Policy Report No. 17: Narratives of Dalit Inclusion and Exclusion in Formulating and Implementing the Forest Rights Act, 2006
The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy
01 Jan, 2016
This report, by The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, discusses the inclusion and exclusion of Dalit communities living in forests in formulating and implementing the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. The Centre, an offshoot of The Hindu Group of Publications (also known as Kasturi & Sons Ltd), focuses on research on constitutional concepts.
The report describes the processes – and the politics – that led to the creation of ‘Other Traditional Forest Dwellers’, which includes Dalits. The report explores the limitations of the Act, which precludes forest-dwelling Dalit communities from accessing their rights and forest resources.The report also documents movements of resistance by Dalit forest dwellers and Adivasis in Chitrakoot and Sonbhadra districts of Uttar Pradesh, and Kandhamal district of Odisha. At times, there were conflicts between Dalits and the Scheduled Tribes (STs); at other times, they came together to fight for their rights. The report suggests amendments to the Forest Rights Act and caste-sensitive strategies that recognise the rights of these communities.
Historically, Adivasis and Dalits have had an interdependent relationship, but over time, this has increasingly been impacted by divisive religion-based politics and the advance of industries onto forestland, which have displaced these forest dwellers, forced them to relocate and restricted their access to resources.
For long, forests rights have been seen as an issue only related to Adivasis, and caste was not recognised as an important factor when the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 was drafted. Perhaps the absence of Dalit mobilisation for forest rights and inadequate data on the number of Dalits living in forests created this oversight.
While drafting the FRA, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, argued about the risk in recognising everyone’s rights, which, it said, would make it difficult to reject their claims over forestland. The ministry also supported ‘positive discrimination’ for forest-based Scheduled Tribes because they were considered ‘the most vulnerable’ of the forest-dependent communities.
Dalits communities, however, faced violence from state forest authorities, and there were also clashes with Adivasis, when they tried to access their forest rights, and were inadequately represented on committees set up to evaluate the forest rights of Scheduled Castes (SCs).
Initially, under the Act, to be able to claim their individual – and not community – forest rights, Dalits had to provide evidence such as pattas to prove their presence in the forest for 75 years.
While the Forest Rights Act was seen as a huge victory by forest communities, the people in Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh were not categorised as Scheduled Castes because they failed to provide evidence of residence in the forest. The conflict over the land reclamation processes were exemplified by Chitrakoot, and such struggles – led by the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers – for forest rights speak of the opposition to ‘appropriation’ of land by the state.
So in 2012, the people of Chitrakoot district used force to reclaim forestland. As they were unable to provide evidence required under the Act, the use of force seemed to be the only option.
In Kandhamal, Pano Dalits (a Scheduled Caste community living mainly in Odisha, and in a few other states) were denied land and access to forest resources. The exclusive rights for these were given to Kondha Adivasis because Kandhamal is a Constitutionally-mandated ‘Scheduled Area’ with a tribal majority. This added to landlessness among Dalit communities, as well as violence against them in the region.
After protests in 2012 by the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, the evidentiary requirement of the FRA was relaxed. A written statement by a community elder could function as evidence of an individual’s residence in the forest, but not a community’s.
Other provisions that were later included in the FRA were community forest rights over minor forest produce, the right to manage and conserve community forest resources, and the right to traditional knowledge and biodiversity.
Factoids and Focus compiled by Divya Jain.