A visual history of Indigenous Peoples' land rights in
India

Indian School of Business leads this initiative with the Tenure Facility and aims to secure the forest rights of India’s forest-dependent communities

The goal is to secure the rights of 5,000 villages over 1 million hectares of community forestland

And scale up across the country

Overview

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.

Pre 1750

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

1850s

British East India Company annexes most of India

1857

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

They are joined by peasant armies and the Indian nobility. The conflict is fuelled by the company’s land annexations and dispossession of local people and elites.

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.

1865

British East India Company annexes most of India and bars local people from entering and using forests

1878

Colonial government enacts the Indian Forest Act of 1878

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

1894

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

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

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

India and Pakistan gain independence after centuries of struggle.

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

1950

India’s new Constitution gives Adivasi special protections

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

 

 

1952

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

1972

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

1980

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

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

1988

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

1990

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

1996

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

2002

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

2003

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

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 recognizing rights is democratized the Gram Sabha playing a central role.

2007

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

2008

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

The procedures for recognizing community rights and other rules for operationalizing the FRA are unclear.

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

2012

Government amends the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Rules clarify procedures for recognizing community forest rights

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

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 industrialization, urbanization, and infrastructure development, as well as just, fair, and humane compensation and resettlement.

2015

Report estimates at least 150 million forest dwellers in India gained the opportunity through the FRA to have their rights recognized 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).

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 Rights⏤Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA), a process initiated in 2011 to facilitate exchange of information and experiences related to Community Forest Rights under the FRA.

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