Implementation of Forest Rights Act: Lessons from Vazhachal Division of Kerala

Three things clearly emerged as instrumental in making Vazhachal a pioneer in FRA implementation in the state, especially in vesting the provisions under CFR

a) A mission mode of implementation with clear responsibilities; 

b) Committed, active and informed NGOs and; 

c) Proactive leadership from the community.

Vazhachal SP 1024x768

In 2014, eight years after the enactment of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA), the tribal community in and around the Vazhachal forest division in the Thrissur district of Kerala became the first community in the state to receive Community Forest Resource (CFR) rights. Thanks to Vazhachal’s success, Thrissur district with 21 titles comes second in Community Rights (CR) titles issued in the state, after Wayanad with 124 titles.1 Dominated by the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) of Kadars, Vazhachal is among the very few tribal forest habitats in the state with CFR rights.

This note does not attempt to repeat the well-documented facts about the people, processes and organizations involved in Vazhachal’s ecology or FRA accomplishments (available publications on Vazhachal’s FRA experience are listed at the end of this note). This note presents observations from the visits and interactions held (201920) with government officials, voluntary agencies and tribals about the factors that helped or hindered the vesting of rights in Vazhachal.

Three things clearly emerged as instrumental in making Vazhachal a pioneer in FRA implementation in the state, especially in vesting the provisions under CFR:

  1. A mission mode of implementation with clear responsibilities;
  2. Committed, active and informed NGOs and;
  3. Proactive leadership from the community. 

That said, there are criticisms about the processes and outcomes, but the fact that not many tribal belts could replicate such a story, especially in vesting CFR, says something about the implementation here.

Vazhachal seems to have had effective co-ordination between the Forest Department, Vazhachal division and the Tribal Development Department, Chalakudy, unlike most other places in Thrissur district and as lamented in the guidelines issued by the Central Government time and again. Although there are notable differences in the primary concerns of these two departments (conservation focus of the Forest Department vs development focus of the Tribal Welfare Department), awareness among higher officials and among the community about the Act was noteworthy.

In Vazhachal, the implementation process started in 2010, thanks to the push from the district administration. Relatively better awareness, speed and coverage of implementation – right from the hamlet hosting the famed tourist attraction near the waterfalls at Vazhachal on Chalakudy river, to the hamlets around Malakkappara situated at a higher elevation and close to Tamil Nadu – are also attributable to the long term active presence of dedicated NGOs who shared the responsibilities entailed in the filing of claims. They were also responsible for inviting the attention of the larger society including ecologists and social scientists, towards the communities who have been an integral part of this ecosystem. These voluntary agencies continue to conduct capacity building sessions on various aspects of the Act, assist in livelihood generation or in the preparation of management plans. Such coordination between the departments and NGOs along with proactive leadership from among the tribals, including women, helped this socio-ecologically critical landscape to become a pioneer in FRA compliance. This, despite the challenges posed by mutually overlapping areas of foraging and agriculture between the hamlets.

According to the Kadars, who have been more forest-dependent than other tribes, the gradual degradation of forests in their area is attributable to other tribals engaged in shifting cultivation till recently. They point out the distinction between tribal (gothravargam) and indigenous (adivasi) people. At present, both the communities are engaged in settled farming and foraging. Wherever the extent of land distributed for settlement and Individual Forest Right (IFR) have been inadequate, community farming commenced as a way out and continues.

The highlight of Vazhachal’s FRA story is how ooru moopathi (head lady) of Vazhachal and ooru moopan (head man) of Polakappara could file a case in the High Court of Kerala against the controversial hydroelectric project at Athirappilly, that has been resurrected time and again by the Kerala State Electricity Board. Despite several rulings in their favour, it is still unclear if the project is shelved for good or is just getting postponed.2 Leadership and coordination by the Kadars, especially the moopathi, with support from civil society organisations is worth sharing with other tribal communities elsewhere. By now, tribals of Vazhachal have a rich experience to share with respect to collective farming, in running a collective processing unit and a Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) marketing co-operative, managing CR/CFR areas overlapping villages as also using FRA as their weapon to prevent eviction by development interventions designed for the mainstream society.

