Implementation of Forest Rights Act: Observations from Wayanad District of Kerala

In the early 2000s, Wayanad saw land struggles gathering momentum, demanding rights of tribals to forest lands. Many landless tribals encroached forest lands and raised hutments. As per an agreement to put an end to the struggle, a decision to vest land to tribals was taken. But its implementation was tardy.

Wayanad SP 1024x768

With 3,90,480.86 acres (1,580.22 sq km) of forests, Wayanad has a large share of its geographical area under forest cover (74.19%).1 The tribal population of 1,53,1812 in Wayanad is the highest among Kerala’s districts. Nearly 43,257 tribals live in or near forests, in 553 settlements.3 Around 22 percent of these hamlets are benefited by the 124 CR (Community Rights) titles issued till 2020, in Wayanad. This forms a major chunk of the 174 CR granted in the state.4

Wayanad has a total number of 109 Forest Rights Committees (FRC) in existence, and 4478 Individual Forest Right (IFR) titles have been issued for about 3348.58 acres of land.5 However, the extent of land granted to each family under IFR remains low, with an average of 0.75 acres compared to a state average of 1.32 acres. The process of vesting Community Forest Resource (CFR) rights has not yet been accomplished in the district.

This note6 is the result of interactions with officials of tribal and forest departments, oorumoopans (village heads) and members of the FRCs in various tribal blocks of the Wayanad district, Kerala. During this brief study on the implementation of Forest Rights Act (FRA)7 in Wayanad, respondents pointed out land availability as a major constraint. It emerged that the problem of limited land availability was linked to certain structural issues. To understand this, we must examine a cross-section of the tribal population of Wayanad. The Paniyans are the most common tribe in the district. They were traditionally farm labourers with very limited land under their possession. Thus, when FRA recognised their land rights, the Paniyans and similar groups, like Adiyans and Kattunayakans did not benefit much.

The implementation of FRA in Wayanad should also be viewed in conjunction with the land struggles by adivasis there. The struggles have been strong and persistent and have led to assigning land to many claimants. In the early 2000s, Wayanad saw land struggles gathering momentum, demanding rights of tribals to forest lands. Many landless tribals encroached forest lands and raised hutments. As per an agreement to put an end to the struggle, a decision to vest land to tribals was taken. But its implementation was tardy. There were many tribals who failed to receive land as per the agreement, and who continued to occupy the lands encroached by them during the struggle. When FRA was rolled out, IFR was given to these tribals as their occupation took place before 2005.

However, many tribals who received IFR titles were not really satisfied as these merely recognised their cultivation/​occupancy rights on the land. They complain that the IFR title cannot be used as collateral security for availing bank loans; does not allow cutting of most trees or for paying land tax which would have conferred other benefits. They point out that the land rights conferred under the Kerala Land Assignment Act 1960, gave them such additional benefits.

With regard to CR, the number of titles issued in Wayanad is impressive in comparison to other districts in the state, but (at least in some cases) the actual experience on the ground looks somewhat mixed. For example, it was mentioned during interviews that the tribals, at times, were still being stopped by forest officials from entering forests for Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) collection, grazing, etc. At the same time, some pointed out that they have been allocated forest areas to graze cattle, to fish and to collect NTFP in addition to demarcated burial grounds and kavus (sacred groves). There were various collectives such as Vandhan, ST co-operatives and Vana Samrakshana Samithis (VSS) functional in the district but not all choose to sell collected forest produce through these collectives.8 Some directly sell to local vendors.

In various interviews with the tribal and forest department officials, it emerged that IFR implementation was given priority in comparison to CR and CFR in the initial phase of the implementation of FRA. This was an informal decision taken by the departments involved for easy implementation. This slowed down the implementation of CFR in a major way and acted as a bottleneck in empowering tribals, as the Act seems to have envisioned. During interviews, many tribal respondents tended to identify FRA as synonymous to IFR.

Further lack of awareness and clarity surfaced when FRC members were interviewed to identify their role in securing tribal rights. Though there was unanimity in stating that FRC has been constituted in their respective villages, only very few FRC members could explain their role in securing stipulated rights. Many of them invariably used the term FRC for oorukootam (gram sabhas) and were confused about the responsibilities of FRC and the gram sabhas. After the receipt of IFR, these committees became dormant. There were no systems put in place for organising the activities expected of FRC, as well as for strengthening the gram sabhas as envisaged by FRA. Many oorukootams did not have a common place for meetings. Most FRC secretaries/​presidents saw the minutes book only when they were made to affix their signatures, usually without clearly knowing the decisions that they have signed under. Such a state of affairs is hampering the independent nature of FRCs and oorukootams, as many members complained.

Another issue noted in Wayanad is the attempt to resettle/​relocate the forest-dependent tribal population under the voluntary relocation program of the Forest Department. Though the program was conceptualised to minimise the human-animal conflict and applauded by conservationists and technocrats, the project has been criticized from several other corners including tribal organisations. Studies and interviews indicate that FRA provisions would have been diluted while implementing the voluntary relocation program.9 There are complaints surrounding the voluntary relocation program amounting to the violation of FRA in terms of misinformed consent, non-receipt of consent from gram sabha, non-recognition of community rights and incomplete rehabilitation.

This overview of the FRA implementation process in Wayanad brings out the following issues to be addressed urgently. First, the implementation process has to be more contextualised, taking into cognizance the local historical dynamics between adivasis and land. Second, there has to be a wider effort at facilitating deliberation and appreciation of the scope of the Act among all those involved. This will go a long way in conveying the interlinked roles played by various rights provisioned in the Act towards realising the spirit of FRA for the tribals of Wayanad.

Notes:

  1. India State of the Forest Report – 2019, retrieved from https://​fsi​.nic​.in/​i​s​f​r​19​/​v​o​l​2​/​i​s​f​r​-​2019​-​v​o​l​-​i​i​-​k​e​r​a​l​a.pdf

  2. This figure also includes non-tribals in tribal families.

  3. Data retrieved from Scheduled Tribes of Kerala: Report on the Socio Economic Status (Draft) published by Scheduled Tribes Development Department Government of Kerala, November 2013

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

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

  6. This case study along with two others was brought together and synthesized as a strategy note: Complete and Effective Implementation of FRA in Kerala: Strategies and Approaches — Azim Premji University

  7. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006

  8. Pradhan Mantri Van Dhan Yojana is a Central Government program launched in 2018 for transforming NTFP gatherers into entrepreneurs. The program is being implemented by MoTA. Van-dhan is devised on the lines of Jan-dhan, another flagship welfare program of the Central Government. Vana Samrakshana Samithi (VSS) is a grassroots level forest management mechanism for protecting and managing the non-wood forest resources, initiated under the National Forest Policy, 1988. These are known as Eco-Development Committees in protected areas.

  9. Kalathingal, D. (2019). Voluntary Relocation and the Violation of Forest Rights in Kerala. Economic and Political Weekly, 54(48). https://​www​.the​news​minute​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​k​e​r​a​l​a​-​g​o​v​e​r​n​m​e​n​t​-​s​-​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​i​o​u​s​-​m​o​v​e​-​r​e​l​o​c​a​t​e​-​t​r​i​b​a​l​s​-​f​o​r​e​s​t​-​l​a​n​d​-​108309

Authors

Seema Purushothaman, Professor, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru
Rema Devi, Member, Field Practice Team, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru
Amrita C, Research Associate, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru