ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Divergent Responses to the Forest Rights Act in Nagarahole

Disenchantment and Assertion

Priya Gupta ( is a PhD scholar at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru and Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka.

The Adivasi communities of Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, Karnataka have engaged with the implementation of the Forest Rights Act and have primarily responded in two divergent ways: disengagement from the fra and claiming rights over ancestral lands as a mechanism of redressal and/or assertion. These two cases are examined against the background of a long history of evictions from the forests of Nagarahole and the infrastructural and sociopolitical conditions present inside and outside the settlements, including the presence of various non-governmental organisations. The fra’s success has been limited (and even negative), as its generic, centralised framing and implementation have been unable to fully take into account specific histories, socio-economic conditions, and political discourses, especially those of conservation advocates and Adivasi rights activists.

This paper is based on 13 months of fieldwork carried out during 2014–15 in NTR, Karnataka, as part of my doctoral thesis at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. I thank Rufford Foundation for funding my fieldwork in NTR. I am also grateful to all my respondents who took the time to interact with me. I also thank my advisor, Carol Upadhya, and my colleagues at NIAS, Krupa Rajangam and Savitha Suresh Babu, for reading and commenting on multiple drafts of this paper, and the anonymous referee for their constructive comments and suggestions on the earlier version of this paper. I also thank Anjan Katna for helping me prepare the map.

It is becoming difficult [for me] to live here. My parents have become old living here in this pathetic condition. We will also become like them if we live here. Where is the guarantee that in future our children will fight for their rights and get them?

—Madesha, respondent

No one [would] go out of [the] forest [of] their own will. The Forest Department forcibly sent us out. [...] If they give [back] those lands where we used to cultivate earlier, we [will be] ready to go. [...] We have filed an application asking them to return our ancestral property. We are ready to go back there and take care of our land.

—Shetty, respondent

Shetty and Madesha,1 Adivasis of Nagarahole Tiger Reserve (NTR), expressed completely contradictory views on what living within the forest entails. Madesha, who is a Jenu Kuruba, and Shetty, who is a Yerava, both live on the periphery of the reserve. However, as illustrated in the quotes above, their attitudes to living within the forest differ dramatically. While Madesha is keen to leave the forest due to the problems he and his family face inside it, Shetty wants to reclaim his lost land and move back into the forest. Their views were echoed by various Adivasis of NTR with whom I interacted during my fieldwork in 2014–15.

This paper explores the varied responses of Adivasis living in and around NTR to the prospect of living within the forest as offered under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The implementation of the FRA in NTR provides the background against which I ­explore their responses. I argue that while the FRA aims to ­address “historical injustices” done to the Adivasis by existing exclusionary forest laws, its implementation and effectiveness—and the choices available to particular Adivasi communities—are circumscribed by contextual conditions, such as their specific histories, and the socio-economic contexts and political discourses that prevail in a particular setting. In this case, “specific histories” refers to the eviction of Adivasis from NTR from the 1970s onwards due to wildlife conservation policies. “Socio-economic contexts” include infrastructural facilities available within and outside the forests as well as the presence of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on Adivasi rights and conservation issues. By “political discourses,” I refer to a dominant set of ideas about Adivasi life that has framed the political struggles around forests in the region.

This paper draws on ethnographic fieldwork that I carried out among diverse social actors as part of my doctoral research on conflicts between Adivasi rights discourses and forest conservation policies and practices. The intention of this research is not to simply compare the responses of different groups to the FRA and thereby identify the factors that determine its ­acceptance or rejection, but instead to provide a grounded and nuanced account of how Adivasis engage with the law and to historicise their relationship with the forest. This allows me to contribute to the ongoing debate on the FRA in India by highlighting the variability in Adivasis’ views on it and the divergence in their own perceptions and responses.

The Forest Rights Act: Genesis and Implementation

The FRA, enacted in 2006, is a historic legislation that aims to redress the historical injustices inflicted on forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes (STs) and other traditional forest dwellers2 by recognising their rights over forestlands. This injustice stems from exclusionary forest protection policies and laws that have held sway since the colonial period.

