Complete and Effective Implementation of FRA in Kerala: Strategies and Approaches

The cultural-ecological know-how of the adivasis is of obvious value in this era of the pandemic, economic slowdown and climate change. This realisation might accelerate and support effective FRA implementation by generating necessary momentum among departments and development agencies and within the constituency of the adivasis themselves.

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This note complements the advocacy note brought out jointly by the Centre for Development Studies (Thiruvananthapuram) and Azim Premji University (Bangalore), on bringing sustainable wellbeing among Kerala’s adivasis through self-governance and Forest Rights Act (FRA).1 The advocacy note resulted from a series of round table meetings among the stakeholders of FRA in the state. It identifies major factors that hindered the implementation and areas for further enquiry and confirmation. The round tables that led to the advocacy note suggested bringing out a set of guidelines for complete and effective implementation of FRA in a campaign mode. Discussions on the advocacy note pointed at two further steps towards coming up with such a guidance note. One was to base /​locate the guidance on selected case studies from the state and the second was to collate relevant promulgations and reports including those from a couple of other selected states. This background note emerges from a follow-up on the first suggestion on delving into specific experiences as case studies.

From December 2019 to May 2020, we studied the FRA experience in several tribal blocks spread across Wayanad, Palakkad, Thrissur and Ernakulam. This involved talking to officials of the forest and tribal departments to collect data on the coverage of the implementation apart from their own observations. Tribal promoters, members of FRC (Forest Rights Committee) and other tribals were also consulted. From March 2020 onwards, these conversations took place over the phone. From the qualitative and quantitative information gathered during these enquiries and literature on Kerala’s FRA experience, we distil six strategic approaches in brief.

Please note that two other notes – one focusing on the governance angle and the other with summary narratives from the fieldwork in selected tribal belts- will follow this paper. Hence, specific aspects of the examples and of the Act used in preparing this note are not referred to here, for brevity and easy perusal.

Creating awareness about the potential and provisions of the Act

The FRA has brought in a much-needed legitimacy to tribal rights and confidence among them in engaging with outsiders and officials. Yet, general awareness on the Act among adivasis, especially women and youngsters, appears to be very low and ambiguous. At best, only some among those who are directly involved as FRC members or promoters may be partially informed. Among the categories of rights stipulated in the Act, IFR (Individual Forest Right) is the most known, followed by the development rights and then the rights for collection of forest produce. Rights of management and conservation of forests are the least known. In the seamlessness of tribal landscapes, transcending hamlets, forests, farmlands in the valleys and hill slopes, grazing areas, sacred groves and water bodies, this abstruse notion of FRA is not helpful.

Tribals, who know about the Act, know it for the IFR that too like development or land grant program. The IFR is supposed to ensure tenurial security of their farmlands along with community rights for legitimising forest-based informal livelihoods. Some IFR holders mentioned the lack of utility of such a right if they cannot sell the land, implying a dearth of understanding of its purpose. The IFR adding to livelihood security or household’s wealth is highly improbable as most tribal lands are small holdings located on less productive and difficult to access slopes (called kothukadu in many places). It is crucial for the tribals to know that even though these rights cannot be liquidated, holding IFR and community rights will be important to avoid displacement or dispossession (of forest, water or hamlet in their landscape) in future.

On collective rights for resources and management (Rights to Community Forest Resources (CFR) and Community Rights (CR)), they are generally apprehensive of probable restrictions imposed in foraging in any forest that they wish, beyond their own village CFR boundary. The CFR seems to be mostly on the backburner as that is convenient for all. But ignoring CFR could be a costly oversight if the community faces eviction for some project designed for the mainstream society.2 Also, wherever IFR looks challenging, implementing CR/CFR might help as seen in some contexts.3

