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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 37, August 31, 2013

Forest-dependant People, their Livelihood Challenges and Forest Rights Act: A Review

Monday 2 September 2013


by Madhusudan Bandi

Experts are yet to reach consensus on the continued poverty of the natural resource users. However, it appears that the social systems from which they arise are structured so unequally that it justifies the Marxist view of environmental problems reflecting ‘unequal distribution of resources’ eluding a lasting solution. (Sachs, 1993) Even the so-called developed States in India could not extend the spoils of growth to this section of the population, indicating their exclusion from the mainstream society and development. Such continuous deprivations push the community towards a pathetic state of poverty, more importantly, a vicious one if the state turns a blind eye towards its own citizens.

Poverty is not merely characterised by low income, but also involves exclusion from the finer elements of life. (Narayan et al., 2000) About 30 crore people live below the poverty line in India, and among them, two-thirds depend either completely or partially on forest for their livelihoods. (Khare et al., 2000) According to the World Bank (2006) estimation, 27 per cent of the Indian population depends on forest in one way or the other for livelihood. The importance of the Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFPs)/Minor Forest Produce (MFPs) for self consumption and cash income for the forest-depending communities is well established. (Prasad and Bhatnagar, 1990; Shiva, 1993; Saxena 1999; Vedeld et al., 2004; Bhattacharya and Hayat, 2004) About 70 per cent of the forest revenue in India is earned through the NTFPs (Shekhar et al., 1993) and 23 lakh people are engaged in NTFP-related employment. (Shiva and Mathur, 1996) Ironically, these Forest Dependent People (FDPs) are only primary collectors of the NTFPs and due to poor market accessibility and exploitation at the hands of middlemen, they get a very low price for the produce they collect from the forest. Such exploitation is a primary reason why the poorest of the poor in India live in the rich forests (Narain, 2009), facing food insufficiency for two to three months (71.61 per cent of them are tribals)—five per cent of them face food insufficiency for up to six months. (Radhakrishna and Ray, 2006)

Anyhow, to curb the menace of tribal exploitation by middlemen, the NTFPs were nationalised during the 1960s and 1970s through legislation. However, with the exception of a few States, the others have declared the NTFPs as state property. This in all practicality allowed the forest dwellers to collect these items from the forest, but they cannot sell these to anyone. They have to sell these only to the State authority. Not unexpectedly, some of the States have sub-let the procurement of the forest produce to industries and private traders (Singh, 1986), who in the lust for maximising their revenue started exploiting the primary collectors again by paying only 5-20 per cent of the total retail price. (GoI, 2010) Further, in recent times, there have been serious representations carried out by the civil society members to denationalise all the items in the MFPs in the interest of the livelihoods of the FDP. The Review Committee (GoI, 2010) also recommended denationalisation of all MFPs because of their significant implication on the livelihoods of the people, who have been deprived of their rightful earnings.

In this backdrop, the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (commonly referred to as the FRA)1 becomes an important platform for improving the livelihoods of the FDPs, by decreasing their vulnerability through secure land rights. There were 40 lakh tribals not possessing legal status to their lands before this Act. (Jain, 2006)

Following the secure land rights, food security would be taken care of, and simultaneously animal husbandry also can be enhanced with the expected access to fodder on the community lands (Singh et al., 2010), because the FRA also provides for right to pasture and right over water bodies.

However, on ground, the restrictions imposed by some of the States over collection of the MFPs and deliberately manipulating committee rights by limiting them only to non-forest benefits, such as infrastructure, do not tell the story in a positive light. (Mahapatra et al., 2010) Similarly, evidences coming from quite a number of States in the country suggest that they are yet to reach the envisaged objectives, basically because of the Forest Department (FD) and revenue officials’ attitude of continuing with the colonial legacy of dominance over the people living in the proximity of forests. Holding an optimistic view, however, Reddy et al. (2011) think it is too early to draw a definitive conclusion about the FRA not helping in reducing poverty because they expect positive results and hope that the insecure and marginalised people receiving recognition to their lands in a challenging process of the FRA implementation will be followed by overall progress over a period of time.

Despite the FRA, if the livelihoods of the people living in the forests do not improve, what will it mean? Should it be understood that the time has come for them to leave the forest environment altogether, as Levang et al. (2003) surmised, and surrender to the whims of the state to allow the never-ending displacements, loss of livelihoods, cultural extinction, disinte-gration of their society, becoming victims of all kinds of atrocities, etc. for the development of others (non-tribals) in the name of industriali-sation and nation-building? (Saxena 2006; Ramnath 2008; Krishnadas et al., 2011) The approach to be adopted should be that of maintaining patience because no state gives rights to its citizens on a silver platter; thus, it requires considerable effort to keep the FD and its coercive bureaucratic approach, timber mafias, and big conservationist NGOs at bay (Ghosh, 2006), until the ultimate purpose is achieved.

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FRA recognises the tribals and other forest dwelling community’s claims over their forest land, over the dwelling and cultivation lands under their occupation before 2005. Besides, it also recognises the ‘community claims’. This Act came into implementation in 2008.

Dr Madhusudan Bandi is an Assistant Professor, Gujarat Institute of Development Research, Ahmedabad.

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