By Souparna Lahiri
An estimated 147 million villagers in India live in or around forests, and another 275 million villagers depend heavily on forests as a source of livelihood. Livelihood security for forest dependent communities is critically linked to their rights, access to, and control over forest resources. Since the British colonial administration promulgated the Indian Forest Act in 1865, Indian forests came under State control and restricted the access and rights of forest dependent communities. The independent Indian Government formally admitted to this historic blunder on December 2006 at the Indian Parliament.
It is to the credit of the forest communities that even after 150 years of siege and deprivation of their rights and access, the Indian forests are still thriving at 67 million ha (23.41% of the country’s geographical area). With an annual deforestation rate of around 35,000 ha – mainly due to industrial and development projects – it is due to forest communities’ traditional ethos and customs, and their symbiotic relationship with nature, that Indian forests are still surviving.
India’s annual State of Forest Reports indicate that in all of the tribal districts, the current levels of forest cover (over 33%) are significantly higher than the national average of 21%. The available statistical data shows that it is in fact the traditional and customary practices of forest communities that have sustained the Indian forests, wildlife and biodiversity. This despite living in abject poverty, being periodically evicted from their homelands and having their crops and homes burnt and destroyed. Most affected are the women who traditionally venture into the forests for food and fuel wood and who participate in agricultural activities in large numbers.
Recognition of Forest Rights
A long history of struggle by India’s forest dwelling communities – from rebellions to take back homelands usurped by the colonial empire in the 19th century, to a radical movement emerging in the 1990s – culminated in the Indian Parliament being forced to enact the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act in December 2006. Known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA), this landmark legislation restored and recognised the traditional rights of forest communities that were snatched away in the consolidation of State forests during the colonial period as well as in independent India. 
This Act addresses the longstanding insecurity of tenurial and access rights of forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers. The FRA ensures that both an individual’s right to agricultural and homestead lands, that are accorded jointly to a woman and her spouse, as well as community rights over forests are recognised, recorded and vested. The recognised rights of the forest dwelling communities  include the responsibilities and authority for sustainable use, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance. The Act strengthens the conservation regime of the forests while ensuring livelihood and food security of the forest dwelling groups. The Gram Sabha (or Village Council) is empowered with governance rights to manage, protect and conserve its own forests in a sustainable manner.
Traditional knowledge is also recognised in the FRA. It makes way for forest communities’ right of access to biodiversity and communities’ right to intellectual property and traditional knowledge related to biodiversity and cultural diversity.
The FRA, therefore, recognises and respects Articles 8(j) and 10(c) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) provisions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It is also a step in the right direction in terms of achieving the CBD’s Aichi Biodiversity Targets.
Changing dynamics, challenges and fall-out from the Forests Rights Act
While the FRA, from the beginning, was opposed by a section of foresters in the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and some big conservation organisations, the dynamics within Indian forests were set for a change. In those areas where forest communities were well organised and the social movement was strong, the selfinitiated declaration of formation of Gram Sabhas and demarcation of their community forests proceeded quickly. These communities were able to use the legislation to their advantage and jump into action quickly.
However, after ten years the gap between initial high hopes and poor implementation of FRA is quite stark. Less than 30 per cent of the claims filed have been recorded, and the recording of community forest rights (CFR) has been minimal. Awareness campaigns on the legislation and the claims process amongst the forest communities has been poor, especially in remote areas. The rules and regulations of the Forest Department and draconian forest laws are still prevalent. This is most notable within the National Parks and Tiger Reserves where the Forest Department is refusing to settle rights—in complete violation of the FRA. The National Tiger Conservation Authority has recently issued a memo directing officials not to recognise and settle any rights in tiger reserves, a move which is a violation of Section 4 of the FRA.
However, the forest-dwelling communities have moved forward with their struggles to realise the self-rule of the Gram Sabha and the right to control and govern community forest resources. In North Bengal, along the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, a number of Tongya forest villages selfdeclared their Gram Sabhas and forbade any activities of the Forest Department without their consent. These villages stopped the felling of trees, timber logging, and plantations within their declared community forests. The villages in the Tadoba-Andhari National Park and Tiger Reserve mapped their forest resources and filed claims for CFR. Similarly, many villages in Chhattisgarh have initiated resource mapping on their own and claimed CFRs.
In the Menda Lekha forest area of Maharashtra, around 400 villages got CFR titles and framed their own rules regarding the harvesting of non-timber forest produce, minor forest produce and bamboo. Most of the families residing in these villages have actually surrendered their individual land titles to the Gram Sabha to be part of the collective. The communities have also made attempts at forest restoration with the help of the National Employment Guarantee Scheme, but have not received any further support from the government or the Forest Department.
In the Baiga Chak forest area of Dindori in Madhya Pradesh, the Baigas – the most vulnerable tribal forest dependent communities – stopped the Forest Department from taking over their land for plantations, claimed their habitat rights and forced the district administration to record their rights. In Odisha, there are several districts where the forest communities have formed their Gram Sabhas, claimed their CFRs and framed their own rules for sustainable use of forest resources. Women are at the forefront of most of these struggles, and are participating in large numbers in the meetings of the Gram Sabha. Woman have been taking a lead role in mapping of forest resources, awareness generation amongst forest communities and negotiating with the relevant authorities for claims over CFR.
Across India, large hydro, industrial, mining and other development projects have been stalled as the planned diversion of huge tracts of forests could not be completed as the Gram Sabhas refused to give consent. The Government is trying to dilute the FRA provisions and powers of the Gram Sabha, thereby undermining the free, prior and informed consent of the communities through office memos and circulars. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, at the direction of the Prime Minister’s Office, has already exempted Gram Sabha consent for clearance of certain linear projects such as highways and roadways.
The controversy arising out of the forest clearance for bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri Hills of Odisha by UK-based Vedanta Company is an example of the tension and dynamics emerging between state governments and the forest communities in India today. Subsequent to the Supreme Court of India directing the state government to implement provisions of the FRA and allow the Gram Sabhas of the Dongria Kondh tribe to exercise their rights, the Dongria Kondhs were brave enough to withstand the might of Vedanta and the state government, and refused to give consent to forest diversion for bauxite mining.
India’s forest communities, social movements and community-based organisations are continuing their struggle to realise their rights as set out in the FRA. These are consistent with various international treaties and conventions. For example, nonimplementation of CFR is a violation of Articles 8(j) and 10(c) of the CBD. Violating and diluting FRA provisions related to FPIC leads to an undermining of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. These violations need to be taken up at appropriate levels in appropriate international fora. The right of India’s millions of forest people, and the right of all Indians to thriving forests, demands it!
 “Historical injustice to the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who are integral to the very survival and sustainability of the forest ecosystem”- Preamble of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, Para 3
 Called Scheduled Tribes in the Indian constitution