Overview

India

After centuries of struggle, India’s Adivasi peoples and forest dwellers can secure their rights to govern, manage, and use their customary forests

Nearly 250 million people live in and around forests in India. They include about 100 million members of indigenous ‘Scheduled Tribes,” known as Adivasi, the collective name for India’s many Indigenous Peoples. Descendants of the earliest inhabitants of the subcontinent, the Adivasi comprise more than 200 distinct peoples who speak more than 100 languages. They rely on forests for food, water, habitat, and their livelihood. India’s colonial laws stripped the Adivasi of their customary forest rights, and many are displaced, criminalized and impoverished. Most forestland is owned by the state, with large areas contracted to private sector companies.

The 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA) aims to redress this historic injustice. It gives Adivasi and other traditional forest dweller communities the right to govern, manage, and use their ancestral forests. However, few have secured their rights due to resistance and low capacity in government institutions and lack of awareness in Adivasi communities.

With Tenure Facility support, the Indian School of Business (ISB), the research and policy advocacy group Vasundhara, and the Society for Rural, Urban and Tribal Initiative (SRUTI) are capitalizing on current political will, grassroots mobilization, and civil society strength in the states of Odisha, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh to implement the Act. They aim to build the awareness, capacity, and momentum required to upscale implementation of the FRA across the country. Full implementation could secure community tenure and jurisdiction over 32 million hectares of forest claimed by 150 million tribal and forest-dwelling people living in 170,000 villages.

A visual history of Indigenous Peoples' land rights in India

1850s

British East India Company annexes most of India.

1850s

British East India Company annexes most of India.

1858

India becomes a colony of the British Empire. British East...

1858

India becomes a colony of the British Empire.

British East India Company rule is abolished. Much of forested India remains within nominally sovereign princely states which owe allegiance to the British.

1878

Colonial government enacts the Indian Forest Act of 1878 The...

1878

Colonial government enacts the Indian Forest Act of 1878

The Act creates a legal regime of strict state control of forests.

Photo courtesy of T Rowsell

1927

The new Indian Forest Act empowers the colonial government...

1927

The new Indian Forest Act empowers the colonial government to declare any forest as reserved, protected, or village forest, extinguishing prior claims

Forest dwelling communities are alienated from their ancestral rights to forests. Most of the princely states also enact laws based on the Indian Forest Act of 1927 to exploit and govern forests, often curtailing the rights of Adivasi and other forest-dependent communities.

1947

More than 500 princely states, many with large forests, are...

1947

More than 500 princely states, many with large forests, are amalgamated into India between 1947 and 1950

1952

Government’s new National Forest Policy ranks the national...

1952

Government’s new National Forest Policy ranks the national interest in forests higher than that of local communities

1980

Forest Conservation Act enacted to discourage diversion of...

1980

Forest Conservation Act enacted to discourage diversion of forest lands and widespread deforestation leads to criminalisation of forest dwellers

By freezing forested zones, the Act made it difficult to recognise pre-existing forest rights.

1990

Government’s Joint Forest Management guidelines promote...

1990

Government’s Joint Forest Management guidelines promote participatory practices but deny local communities decision-making powers

2002

Biological Diversity Act creates village-level biodiversity...

2002

Biological Diversity Act creates village-level biodiversity management boards but fails to give them decision-making power

2006

Government enacts Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional...

2006

Government enacts Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA)

The FRA addresses the historic injustices committed against Adivasi by the British colonial and independent governments. The FRA says forest-dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers are integral to the survival and sustainability of the forest ecosystem. It establishes their right to protect, conserve, and manage forests, wildlife, and biodiversity through village assemblies known as Gram Sabha. The process of recognising rights is democratised, with the Gram Sabha playing a central role.

2008

Government enacts Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional...

2008

Government enacts Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Rules

The procedures for recognising community rights and other rules for operationalising the FRA are unclear.

2012

Government amends the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional...

