, widespread protests erupted after the Supreme Court ordered that 350,000 MP forest-dwelling households whose rights had been rejected be evicted. The order was put on hold after the ministry of tribal affairs said due process had not been followed for rejection. 

When the Court instructed states to review rejections, MP responded with a website, MP Van Mitra or MP friend of the forest, that supposedly allowed claimants to apply for a review of rejected claims.

This ‘solution’ disrupts the claim filing process and contradicts the spirit of the FRA. The Act empowers an institution based in gram sabhas, a forest rights committee (FRC), to submit and verify claims. Physical submission of such claims through FRC to a sub-divisional committee, as the law requires, is now nearly impossible. 

Claimants in MP now rely on kiosk operators, which means they often pay bribes; claims are riddled with errors. Panchayat functionaries, who have historically been complicit in claim rejections, control login credentials. 

Although physical applications were briefly accepted following intense lobbying, the system has reverted to an entirely online process. Consequently, the latest union tribal affairs ministry data from June 2023  reveals limited progress since the 2019 Supreme Court order.

Only 2,399 individual claims and 139 community claims have been filed over four years: only 40,296 individual and 14 community titles for previously filed claims were received.

The Challenge Of 'Orange Areas’

Advocate Anil Garg has for decades studied the issue of “orange areas”, land where jurisdiction is disputed between the forest and revenue departments. 

Orange Areas include community land and individual farmland inhabited or cultivated by marginalised communities, leased to them in the 1970s by the state government, which intended to convert the leases into land titles by 1975. 

That did not happen because the forest and revenue departments disagreed over who owned these lands. Now, households are viewed as encroachers by both departments and frequently fined. 

“Until this conflict is resolved, FRA applicants will continue to face rejections,” said Garg. “As the FRA only applies to forest land, this ambiguity may result in the non-recognition of numerous rights.” 

A 2018 report revealed that more than 70% of MP districts and more than 50% of its villages grapple with orange-area issues.

Conservation Driven Criminalisation 

A significant factor affecting rights recognition in MP is the influence of wildlife conservationists and the forest bureaucracy, particularly concerning protected areas, such as wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, and tiger reserves. 

MP has India’s largest forest area, more than 95,000 sq km, with 12 national parks and 24 wildlife sanctuaries. The notification and expansion of these protected areas often occurs without due process

The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 provides for the settlement of rights, and the FRA explicitly states its applicability to all categories of forest land. Lawyer Swapnil Shukla from the Zenith Society for Socio-Legal Empowerment, an advocacy group, argued that settlement of rights under the FRA must precede the declaration of any “no-go zones”. 

“Yet protected areas continue to expand with the intention of maintaining inviolate areas,” said Shukla. “Over the decades, this has led to numerous forest-dwelling communities being violently evicted from their homes without proper compensation, rehabilitation, or resettlement. Even where rehabilitation has been offered, it has been deeply flawed. 

The allocated land is unsuitable for agriculture, communities have been displaced and resettled in different areas, and access to basic facilities has been compromised, said Shukla. 

“Cash compensations have often been insufficient, with significant sums lost to corruption,” said Shukla. “Adivasis, ill-equipped to manage cash, have been exploited and left with nothing. These evictions persist, falsely termed as voluntary."

These developments have widespread implications for the lives and livelihoods of MP’s Adivasis and other forest-dependent communities in the state. A 2023 report revealed the criminalisation of forest-based livelihoods and large-scale displacements resulting from the demarcation of protected areas in MP. 

Access to forests remains under the control of the forest department, and recognition of forest rights is limited to the buffer zones of protected areas, with the collection of forest produce often penalised.

Alienation Impacts Communities & Forests

The criminalisation of their traditional activities and alienation from the land situation has disrupted the longstanding relationship between Adivasis and forests, said experts. 

Venkat Ramanujam, PhD, a postdoctoral associate with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, a think tank said the younger generation was less likely to seek fuel wood, fodder, wild fruit or vegetable in forests.  

“This has led to a reduced food basket, increased reliance on markets, dependence on non-forest-based livelihood sources, limited employment opportunities, and, most significantly, migration for hazardous employment sources,” said Ramanujam. “The impact on forests is also evident, with local communities, who have a vested interest in sustainable forest use, marginalised.” 

The result, he said, had been vegetation changes driven by state-led timber extraction and monoculture plantations, leading to infestations of invasive species, such as lantana, “contributing to larger and more devastating forest fires”.

Denying community forest resource rights deprives forest communities of valuable income from non-timber forest produce, such as harra (a fruit used for medicinal and tanning properties), tendu leaves used to wrap bidis, sal seeds, and gum. The sale of these products are controlled by the MP State Minor Forest Produce (Trading and Development) Co-op Federation Ltd, which reported a Rs-3,000-core profit from tendu leaves alone between 2008 and 2020. 

In contrast, neighbouring Maharashtra's gram sabhas manage the tendu economy, yielding substantial community revenue.

The Legacy Of Forest Villages

A key provision of the FRA is the conversion of officially designated “forest villages” into “revenue villages”. 

Forest Villages trace their origins back to when the British established small settlements of people in remote forest areas as labour colonies, who got small plots of land in exchange for their work to trees and log timber. 

Even after independence, they remained outside the jurisdiction of any village or district administration, entirely reliant on forest department permissions for basic services and infrastructure. MP has 925 forest villages. Since independence, none has been converted to a revenue village.

Children waiting for school to start in a forest village in Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh. Forest Villages are under the administrative control of the forest department and rely on its permissions for all basic infrastructure and welfare services, such as electricity, water, schools, healthcare, subsidised food and jobs-for-work programmes./ ASAVARI SHARMA 

In April 2022, the MP government declared that forest villages would be converted to revenue villages, but did not make clear how this might be done. The FRA says that rights must be settled before such conversion.

“All boundaries of cultivation and habitation in almost all forest villages are prominently visible in the forest department maps,” said Ramanujam. “First individual rights over cultivated and residential land based on these boundaries must be recognised, followed by community rights over the adjoining forest that has been used by communities."

Habitat Rights For The Most Vulnerable Groups

The FRA's recognition, through an amendment in 2012, of habitat rights for “particularly vulnerable tribal groups” provides for protections for the most marginalised among Adivasis. These rights belong to the entire community, and apart from granting land rights are meant to offer protection to livelihoods and social, economic, cultural and religious matters. 

MP has three such groups called the Baigas, Sahariyas and Bharias with a combined population of more than half a million.

Some progress is evident. In 2015, an area called Baiga Chak in Dindori district witnessed the first recognition of habitat rights for seven gram sabhas. In 2022, 12 Bharia gram sabhas received titles to habitat rights. These were made possible by support from NGOs and activists.

The process is complex, requiring the support of the district administration, because areas involved are large, have multiple uses, belong to a clan or community and are not limited to the administrative boundary of a village, thus beyond the jurisdiction of any one gram sabha

Awareness of what habitat rights are and how they can be claimed is low, and guidelines drafted in 2020 by an expert committee appointed by the union tribal affairs ministry are still not public. 

(Asavari Raj Sharma is a PhD research scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, She is interested in issues of forest governance and equity in conservation.)

Get exclusive access to new databases, expert analyses, weekly newsletters, book excerpts and new ideas on democracy, law and society in India. Subscribe to Article 14.