Apart from the well-known controversy around Athirappilly, tribals of Vazhachal are also organising themselves against another smaller hydel project in Anakkyam, taking FRA as the only recourse left.3 Geetha, ooru moopathi (head lady) of Vazhachal and Ajitha, Secretary of CFR Coordination Committee (of all nine settlements) have filed a petition at the Kerala High Court invoking their rights under FRA.4 Another instance of FRA coming to the rescue of tribals was in the aftermath of a tribal movement for land in the Peechi division of Thrissur district. Tribals of Maniyankinar were facing police cases since 1988 for recouping lands annexed by the Forest Department. Once the FRA came into force, these were withdrawn in 2007.

There are areas where the Vazhachal story unfolds some lingering challenges too. One such challenge is pertaining to the emerging divergence between the needs of livelihoods and conservation reflected in the approaches of the Tribal Department and the Forest Department towards specific issues in implementation. For instance, their differences on the extent of community-led nature tourism. The divergence between conservation and livelihoods is neither new nor unique. Yet, this does not seem to be reconciled or deliberated effectively in the interest of sustainable wellbeing of tribals, as expected from FRA. Apparently, innovative collaborations and institutions towards this reconciliation need new competencies, as highlighted in a separate note.

CFR to protect marginalised victims of a socio-ecologically invasive project

The legal action against the Athirappilly Hydel Project has been a long-standing one with several court cases filed and contested. So far, the legal grounds under challenge were mostly technical and the project resurfaced every time after the rectification of those technical problems. However, the latest case filed in the Kerala High Court by the ooru moopathi of Vazhachal and ooru moopan (head man) in 2015, used CFR rights under FRA as its major ground. The proposed hydel project falls under the area where CFR has been granted to the tribal communities. It is a mandatory requirement under FRA to obtain the NOC5 of the empowered authority, gram sabha, before proceeding with such a project.6 Any negligence of the aforementioned requirement would be a violation of the FRA. The courts have, time and again, asserted the compelling nature of FRA as well as the centrality of gram sabha.

To conclude, Vazhachal’s experience shows that coordinated efforts of the state departments, NGOs and the community can make accomplishments envisioned in FRA a reality despite prevailing challenges.

Milestones in Athirappilly project: Forward and backward7

1979 – Project envisaged by KSEB

1989 – The project rejected by MoEF

1996 – Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI) submitted the study report so as to satisfy the requirement under the EIA notification,1994

1998 – MoEF granted environmental clearance to the project.

2001 – Judgment in the court case against the aforementioned environmental clearance

2002 – Conduct of public hearing, a mandatory step for EIA clearance as per amended EIA notification (amended in the year 1997). The public was vehemently against the project and hence a participatory EIA study was recommended.

2005 – MoEF granted project clearance

2005 – Geetha (Ooru moopathi) and Athirapilly Gram Panchayat, (in different Writ Petitions) challenged EIA clearance in the High Court stating that the study based on which the clearance was granted was not published and a public hearing had not been conducted thereon.

2006 – Contentions of the aforementioned litigants were accepted by the High Court and as a result the study report was published.

2006 – Public hearing was conducted. KSEB applied for a fresh Environmental Clearance.

2007 – MoEF granted environmental clearance.

Tribals, CFR and the Project

2007WWF India started working amongst the Tribals of Vazhachal area to facilitate the CFR process.8

2007 – Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed at Kerala High Court against the proposed project.

2010 – First hearing in the case;9 intervention of Union Minister Jairam Ramesh against the project. 10

2011 — Assessment of the project by Gadgil Committee followed by Kasturirangan Committee. 11

2012 ‑Tribals submitted application for their CFR rights.12

2014 (January)- CFR titles were distributed by the Tribal Minister to the tribals.13

2014 (May) – Oorukootam (gram sabha) passed the resolution to form Sangham.14

2015 (May) – High Court case filed in 2007 disposed off.15

2015 (August) – Tribals (/oorukootam) came together to pass a resolution against the hydro-electric project, Athirappilly. Their first attempt at fighting against the hydel-electric project with the help of CFR.16

2015 (December) – Geetha (Moopathi) on behalf of the project affected oorus filed PIL in Kerala HC against the hydel-electric project stating that it infringed upon their rights under the Forest Rights Act of 2006. The case is still at the admission stage as per the case status updated on the HC website.