Thus, it appears important for the tribal community to imbibe the meaning of each right stipulated in the Act in conjunction with the other rights. As promoters or FRC leaders do not seem to interact with or inform the village as a whole on a regular basis, village-wise exposure to the Act seems to be a crucial step in order to implement the Act in letter and spirit. But it is more important to ensure that this exposure is given by competent individuals, ideally, tribals themselves, who can unpack the Act in its aggregate wholesome meaning. Divergences in departmental priorities will diminish with joint training programs, ideally along with these tribal ambassadors of the FRA. Role of the state and civil society will be to facilitate the grooming of these adivasi advocates of the Act.4

Addressing individualisation5 as a consequence and prerequisite for land titles

Individualisation seems to be a pre-requisite and an outcome for granting IFR. Holdings under shifting cultivation are typically large; their total size more than 10 acres, though scattered in 2 or 3 patches usually in different terrains. The cultivated area under a village larger than what all families in the village together can hold under the Act, within which the periodic shifting by all families takes place is generally under community management. The shifting boundaries of the cultivated area of the village, as well as the frequency and year/​time of shifting, are decisions taken by the community elders led by mannukkaran (literally meaning the soil-in charge’, practically the tribal who is responsible for making decisions related to farming).

The IFR obviously is a contentious issue here due to the need to completely sedentarise and individualise and also due to the prospect of their current aggregate area of cultivation shrinking, as families are expanding. If other livelihoods elsewhere were accessible, at least some families would have moved out without increasing the population pressure in these remote hamlets. Wherever there is conflict, say, for a larger piece of land under IFR or for access to a larger forest area for foraging under CR, it indicates the lack of other suitable options. If the formal education system was attractive or conducive to tribals, more options would have opened up, deploying varied competencies (education and FRA linkage is again touched upon in the next point).

In such villages where the current area under farming is larger than that stipulated by the Act, it should be possible to consider community farming areas under rejuvenated community institutions. The Forest Department’s concerns regarding forest degradation or deforestation around these largish farmlands, chances of chemicals harming the wild agroecology and also the concern of alienation of land into non-tribal hands for more damaging uses (contractors of intensive mono-cropping from outside or extremists making use of the space and community), though legitimate, can be addressed through well-informed and dynamic community institutions.

Firstly, considerable cash income earnings by tribals from agriculture (on IFR land) are rare.6 Even if tribal farming becomes intensive, with IFR records, it becomes easy to detect alienation in any form. Notable cash flows have been reported on community farming areas but by virtue of these being collectively managed (as a common property resource rather than an open-access resource) with support from the government or voluntary agencies, these have been safe from alienation. The FRA can ensure collective practices and institutions needed for livelihood security by ensuring ecological integrity through the implementation of CFR and CR in letter and spirit. This depends on new, informal/semi-formal institutions to harmoniously utilise their collective culture in farming as well as marketing. Thus, the recognition of the two-way linkage or mutual dependence between tribal ethos and FRA seems inevitable.

Dovetailing popular development schemes in tribal areas with FRA

Most welfare and developmental interventions contribute to detribalisation in some way or the other, even if they are well-intended. And this process of detribalisation can make FRA implementation redundant. One example could be that of continuous employment of tribals away from their settlements makes them abandon their land. This, in turn, makes it tough to prove the claim for IFR or CR.7 Now that the FRA can make use of funds under several heads for implementing works under CFR, this divergence need not happen.

There are also cases where mandatory education, that too away from their villages, distanced children physically and mentally from their social-ecological system. The FRA for youngsters, thus, did not mean much in many places, but in some places, qualified youngsters want to continue living in their villages. These are those who have tried short-term employment in towns but did not feel comfortable in the urban spaces, people and jobs. Thus, even though some educated (those who have completed schooling and graduations and in some rare cases, post-graduation too) youth who are relatively unfamiliar with forests and FRA, feel better living mostly or partly in their native villages. FRA can support such youngsters to make an informed choice of a hybrid life and livelihoods. Their exposure to the outside world, in turn, could make them realise the unique strengths of the social-ecological system that they belong to.8

Mainstream school and college education are still seen by many tribals as an unavoidable pain but is tolerated for the sake of that rare opportunity of a government job in future. A very few land a secure job and if they do, they mostly move away from their family and community. Those working in temporary salaried jobs with some government department, NGOs or research projects continue to stay back in their villages.