The FRA recognises two types of rights to land: individual and community. According to the act, the occupation of land of up to four acres for the purpose of habitation or cultivation prior to 13 December 2005 can be recognised as the individual rights of a family; meanwhile, the community rights provision recognises collective ownership and the collection, use, and disposal of minor forest produce3 traditionally collected. ­Another important provision, Section 3(2) of the FRA allows certain facilities, which are prohibited under forest and wildlife protection laws, to be established inside the forest for the welfare and development of the inhabitants. These include schools, dispensaries, shops, roads, electric lines, and drinking water. However, such facilities are provided based on the collective recommendations of the gram sabha,4 and not the requests of individual families.

As is well known, forest policies adopted by the colonial and postcolonial administrations in India dispossessed many ­Adivasi communities of their lands (Asher and Agarwal 2007). In many cases, Adivasis resisted such exclusion, leading to the formulation of region-specific policies, especially in areas with large Adivasi populations, to protect their land and provide them a certain level of authority and autonomy over their ­resources. Examples of such laws include the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, 1908, the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act, 1949, the Assam Land and Revenue Regulation (Amendment) Act, 1964, and the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled ­Areas) Act, 1996 (Bijoy 2008; Upadhya 2005). However, while national-level forest protection policies have existed since the colonial period, a centralised, pan-Indian legislation to protect the rights of Adivasis was absent till the FRA was enacted in 2006.

The implementation of the FRA in different parts of India highlights its variable impact. In Chhattisgarh and Gujarat, for example, although not all rights were granted, Bandi (2015) argues that the FRA gave a “psychological boost” to the Adivasis by assuring them that their land would not be taken away. According to the Community Forest Rights–Learning and ­Advocacy (CFR–LA) report (2016), in several regions, such as Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra, Biligiri Rangaswami Temple Tiger Reserve, Karnataka, and Dindori district, Madhya Pra­desh (MP), community rights were successfully established (CFR–LA 2016). The report also claims that local communities stopped commercial forestry in many areas where community forest rights were confirmed (CFR–LA 2016: 13). However, it also notes that, in many areas, forest departments have been more hostile towards granting community rights than individual rights (Agarwal 2018; CFR–LA 2016; Kumar et al 2017). According to the report, one reason for this is that forest departments believe that recognition of community rights will weaken their control over the forests (Agarwal 2018; Agrawal 2014; Kumar et al 2017; Sahu et al 2017; Springate-Baginski et al 2012). Thus, the forest departments have adopted various strategies to retain their control over forests, entangling and derailing the issue in several places in the process (CFR–LA 2016). ­Another concern raised by scholars about the sustenance of community resources is that the current generation of ­Adivasis is more interested in generating an income from the forest than protecting it. Hence, they often indulge in illegal extraction of forest resources, threatening the long-term survival of community forests—an argument put forward by forest ­department in Uttar Pradesh against the recognition of community rights (Agarwal 2018).

Field-level studies on the implementation of the FRA offer important insights into the successes and failures of the act in different regions and point to possible reasons for these varying outcomes. However, most studies do not provide an ­in-depth understanding of how local Adivasis, who are the subjects of the FRA, have responded to or engaged with the act. One exception is Ramanujam’s (2017) study of the Baiga Chak region of MP, which shows that despite the ­impressive implementation of the FRA on paper, fractures have emerged on the ground. Here, many people are not interested in claiming community rights despite having received titles. He notes the various local conditions contributing to this ­response, such as degrading forest quality, which made people sceptical about their future inside the forest, and the gradual withdrawal of NGOs, which compromised their readiness for collective action. Additionally, some people depend on the timber-felling operations of the forest department of MP for their livelihoods, while others resent it since it destroys the place of their gods and ancestors’ spirits and affects their sources of medicines, food, and fodder. Moreover, the younger generation aspires for an urban lifestyle rather than a life in the forest (Ramanujam 2017).

The range of local responses to the FRA provides insight into the gaps between policy formulation and implementation, suggesting that centralised policies and laws formulated at the national level may be incapable of accommodating local conditions and aspirations. In the next section, I discuss such ­specificities for the NTR.