2017 – Statement made by Kerala Electricity Minister MM Mani on the Athirappilly project in the Legislative Assembly in favour of the project.17 The validity of the green clearance lapsed on July 17.18

2020 – Kerala Government gave NOC for technical, financial and environmental clearance.19

Statistics

Vazhachal colony: 44 Kadar families

Pokalappara: 23 Kadar families

Thavalakuzhippara: 33 Malayar families

Poringalkuthu colony: 21 Kadar families

Wachumaram colony: 36 Kadar families and 9 Malayan families

Sholayar colony: 28 Kadar families

Mukkumpuzha colony: 13 Kadar families

Malakkappara colony: 56 Kadar families 20

Anakkayam: 23 Kadar families

Nine CFR titles have been distributed covering an area of 40,000 ha, under the Vazhachal Forests of Western Ghats region falling in Thrissur district. Fifty-two CR claims have been cleared by DLC Thrissur district but titles are not issued to 31 claims. 21

Notes:

  1. Progress Report as on 30.09.2020 provided by the State Tribal Department

  2. There are multiple cases filed in HC against the project by village heads. One was filed in 2005 and another in 2007. Both the cases had favourable ruling for the tribals. The latest case is filed by heads of two oorus where the project was proposed in the year 2015 and the case is in the admission stage. It is in that writ petition that they made use of FRA. See the timeline at the end of this note.

  3. https://​www​.the​news​minute​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​k​e​r​a​l​a​-​t​r​i​b​a​l​s​-​f​i​g​h​t​-​a​g​a​i​n​s​t​-​c​u​t​t​i​n​g​-​t​r​e​e​s​-​a​n​a​k​k​a​y​a​m​-​h​y​d​e​l​-​p​r​o​j​e​c​t​-​138496

  4. https://​www​.the​news​minute​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​k​e​r​a​l​a​-​t​r​i​b​a​l​s​-​f​i​g​h​t​-​a​g​a​i​n​s​t​-​c​u​t​t​i​n​g​-​t​r​e​e​s​-​a​n​a​k​k​a​y​a​m​-​h​y​d​e​l​-​p​r​o​j​e​c​t​-​138496

  5. https://​sabrangin​dia​.in/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​e​n​v​i​r​o​n​m​e​n​t​a​l​i​s​t​s​-​d​e​c​r​y​-​r​e​v​i​v​a​l​-​c​o​n​t​r​o​v​e​r​s​i​a​l​-​a​t​h​i​r​a​p​p​i​l​l​y​-​h​y​d​e​l​-​p​r​o​j​e​c​t​-​k​e​r​a​l​a​-govt

  6. Section 5(d) of the FRA empowers the Gram Sabhas to ensure that its decisions to regulate access to CFRs and stop any activity which adversely affects the forest, wildlife or biodiversity are being follow

  7. Note in WP© No 30801 of 2007‑S filed by Geetha.

  8. https://​www​.wwfind​ia​.org/​?​12761​/​S​t​r​e​n​g​t​h​e​n​i​n​g​-​C​o​m​m​u​n​i​t​y​-​F​o​r​e​s​t​-​R​e​s​o​u​r​c​e​-​U​s​e​-​R​i​g​h​t​s​-​i​n​-​V​a​z​h​achal

  9. https://​ser​vices​.ecourts​.gov​.in/​e​c​o​u​r​t​i​n​d​i​a​H​C​/​c​a​s​e​s​/​c​a​s​e​_​n​o​.​p​h​p​?​s​t​a​t​e​_​c​d​=​4&​d​i​s​t​_​c​d​=​1&​c​o​u​r​t​_​c​o​d​e​=​1&​s​t​a​t​e​N​m​=​K​erala#

  10. https://scroll.in/article/750235/a‑kerala-tribe-invokes-its-newly-acquired-forest-rights-to-fight-off-a-dam

  11. https://scroll.in/article/750235/a‑kerala-tribe-invokes-its-newly-acquired-forest-rights-to-fight-off-a-dam

  12. https://​www​.wwfind​ia​.org/​?​12761​/​S​t​r​e​n​g​t​h​e​n​i​n​g​-​C​o​m​m​u​n​i​t​y​-​F​o​r​e​s​t​-​R​e​s​o​u​r​c​e​-​U​s​e​-​R​i​g​h​t​s​-​i​n​-​V​a​z​h​achal

