2021 marked 15 years of the Forest Rights Act and its most transformative provisions - those related to community forest rights and their governance through village gram sabhas. Along with the PESA in 1996, the FRA carved out spaces in the law for community participation in the management and governance of forests. These laws were the results of more than a century of social movements in various parts of India that cried out against the injustice of treating forest dwelling communities as encroachers on their lands, an injustice that persisted even after the constitution of independent India promised special protections for adivasis and scheduled tribes.
For over a century, the Indian state's legal control of forests had extinguished the traditional rights of forest-dwelling communities, who came to be perceived as illegal occupants or encroachers of government forests.
Things changed dramatically in 2006, when the Forest Rights Act recognized and vested a set of forest rights in the scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who have been residing in forests for generations but whose rights had not been recorded. Most radically perhaps, the law recognized their rights as communities of ownership of minor forest produce that has been traditionally collected within or outside village boundaries, and the rights of access to collect, use, and dispose of this produce.
Minor forest produce includes all non-timber forest produce of plant origin including bamboo, honey, wax, tendu or kendu leaves, medicinal plants and herbs, roots, and tubers.
Apart from recognising and vesting these rights, the Forest Rights Act also set up democratic procedures for decision-making at the level of settlements.
Like any paradigm shifting project of decolonisation or for the de-centralisation of power, fears are expressed about whether the newly empowered people are actually ready for the responsibilities of power.
This episode of the Nagrik podcast reflects not only on the economic and ecological impact of the community-led management of forest resources, but also on grassroot-level democratic practices in relation to the governance of forests.
The Nagrik Podcast is among the world's best civic engagement podcasts.
You can listen to:
- Purnima Upadhyay, who runs Khoj, a civil society organisation that works in the region of Melghat in the Amaravati district of Maharashtra, on the promotion of the effective use of community forest rights under the Forest Rights Act;
- Kesav Gurnule, who works with Shrishti, a civil society organisation that works in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, on the promotion of the effective use of community forest rights under the Forest Rights Act;
- Mittali Sethi, a former Project Officer with the Tribal Development Department of the government of Maharashtra, in Dharni and Melghat, an IAS officer of the 2017 batch, and currently the Chief Executive Officer of the Chandrapur Zilla Parishad;
- Vandana Dhoop, an independent researcher, whose work has covered Nayagarh's women-led Forest Protection Committees; and
- Sharad Lele, a Senior Fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment
Mittali Sethi, “How 2 Landmark Laws Can Come Together To Make India’s Forest Communities Secure”, Article 14
Geetanjoy Sahu, “Experiences in the Vidarbha Region of Maharashtra
Implementation of Community Forest Rights”, Economic and Political Weekly
Sharachchandra Lele, Shruti Mokashi , “Mapping the potential of Community Forest Resource Rights in central India”, Mongabay
Shreya Dasgupta, "Does community-based forest management work in the tropics?", Mongabay
Lekshmi M, Anup Kumar Samal, Geetanjoy Sahu, “15 Years of FRA: What Trends in Forest Rights Claims and Recognition Tell Us”, The Wire
Madhusudan Bandi, “Looking beyond the Forest Rights Act”, The Hindu
Vandana Dhoop, “In Nayagarh, India, community women get long-due recognition for protecting their forests”, Rights+Resources