2012

Government amends the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) rules, to clarify procedures for recognising community forest rights

Mendha Lekha Village becomes the first in India to receive legal title to its Community Forest Resource Rights

2015

Report estimates at least 150 million forest dwellers in...

2015

Report estimates at least 150 million forest dwellers in India gained the opportunity through the FRA to have their rights recognised over a minimum of 40 million hectares of forestland in more than 170,000 villages

The report called “Potential for Recognition of Community Forest Resource Rights Under India’s Forest Rights Act” is released by Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), Vasundhara, and Natural Resource Management Consultants (NRMC).

2018

ISB, Vasundhara and SRUTI begin partnership with the Tenure...

2018

ISB, Vasundhara and SRUTI begin partnership with the Tenure Facility to secure the rights of 5,000 villages over 1 million hectares of community forestland

Pre 1750

Local people exercise diverse customary forest rights under...

Pre 1750

Local people exercise diverse customary forest rights under the rule of India’s many dynasties and kingdoms.

1857

Indian solders employed by the British East India Company...

1857

Indian solders employed by the British East India Company rebel against company rule

The Empire of the invading Mughals from central Asia which had conquered most of India over the past three centuries was formally dissolved by the British after the Indian Rebellion. Mutinous soldier were assisted by peasant armies and the Mughal rulers. The conflict is fuelled by religious tensions caused by Christian missionaries but also in part by the East India company’s land annexations and dispossession of local people and elites.

1865

British administration annexes most of India and bars local...

1865

British administration annexes most of India and bars local people from entering and using forests.

1894

Colonial government’s Land Acquisition Act gives the state...

1894

Colonial government’s Land Acquisition Act gives the state the right acquire land and give Adivasi land to companies without their consent

Photo courtesy of T Rowsell

1947

British provinces are partitioned into India and Pakistan,...

1947

British provinces are partitioned into India and Pakistan, leading to mass migrations and the deaths of 500,000 people

India and Pakistan gain independence after centuries of struggle.

1950

India’s new Constitution gives Adivasi special...

1950

India’s new Constitution gives Adivasi special protections

In the Constitution responsibility for land and forest governance rests primarily with states.

 

1972

Government adopts Wildlife Protection Act to enable creation...

1972

Government adopts Wildlife Protection Act to enable creation of protected areas to protect wildlife includes draconian provisions to reduce human disturbance

Photo courtesy of T Rowsell

1988

Government enacts Indian Forest Policy prioritising both...

1988

Government enacts Indian Forest Policy prioritising both conservation and local use by people who depend on forests

1996

Extension of Panchayati Raj Act to Scheduled Areas promotes...

1996

Extension of Panchayati Raj Act to Scheduled Areas promotes decentralized forest governance by Adivasis through the creation of local village bodies

2003

National campaign calls for a forest rights law recognising...

2003

National campaign calls for a forest rights law recognising the forest rights of tribal and forest dwellers

2007

United Nations General Assembly adopts the UN Declaration on...

2007

United Nations General Assembly adopts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) with 144 countries, including India, voting in favour

2009

The Ministry of Environment and Forest requires state...

2009

The Ministry of Environment and Forest requires state governments to provide evidence of Gram Sabhas’ consent under the FRA, before forestland is diverted for non-forestry purposes

Photo courtesy of T Rowsell

2013

Government adopts the Right to Fair Compensation and...

2013

Government adopts the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR)

The Act seeks to ensure an informed, participative, and transparent process for land acquisition for industrialisation, urbanisation, and infrastructure development, as well as just, fair, and humane compensation and resettlement.

2016

Report finds only 3% of the potential of collective rights...

2016

Report finds only 3% of the potential of collective rights recognition under FRA has been achieved

The report, “Promise and Performance: 10 Years of the Forest Rights Act in India” is published by Community Forest RightsLearning and Advocacy (CFR-LA), a process initiated in 2011 to facilitate exchange of information and experiences related to Community Forest Rights under the FRA.