  13. https://​www​.wwfind​ia​.org/​?​12761​/​S​t​r​e​n​g​t​h​e​n​i​n​g​-​C​o​m​m​u​n​i​t​y​-​F​o​r​e​s​t​-​R​e​s​o​u​r​c​e​-​U​s​e​-​R​i​g​h​t​s​-​i​n​-​V​a​z​h​achal

  14. https://www.fra.org.in/document/Nagpur%2027th%20July%202014.pdf

  15. https://​ser​vices​.ecourts​.gov​.in/​e​c​o​u​r​t​i​n​d​i​a​H​C​/​c​a​s​e​s​/​c​a​s​e​_​n​o​.​p​h​p​?​s​t​a​t​e​_​c​d​=​4&​d​i​s​t​_​c​d​=​1&​c​o​u​r​t​_​c​o​d​e​=​1&​s​t​a​t​e​N​m​=​K​erala#

  16. https://​www​.the​hin​du​.com/​n​e​w​s​/​n​a​t​i​o​n​a​l​/​k​e​r​a​l​a​/​k​a​d​a​r​-​t​r​i​b​a​l​-​c​o​u​n​c​i​l​-​t​o​-​s​u​e​-​e​x​p​e​r​t​s​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​7573895.ece

  17. https://​time​sofind​ia​.indi​a​times​.com/​c​i​t​y​/​t​h​i​r​u​v​a​n​a​n​t​h​a​p​u​r​a​m​/​m​i​n​i​s​t​e​r​-​w​i​l​l​-​g​o​-​a​h​e​a​d​-​w​i​t​h​-​a​t​h​i​r​a​p​p​i​l​l​y​-​p​r​o​j​e​c​t​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​s​h​o​w​/​59993586.cms

  18. https://thefederal.com/the-eighth-column/athirappilly-project-when-peoples-persistence-can-win-the-good-fight/#:~:text=The%20validity%20of%20the%20green,protests%20were%20finally%20called%20off.&text=Much%20water%20has%20flowed%20down,in%20the%20past%20three%20decades

  19. https://​www​.land​con​flict​watch​.org/​c​o​n​f​l​i​c​t​s​/​v​i​l​l​a​g​e​r​s​-​o​p​p​o​s​e​-​a​t​h​i​r​a​p​i​l​l​y​-​h​y​d​r​o​e​l​e​c​t​r​i​c​-​p​r​o​j​e​c​t​-​i​n​-​k​erala

  20. https://www.fra.org.in/document/Nagpur%2027th%20July%202014.pdf

  21. Cited from the progress report of State Tribal Development Department, as on 31.09.2020

References

Bachan, A., Dr (2015). CFR Mapping in Kerala – Central Kerala (including Kadar PVTG) experience (Rep.). Kerala.

Copy of WP© No 30801 of 2007‑S filed by Geetha

Environmentalists decry revival of controversial Athirappilly Hydel Project by Kerala Govt. (n.d.). Retrieved August 222020

J, D. (2020). Empowering Tribal Peoples, Deepening Democracy: An Advocacy Note for Strengthening Local Governments for the Effective Implementation of the Forest Rights Act in Kerala. (Advocacy Note). Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala: Centre for Development Studies.

Kalathingal, D. (2019). Conservation — a contested story: The State and the Kadar Adivasis, India’. Law, Environment and Development Journal, 150.

Kerala Government Gives Go-ahead to Athirapilly Hydroelectric Project Despite Public Protests. (2020, August 12). Land Conflict Watch.

KK, S., & John, P. (2020, June 24). Athirapilly project: When people’s persistence can win the good fight.

Narayanan, N. (2015, August 22). A Kerala tribe invokes its newly acquired forest rights to fight off a dam. Retrieved August 222020

Notes on WP© No 30801 of 2007‑S filed by Geetha

Power minister MM Mani: Will go ahead with Athirapilly project: Thiruvananthapuram News. Times of India.

Strengthening Community Forest Resource Use Rights in Vazhachal. (2015, January 13). WWF India.

Sudhi, K. (2016, March 29). Kadar tribal council to sue experts. Retrieved August 222020.

W. (n.d.). CFR process in Vazhachal

Authors

Seema Purushothaman, Professor, Azim Premji University, Bangalore

Rema Devi, Member, Field Practice Team, Azim Premji University, Bangalore

Amrita C, Research Associate, Azim Premji University, Bangalore