Well implemented FRA, in letter and spirit, will enable deliberative institutions (mentioned earlier in I and II) that can also help the tribals to debate and articulate the kind of educational institutions they want. Thus, FRA and more popular development opportunities (here we mention livelihoods and education, there are, of course, others like housing and infrastructure) can complement each other towards long-lasting, community-led wellbeing. If this dovetailing is ignored, being an adivasi will confine to a label enabling material benefits from various quarters and FRA will lose its relevance.

Potential convergence of this task adorning a long-term objective can be found in training tribal youth in mapping capabilities for CFR. The FD has a close (physical/​geographical/​spatial) interface with most tribal hamlets and tribal lands. The FD and Tribal Department (TD) have needed decentralised infrastructure that can be harnessed to train tribal youth in green skills’. The TD can be engaged for the task, wherever the hamlets are far from forest offices. This would also serve as a much-needed rapport building exercise as also a process of adaptive skilling for the young generation of tribals.

Free distribution of goods also aids individualisation and detribalisation. When house, food, education and medical care come free, then whatever cash income, such as wages or sale proceeds from farming or forest produce, they earn is mostly spent on alcohol. When the cash income is good and goes directly to the beneficiary’s bank account, it is better spent. But it might be useful to remember that handling money will not be a forest dweller’s strength and they would probably need some financial counselling and/​or appropriate community institutions so that spreading monetisation and individualisation of tribal communities would not alienate their unique collective strengths.

The FRA has the potential to highlight the uniqueness of tribal agriculture that has more to do with food than with marketable surplus, though both exist in varying proportion across oorus (villages or hamlets). Dovetailing agricultural interventions with FRA is beneficial to sustain their agroecosystem – the foundation of their food, livelihood and health. The provisions of the FRA enabling them to decide what and how to grow should be teased out and supported. Like the forests around tribal hamlets, their agricultural land is also getting degraded. Facilitating tribal agro-ecological farming should not be seen as an agricultural extension activity. The uniqueness of the tribal social-ecological system needs bottom-up planning and strategisation for a kind of farming that is attuned to the innate biodiversity of forest peripheries, the knowledge systems around it, the culinary culture and nutritional needs of a unique community.

Adapting tribal social institutions to current realities

The new institutions, mentioned in point II above, needed for keeping tribal strengths intact while implementing FRA, may adopt the community welfare objectives of traditional institutions but need to be scientifically informed and be egalitarian and deliberative in their functioning. The role of Gram Sabhas in nurturing some of these has been mentioned in the Act as fostering committees for the protection of forests, wildlife and biodiversity. Even for such formal committees stipulated in the Act to work on the ground, adapting old (knowledge and associated community) institutions to current realities will be important. Although this sounds vague and complex to be implemented on the ground, without these, the Act may not mean much in reality. The existing institutional gaps can be deliberated in Gram Sabhas and concerned departments and resource persons can be invited.

During brief interactions, it is usual to hear the woes on denied or delayed benefits or about corruption in the system. In longer conversations, they express disappointment in their waning identity as an ethnic group, including the quality of their ecology that gave them their culture and knowledge systems. The FRA could be seen as an intervention/​instrument to help them reconfigure their tribal-ness’ so that their institutions and knowledge systems are revived and adapted to modern opportunities and challenges.

For a meaningful implementation of FRA, conversations and deliberations on disappearing tribal-ness are crucial. Unlike tribal communities in many other states, a deliberative culture is not totally absent here. This institutional stimulus through FRA will benefit other development schemes and aid the dovetailing mentioned in point III, above. The role of the state and civil society will be to facilitate this process that obviously needs well informed, committed, context-specific and innovative mechanisms and officials. This also entails capacities and competencies to be built in a joint effort across departmental and hierarchical boundaries as indicated earlier under point I.

