New Delhi: The Forest Rights Act (FRA) could be a deciding factor in more than 70% (211) of the 288 Assembly constituencies in the 2019 Maharashtra elections, according to an analysis by a group of independent researchers. This is because the number of voters eligible for land rights under the FRA is more than the margin of victory in the last election in 87% of the 211 seats considered FRA-sensitive.

Analysing the results of the 2014 assembly elections in the 211 constituencies that have a large proportion of tribal dwellers, the researchers concluded that any political party that promises effective implementation of the FRA and other laws protecting land rights of tribespeople could defeat the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in these constituencies.

FRA, which offered formal recognition of forest-dwellers’ land rights in 2006, is critical to the livelihoods of at least 25.4 million people in Maharashtra--equivalent to Australia’s population. Of these 25.4 million, 21.7% (5.5 million) belong to Scheduled Tribes, the constitutional term for government-recognised indigenous tribes.

FRA definitely has the potential to change the election outcome, Pravin Mote, an activist from the All India Forum for Forest Movements (AIFFM), one of the research groups that undertook the analysis, told IndiaSpend.

Elections in Maharashtra will be held on October 21, 2019, and the results declared on October 24.

The BJP lost the 2018 Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, partly due to the FRA, according to the Assembly election analysis by Community Forest Resource-Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA), an NGO network.

Hotbed of land conflicts

In Maharashtra, FRA has been a point of contention between forest-dwellers and the government ever since its enactment, resulting in conflicts in over 26,475 hectare of forest land (twice the area of the union territory of Chandigarh). These conflicts affect the lives of more than 50,900 people, as per data collected by Land Conflict Watch (LCW), an independent network of researchers and journalists that maps land conflicts in India.

In Maharashtra, thousands of farmers protested against the slow implementation and wrongful rejection of claims under the FRA in 2018. These are major issues in parts of northern Maharashtra including in Nashik, Nandurbar, Yavatmal, Amravati, Gadchiroli and Dhule. Yet, no political party is actively addressing forest rights while campaigning.

In a recent affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, the state accepted that it had wrongly rejected 22,000 claims under the FRA. The state has now recognised claims over nearly two-fifths of its potential forest area, or 1.3 million hectares, becoming one of the top states in the country in implementation of FRA.

Yet, this makes for roughly one-third (37%) of its total FRA potential of 3.6 million hectares. The state had approved 50% of the 374,539 FRA claims by January 2019.

Voting patterns

More than 20% of the electorate in 211 constituencies is affected by the FRA, especially by one provision of the law--community forest tights (CFR) that give gram panchayats the power to govern and manage forests--found Tushar Shah and Archana Soreng, who analysed the data.

To break down the number of seats against the degree of influence FRA could have in the election results, the researchers have divided the seats into four ‘value’ categories: critical, high, good and medium. In critical value seats, the most number of voters is affected by FRA, a high proportion of the population is tribal, and a large area comes under forests. Those categorised under medium value have a comparatively lower population of tribespeople and area under forests.

How Important Was FRA In The 2014 Maharashtra Assembly Elections?
Value of FRA as a electoral factor Seats BJP INC NCP Shivsena Other
Won 2nd Won 2nd Won 2nd Won 2nd Won 2nd
Critical Value 7 3 0 2 0 1 3 0 3 1 1
High Value 16 6 3 2 5 4 3 2 4 2 1
Good Value 108 45 22 21 25 12 24 23 23 7 14
Medium Value 80 26 21 11 22 20 17 17 13 6 7
Total 211 80 46 36 52 37 47 42 43 16 23

Source: Independent analysis

In the 2014 assembly elections, the ruling BJP and Shiv Sena together won about 58% of these 211 seats (the BJP won 80 and the Shiv Sena 42). The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) was the third largest party with about 18% (37) of the total 211 seats. The Congress, which had won the most seats in the 2009 elections, won 17% seats (36).

The Congress party was the runner-up in the most seats (25%), and could have the greatest potential to win more seats if it emphasises implementation of the FRA as an election issue, the analysts said. If the BJP, which heads the Maharashtra state government, fails to emphasise FRA, it may win fewer seats than in 2014.

FRA and voting decisions

In its manifesto for the 2018 Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, the Congress promised to implement the FRA, and won 68% more seats of the total 39 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes (constitutionally recognised “lower” castes) and STs than in the 2013 election. The BJP lost 75% of the seats it had won in the last election, as per the CFR-LA’s analysis.

In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where the Congress won by a smaller margin than in Chhattisgarh, the party had not pushed the land rights issue as vehemently, according to the analysis.

“The FRA is not an issue which can be sidelined in election,” said Lalsu Nogoti of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi Party, and a candidate in the forthcoming Maharashtra elections. “It is directly related to livelihoods and it is high time that parties recognise this.”

A part of the Mandia Gond community, one of India’s particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs), Lalsu is a lawyer and an activist, and was an independent elected member of the Zila Parishad (local council) in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district in 2017.

“Our demands include proper implementation of the FRA and the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA), which empowers gram sabhas [village councils] to self-govern in areas of the country with a majority ST population,” Nagoti said.

FRA Implementation In Maharashtra, As Of January 2019
Types of Forest Rights Gram Sabha Claims Received until January 31, 2019 Approved Rejected Approved Forest Area (hectares)
Individual Rights 362502 179,684 43941 162244.14
Community Forest Rights 12037 7729 337 1177029.8
Total Maharashtra 374539 187413 44278 1339273.94

Source: Tribal Development Department, Maharashtra

(Tripathi is an IndiaSpend reporting fellow.)

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