In Jharkhand, Forest Rights Could Decide Votes In 77% Assembly Seats
New Delhi: Tribals’ dissatisfaction with the slow implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), which offers formal recognition of forest-dwellers’ land rights, could be a deciding factor in more than 62 of the 81 assembly constituencies (over 77%) in the upcoming state elections Jharkhand, an analysis by an independent research group has concluded.
The analysis is based on the fact that the number of Scheduled Caste & Scheduled Tribe (SC and ST) voters eligible for land rights under the FRA is more than the margin of victory in the last election in 94% (58) of the 62 seats considered FRA-sensitive. Nearly 70% of the population in constituencies spread across Jharkhand--Chakradharpur, Gumla, Latehar and Simdega, for example--belongs to SC/ST categories.
Analysing the results of the 2014 assembly elections in these 62 constituencies, 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).
The FRA, that came into effect in 2006, is critical to the livelihoods of at least 3.8 million SC & ST voters in Jharkhand, 52% of total 7.3 million voters, as per 2014 voting statistics. Of the SC-ST voters, 75% (2.9 million) belong to Scheduled Tribes, the constitutional term for government-recognised indigenous tribes, found analysts Tushar Shah and Archana Soreng, both members of the NGO network Community Forest Resource-Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA), who conducted this analysis independent of CFR-LA.
Elections in Jharkhand will be held in five phases between November 30 and December 20, 2019, and the results declared on December 23.
The BJP has lost a substantial number of FRA-sensitive seats in at least four assembly elections in the past year. In Maharashtra--which had elections in October 2019--the incumbent BJP lost about 22% FRA-sensitive seats and could not win a majority to form the government, as we explain later.
Similarly, 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 the CFR-LA.
The BJP-led central government has since withdrawn a controversial amendment to the Indian Forest Act of 1947 that was criticised for, among other things, proposing to give more powers and immunity for using firearms to forest officials, Livemint reported on November 16, 2019.
On November 21, 2019, hundreds of tribals--from states including Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar, Uttarakhand and West Bengal--gathered at Delhi's Jantar Mantar to protest against the tardy implementation of the FRA.
Jharkhand lags in FRA implementation
Community rights--which vest forest-dwellers with the right to manage and govern the natural forest they have been using for generations--are one of the most important provisions of the FRA. Even by conservative estimates, Jharkhand has the potential to distribute community rights over 1.9 million hectares of forests--bigger than the area of Kuwait--according to a 2015 study by the Rights and Resources Initiative, a Washington-based non-profit.
Jharkhand had recognised just over 2% of its community claims potential, over 40,380 hectares, as on April 2018, according to government data. And it has recognised only a little more than half the claims filed by individuals.
In a recent affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, the state accepted that it had wrongly rejected claims under the FRA. It asked for time until July 2020 to review all the rejected claims and ascertain the number of wrongfully rejected claims.
This low number of settled claims has placed Jharkhand in the list of worst FRA implementers, earning it the tag “laggard state” from Oxfam, a non-profit, in a 2018 report. “For a state where 26% of its population is Adivasis, 31% of who reside in rural areas, this should be a matter of concern,” the report said.
The FRA is a strong tool for financial empowerment for economically backwards STs. In Jharkhand, every second person (49%) from Scheduled Tribes--and two of every five (40%) from Scheduled Castes--lives below the poverty line (BPL), said this 2017 report by the government think-tank Niti Aayog. Overall, 39.1% of people in Jharkhand live below the BPL as against the average national rate of 29.8%.
|FRA Implementation In Jharkhand, As Of April 2018|
|Types of Forest Rights||Gram Sabha Claims Received||Approved||Rejected||Approved Forest Area (hectares)||Claims Disposed off (% of Claims Received)|
|Community Forest Rights||3667||2090||NA||40380.34||NA|
|Total Jharkhand||109030||60143||29521||82029.77||89664 (82.24%)|
Source: Ministry of Tribal Affairs, India
To break down the number of seats against the degree of influence FRA could have in the election results, researchers divided the seats into three ‘value’ categories: critical, high and good. In ‘critical’ 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 ‘good’ have a comparatively lower population of tribespeople and area under forests.
|How Important Was FRA In The 2014 Jharkhand Assembly Elections?|
|Value of FRA as an electoral factor||Seats||BJP||JMM||Others|
Source: Independent analysis by Tushar Shah and Archana Soreng, FRA researchers
In the 2014 assembly elections, the ruling BJP won about 42% of the critical 62 seats. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the main opposition party in the state, won about 30% seats. The Congress, which has never won an assembly election since the formation of the state in 2001, won only about 5% of seats while the remaining 23% went to candidates from ‘other’ parties.
The JMM and candidates from other parties were collectively runners-up in about 37% of the 62 seats, and could have ensured victory in more seats had they emphasised implementation of the FRA as an election issue, the analysts said. If the BJP, which heads the Jharkhand state government, fails to emphasise FRA in the upcoming elections, it may win fewer seats than in 2014.
FRA and voting decisions
The BJP has lost FRA-sensitive seats in at least four assembly elections in the past year with Maharashtra being the latest where the party lost 22% critical, high and good value FRA sensitive seats, combined, according to the analysis of Maharashtra election results held in October 2019. In 2014, the BJP had won three of the seven critical value seats. In 2019, it lost all three.
FRA could, if made an election issue, change the results on at least 70% of the total 288 assembly seats in Maharashtra, IndiaSpend had reported on October 18, 2019.
FRA also played an important role, as we said, in the defeat of the incumbent BJP party in the 2018 assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
In its manifesto for the 2018 Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, the Congress had promised to implement the FRA, and won 68% more seats of the total 39 seats reserved for SCs 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.
(Tripathi is an IndiaSpend reporting fellow.)
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