Demand for Forest Rights Emerges as a Major Electoral Issue in 153 Lok Sabha Constituencies Ahead of Polls

Long-running land disputes involving several lakh hectares of forest land that resulted from violations of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 are anticipated to become a major electoral issue in as many as 153 parliamentary constituencies across states when the Lok Sabha polls begin on April 19.

Scheduled tribes (ST) that live in forests and other traditional communities are already bringing up the issue in at least five tribally-dominated states that have the highest core FRA constituencies: Maharashtra (22), Odisha (19), Madhya Pradesh (16), Jharkhand (12), and Rajasthan (11). Some local groups have even threatened to boycott the elections.

These marginalized adivasi and forest-dependent groups have been harboring a feeling of unease due to the loss of their rights to the land, communal forest, and ecosystems that they have occupied for many generations. They are now much more at danger of being forcibly evicted due to the denial of their rights and the widespread rejections, the majority of which are motivated by arbitrary grounds, according to independent researcher Tushar Dash.

Up to 781 of these land disputes involving local communities and raging across states were recorded by a team of researchers at Land Conflict Watch. Approximately 264 instances, affecting over 18 lakh people and involving approximately five lakh hectares of forest land, are located in the 153 constituencies.

The majority of these disputes are the result of FRA violations or non-implementation on the ground. Anmol Gupta, legal research lead at Land Conflicts Watch, said that in certain instances, the process has been bogged down for years in the verification stage or claims have been rejected for arbitrary reasons, allowing other agencies to acquire land without offering rehabilitation or compensation for denying access. Land Conflicts Watch carried out an independent legal review of these conflicts for their report Ballot and Land.

Throughout India’s history, forest land has been classified as government property due to the colonial administration, regardless of whether community forest rights have been granted or not. To “correct this historical injustice,” the government did, however, establish the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in 2006.

The historic law gave tribal groups and forest inhabitants the legal right to claim ownership and administration of the forest land that has served as their home and means of subsistence for many centuries. Nevertheless, after 16 years, this crucial legislation has been tainted by infractions and poor execution on the ground, leaving these marginalized groups to struggle for their rights and access to communal forest resources for subsistence, as well as to stop any more forced evictions.

Based on official statistics, the administration has rejected 34.9% of FRA applications, out of a total of 17 lakh claims, as of February 2024. There are up to 17 crore FRA constituencies in Odisha, where voting is scheduled to start on May 13. The state has also reported the highest number of community-related clashes, with the most incidents coming from the regions of Koratpur and Kalahandi. Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jammu and Kashmir, and Chhattisgarh come next.

The research states that the government’s plans to divert land for forestry and conservation, infrastructure, road, and power projects, as well as mining projects, account for a substantial portion of these disputes.

In more than half of India’s forests, the Gram Sabhas now own the forests instead of the state. The environment ministry announced in 2009 that democratic institutions at the village level have been granted protection rights over 40 million hectares of communal forest resources by the FRA. However, it necessitated adjusting other forest regulations that already existed; regrettably, none of them were changed and were instead used to erode democratic forest governance. These land disputes are a sign of widespread FRA breaches that are taking place locally. We don’t sure how much, but the problem might very likely sway votes, according to senior researcher CR Bijoy, who looks at governance and resource conflict concerns.

The current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has promised to protect the interests of forest dwellers, especially in tribal communities, and provide basic amenities like roads, telephone connectivity, cooking gas connections, houses, and toilets to people living in remote forest areas. However, the party’s 2024 election manifesto makes no mention of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) or forest rights.

However, the Congress has unveiled the “Tribal Manifesto,” also known as the “Adivasi Sankalp,” which calls for the creation of a six-month review procedure for all FRA claims that are denied and the prompt settlement of all outstanding FRA claims within a year. In its manifesto, the Communist Party of India (CPI(M)) pledged to fully execute the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and to ensure that no forest inhabitant is forced from their home.