Addressing certain specific issues

a. Differentiation within tribals – who among them are the original inhabitants and also who actually have been close to forests – creates some friction. The FD dependant tribes blame the shifting of farmer tribes for forest degradation.9 Co-ordinating their perspectives will be useful to regenerate areas where degradation has set in. The facilitating agency involved in FRA implementation needs to tread this carefully while mapping overlapping resources under CR/CFR between villages because any divisive tendency within a minority ethnic group will be counterproductive.

b. Overlapping CR/CFR has not given rise to major conflicts when managed well by a larger sangham – a collective of all overlapping villages.10 Here, regular facilitation (just reminding the concerned oorukootam /​sangham members about the meetings and enquiring about the minutes of such meetings for records) of meetings between the village FRCs needs to come from TD.

c. Local representation among promoters and their continuity, until some phase of implementation is completed, is essential. Their capacities to be built has been mentioned in point I.

d. Politicisation of vana samrakshana samithis (forest protection committees) and tribal cooperative societies has spearheaded their demise in many places. If Gram Sabhas also proceed in that direction, FRA may become difficult to implement as that can undermine the consensus (not unanimity) needed to make resolutions in implementing the provisions. It may be important in a democratic society to be politically conscious and informed. The constitutional provisions for tribals, their governance institutions and know-how should be bolstered with all that modern science and society have to offer. But if the latter is allowed to take over the former, then the future of FRA is unpredictable.

e. Involving NGOs for monitoring, facilitating and capacity-building is important. The selection criteria can be specified for each context.

f. Most areas that started with IFR and FRCs got stuck in the many problems concerning proofs. In many cases, the FRC becomes dysfunctional after the successful recording of IFR. For the FD, CFR particularly, is incursion to their exclusive rights and responsibilities in forest protection, though to implement the Act in its right spirit, they do have a role in working with the committees formed under the Gram Sabha.11

Giving FRA an image makeover

In the same way as streamlining FRA among tribals as a development tool devoid of prospective dispossession of their essential socio-cultural features while opening up new possibilities in line with their informed choices is done, FRA’s potential benefits to the larger society should also be made explicit. The cultural-ecological know-how of the adivasis is of obvious value in this era of the pandemic, economic slowdown and climate change. This realisation might accelerate and support effective FRA implementation by generating necessary momentum among departments and development agencies and within the constituency of the adivasis themselves. Can FRA be seen as an instrument towards sustaining the adaptive cycles of society, ecology and economy? Or should it continue to be treated as another affirmative action to ameliorate historical injustice’ and left to languish between political manoeuvres?

Notes:

  1. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA)
  2. Court rulings on the Athirappilly hydel project and CFR.
  3. Different examples for this in Pananchery (no private land in the resettled colony) and Attapady (kurumbas ‑shifting and larger patches under community governance).
  4. Identifying and supporting committed tribal youth, especially women, across the state to be trained as FRA ambassadors by a competent body consisting of relevant, diverse and reputed institutions can be thought of. Legal services agencies and law students should be involved.
  5. Being family-centric, in contrast to identifying oneself as part of a cohesive tribe with shared cultural-ecological values. Development interventions have been consistently disintegrating the tribal-ness’, but FRA needs it back (and the rejuvenation of tribal-ness to coexist with modernisation seems to need the nudging and support of FRA), for its ways of social organisation and ecological know-how.
  6. Parambikulam and Idukki have pepper and rubber in IFR areas; Malakkappara has community farming areas.
  7. Examples seen in Attappady. Implementation of Forest Rights Act: Observations from Kerala’s Attappadi Block
  8. This also impinges on the image makeover of FRA among the mainstream society mentioned at the end of this note (VI).
  9. Wayanad, Attapadi and Vazhachal showcase diversity within tribal perspectives.
  10. Case of Vazhachal with nine villages. Implementation of Forest Rights Act: Lessons from Vazhachal Division of Kerala
  11. Examples seen in Attappady. Implementation of Forest Rights Act: Observations from Kerala’s Attappadi Block

Author

Seema Purushothaman, Professor, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru
Rema Devi, member, Field Practice team, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru