- In 2021, the village of Kodalpalli in Odisha’s Nayagarh district became one of the few places in India where the country’s landmark Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA) was translated into formal rights for traditionally forest-dependent communities.
- This July, the east Indian state of Odisha launched a scheme to expand FRA coverage to 30,000 villages that are home to tribal groups and other traditionally forest-dwelling communities.
- It took Kodalpalli villagers more than 10 years to get their claim validated; by then, a women-led forest stewardship scheme called thengapalli had been in place for about four decades.
- Experts say the legal right has helped strengthen existing community-based institutions and practices like thengapalli while opening up new livelihood opportunities for residents.
When her mother-in-law started taking her along on forest patrols, Pramila Pradhan, 51, began embracing thengapalli, a form of forest stewardship. In Kodalpalli, Odisha, thenga means stick, and palli means turn or rotation. For decades, stick-wielding women here have taken turns every day to patrol and safeguard their woodlands.
But it was only in 2021 that the Indian government recognised their rights over communal forest resources. With this recognition, Kodalpalli became one of the few places in India where the landmark Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA) has been translated into formal rights for traditionally forest-dependent communities.
The FRA seeks to remedy the exclusion faced by these groups, which deepened under British colonial rule and persisted in independent India. It was a belated acknowledgment of the centrality of forested areas to people’s lives and the latter’s importance to the persistence and well-being of India’s forests.
“More than 50% of forest land in India can be recognised and protected as community forest resource with the effective implementation of FRA,” said Tushar Dash, an independent researcher who works on forest rights. That’s at least 40 million hectares (100 million acres). Groups that receive collective rights are required to incorporate principles of sustainable management once their claims are approved, but proving sustainable management is not the basis for granting the rights.
Seventeen years since the law was passed, more than 90% of villages across India that are eligible for community forest rights under the FRA still lack them, according to civil society organisations. But this July, the state of Odisha launched a scheme to expand FRA coverage over the next two years to comply with the legislation. If it succeeds, it will become the first state in the country to do so. Nearly 750,000 families in around 30,000 Odisha villages stand to benefit.
Wresting Forest Rights From The State, With Its Help
Until now, only communities that organised themselves and built capacity with the support of local organisations won their rights under the FRA. The people of Kodalpalli, for example, used the FRA very effectively, Dash said. Expanding the FRA on a scale envisioned by the Odisha government can’t happen without the wholehearted endorsement of official agencies and grassroots organisations, he said.
What forest rights campaigners find encouraging is that, for the first time, a state government set aside dedicated funds for FRA implementation. Odisha is also appointing community mobilisers, one for every 10 villages, paid and trained by the government. FRA cells are opening at the district level, and civil society organisations are being roped in. The NGOs are getting financial assistance to support communities in securing their rights. Vasundhara, a nonprofit focused on securing tenure rights, is helping 12,000 villages in 15 districts with this work.
At the same time, the act doesn’t grant communities wholesale rights to forested land. Rather, it enshrines claims that communities can show they held customarily — be it individual rights to cultivate inside forested areas for sustenance, a community’s right to live on and off forested land, or a village’s right to manage forests within its boundaries and access forest produce.
Sitting on India’s eastern shore, Odisha is home to 62 tribal communities. These groups, along with other forest-dwelling communities, protect about a third of Odisha’s forest estate, said Y. Giri Rao, executive director of Vasundhara. Like Kodalpalli, these are areas where people’s daily needs, livelihood, culture and identity are bound to their forests.
The need to reestablish community forest management was born out of the marginalisation, persecution and criminalisation forest peoples faced during British rule. They stood in the way of intensive extraction of forest resources by colonial authorities, in particular timber. Post-independence, from 1947, tribal groups and other forest-dependent villages continued to be excluded from its management by India’s forest department. The central government agency perpetuated an imperialist approach, treating forests as revenue-generating assets rather than the life-sustaining systems communities see them as.
Under the department’s watch, forests across the country, including in Odisha, withered away. Between 1880 and 1960, India lost 2 million hectares (5 million acres) of forest every decade. Deforestation started to slow down only in the 1980s, after the Forest Conservation Act, but it wasn’t consistent.
Tribal and forest-dependent communities saw the green cover they relied on disappear and degrade while their customary rights to the forest, to live in and tend for their ancestral environs, continued to be ignored.
It took nearly 60 years since independence for the Indian state to redress this historical injustice and promote a rights-based approach to forest conservation and management through the FRA. However, to date, its potential remains largely unrealised, Dash said. One of the biggest hurdles is the forest department’s resistance to relinquishing control, not implementing provisions under the act, or, worse, perversion of rules to deny legitimate claims. “Rejection of claims illegally or wrongfully has been one of the major problems in getting recognition of rights,” Dash said.
In the case of Kodalpalli, it took villagers more than 10 years to get their claim validated. Two years ago, they were granted a Community Forest Resource Rights (CFRR) title under the FRA, along with a neighbouring village, Sinduria, for 283 hectares (698 acres) of forests. By then, the women-led management system called thengapalli had been in place for about four decades.
“In these villages, they had de facto systems like their own committees for forest protection, which are now legally recognised. They have more power, and there is proper documentation of rules, regulations, and practices like thengapalli,” Dash said.