Mumbai: As India gears up for the general election just weeks from now, as many as 153 parliamentary constituencies have forest rights at their core, an analysis has found. These seats have a sizable number of people relying on forests for their identity and subsistence, and the government’s forest policies concern them directly or indirectly.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the majority of these seats were won by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with the Congress being the runner-up in many of these seats. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, commonly known as Forest Rights Act or FRA, was enacted under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in 2006. The BJP also won in tribal constituencies in 2019 where Jal, Jungle, Zameen (water, forest, land) have been at the heart of people’s demands in various agitations.

Estimates suggest that at least 30 million hectares of India’s forest land, comprising more than 40% of the total forest area, could be vested as community forest rights (CFRs) with Gram Sabhas. This has the potential to secure the rights and livelihoods of at least 200 million people, including nearly 90 million tribals. Approximately one-fourth of the villages in the country or 175,000 villages are eligible for CFR rights, as enshrined in the FRA.

Experts believe that any party campaigning in these constituencies, especially those reserved for scheduled tribes, will have to look into effective FRA implementation, particularly with respect to the large number of CFR claims rejected over the years and the threat of eviction from forest land, effective price for minor forest produce, implementation of Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or PESA which was enacted to empower Panchayats of Scheduled Areas, and withdrawal of forest cases.

As voting dates approach, we look at election trends and speak to observers on what the data show and why forest rights continue to be an election issue.

What the data show

By October 2023, about 2.34 million land titles totaling over 18 million acres, including individual and community forest rights, were distributed under the FRA, Minister of State for Tribal Affairs Bishweswar Tudu told Parliament in December 2023. These amount to about half of the claims that were received at the time.

Data released by his ministry in November 2023 show that the number of CFR and individual forest rights (IFR) claims settled have increased nearly four-fold from 23,578 up to May 2014, when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance came to power to 86,621 between 2014 and June 2023. The extent of land distributed more than doubled, from 5.5 million acres before 2014 to 12.3 million acres since.

However, actual FRA implementation has been weak on the ground, as evidenced repeatedly. Recently, a fact-finding committee submitted its report to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs on FRA implementation in India where it highlighted several concerns such as no time-frame followed for taking decisions on gram sabha recommendations, IFR titles given for very small pieces of land, inadequate focus on community rights, and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers left out of the FRA recognition process.

The tenure of the Union government ends in June and new research notes that “the policy interventions by the central government, particularly the MOEFCC/Forest bureaucracy led efforts at diluting FRA through series of legislative and policy changes…” MOEFCC is the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. This research report was prepared by a group of independent forest researchers and was shared with IndiaSpend. The legislative and policy changes referred here include the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, the draft National Forest Policy, changes in the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR) as well as the recent amendments to the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) in 2023.

These five years also saw the agitation to save Hasdeo forest in Chhattisgarh, concerns over loss of forests in northeast India after the FCA amendment, as well as the Save Mollem movement to save forests in Goa in 2020-21.

Reflections from 2019

As forests stand threatened, what about the lives and livelihoods of those who depend on them? How have they traditionally voted? What do election data from 2019 show?

Independent forest researcher Soz, who only uses her first name and who worked on the research report mentioned above, said, “It’s been 17 years this Act has been around (FRA), we don’t even see its 20-30% potential been reached. The attempt [in this research] is to use election, census data to understand what is the potential of forest rights that can be mapped and how significantly can they be an issue in each constituency.”

This group found that of India’s 545 parliamentary constituencies, FRA is an issue ‘at all’ in 270. But if those seats where it has marginal value are removed, seats where FRA can be a key subject come down to 153.

Of these 153, the BJP won a majority of seats in 2019 at 103 and was a runner-up in 18. The Congress won only 11 seats and was a runner-up in 79. The remaining seats were won by regional parties such as in Andhra Pradesh (5), Maharashtra (10), Odisha (11), Telangana (5) and others.

Breaking this down further, of the 153, 45 constituencies are of critical value, with the highest number of forest rights-eligible electors (people eligible to vote and eligible for forest rights).

Data show that in the Scheduled Tribe-reserved constituency of Bastar, 72% electors are eligible for FRA rights and Congress won this seat in 2019. Jharkhand’s Khunti and Chatra had 68% and 67% eligible, and were both won by BJP. The numbers were similar in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandla and Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli-Chimur constituencies which were won by the BJP. Odisha’s Keonjhar, with 72% electors eligible for forest rights, voted for the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) whereas Mayurbhanj with 74% eligible voters voted for the BJP. Nabarangpur with 84% eligible voted for the BJD.

“Forest rights issues have always been a political issue,” said Tushar Dash, one of the forest researchers who worked on the report. “If you look at the assembly elections in various states last year, for example in Chhattisgarh, Congress spoke about forest rights but also did not deliver on saving Hasdeo forest. It lost [partially because of that]. It won in Telangana partially because it campaigned on subjects such as rights of Podu (forest) land cultivators or the issue of plantation on community land. Forest rights are also economic issues for people in India.”

Dash believes that FRA implementation has been seriously undermined so far, citing mass rejection of forest title claims, a large number of villages deprived of community titles, issue of ownership of minor forest produce and communities’ access to it.

Poll promises

So far, the Congress party has promised six resolutions “to protect the Jal Jungle Zameen of our Adivasis”. These include a national mission for the effective implementation of FRA through a dedicated FRA division, separate budget and action plans.

“We will ensure settlement of all pending FRA claims within 1 year, and establish a process for the review of all rejected claims within 6 months,” Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge posted on platform X (previously Twitter) on March 12.

The resolutions also include promises on notifying scheduled areas, establishing 'village government’ and 'autonomous district government’ as envisaged in PESA, minor forest produce to be covered in MSP among others.

So far there is no election promise from BJP’s national leadership on FRA/PESA strengthening.

Father George Monapilly, a forest rights activist from Jharkhand, said that any party promising to protect forest rights needs to strengthen the gram sabha first.

“The entire system does not recognise the authority of the gram sabha, which has court-like powers as per FRA. The sabha can even reject the recommendations of the forest department. But all over India, no state is upholding its authority. Government needs to strengthen the sabha first if it is serious about improving FRA implementation,” said Monapilly.