Nagarahole Tiger Reserve: A History of Evictions

NTR (Figure 1, p 41) is spread across two districts of Karnataka—Kodagu and Mysore—but this paper is based on fieldwork carried out primarily in Kodagu. The Kutta–Hunsur road, which runs south-west to north-east through NTR, traverses several different kinds of landscapes: teak plantations established ­before the 1970s; older forests; swampy grasslands, known ­locally as hadlu; settlements of Jenu Kurubas, Betta Kurubas and Yeravas, the three main Adivasi communities of NTR, all listed as STs in Karnataka; religious structures; and Karnataka Forest Department establishments.

Several Adivasi settlements continue to be situated inside NTR, although their presence has reduced drastically since the 1970s, when these forests came under a stricter wildlife conservation regime following the enactment of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Many Adivasis spoke about evictions that continued for more than a decade after 1972, resulting in the complete abandonment of some of their older settlements, such as Halehalli5 and Ajjapura, which were situated deep inside the forest and away from the main roads. These displaced communities were forced to shift, either to other settlements within the reserve and closer to the main roads, or to locales in the forest periphery (such as Hosahalli and Maradahalli). Some Adivasis moved to settlements that were entirely outside the forest, such as Kanakapura, or to the line houses maintained inside the coffee plantations for its workers.6

Most current settlements that still exist inside the forest are similar in appearance, with kutcha (thatched roof) houses; dirt roads; open wells, ponds, or streams as water sources; and solar lighting (mostly in poor condition). Social welfare facilities include Anganwadis (childcare centres), primary schools, and subsidised rations, supplied once a month. The northern part of the reserve is interspersed with fields and fallow lands, which mainly belong to Yerava families who continued to cultivate them despite the restrictions imposed in the 1970s. The fallow lands were earlier used for cultivation by the Adivasis, but due to increased crop damage by elephants over the past decade, many families stopped.

Prior to the 1970s, NTR forests were mainly used for extracting timber and raising plantations, and most Adivasis living inside them were employed by the Karnataka Forest Department as labourers. Although they often moved from one place to another inside the forest as plantation and timber extraction sites shifted, some places—such as Halehalli and Ajjapura—became steady habitation sites. In 1975, as the government expressed its intention to declare the area a national park, forest department officials used coercive means to evict families from NTR, on both the Kodagu and Mysore sides. ­Siddappa, a Jenu Kuruba and retired forest watcher, witnessed these evictions in many places inside NTR:

Yeravas and Kurubas were doing agriculture in Ajjapura and Halehalli. They were mostly growing rice, ragi and vegetables. [...] Once, when [the] crops were almost ready for harvest, Subbaiah [a forest ­officer] got elephants and left them to eat all the crops. They [the people who lived in Ajjapura and Halehalli] are staying in Kanakapura, on revenue land [outside NTR] now. They do not have land, but [have] constructed small houses and are living there now.

This coercive action of the forest department officials created a sense of fear among the Adivasis of NTR, and over the next three decades, many families were gradually forced to leave their homes and agricultural lands. Prior to the 1970s, most Adivasis used to cultivate paddy or practice kumri7 cultivation inside the forests. Many elders recollect this period as one of freedom and peace—during which they faced fewer restrictions on cultivation, forest produce collection, and mobility within forests—as opposed to the period after the 1970s, which brought severe restrictions and even evictions from their homes and lands. Also, due to the availability of labour work inside the forests, they were not pushed to seek work outside. After the evictions, many families became virtually landless as they came to occupy only small pieces of homestead lands. The memory of eviction highlights the kind of injustice that the Adivasis of NTR continue to face even today.

After the 1970s, the demand for labour inside NTR reduced severely due to the complete ban on all human activities in the forest. Consequently, Adivasis eventually became heavily ­dependent on coffee plantations and agricultural labour ­outside the forest, which significantly modified their earlier, everyday associations with the forest.

NGO Interventions in Nagarahole

During the 1980s, the evictions led to the establishment of several Adivasi rights NGOs in the region. Over the past three decades, these groups have engaged with Adivasis to promote their welfare and rights by negotiating with government agencies to secure agricultural land for some evicted families living outside the forest; providing educational and nutritional support to Adivasi children; facilitating the establishment of ­Adivasi-led organisations and collaborating with these organisations in filing court cases against the forest department; ­organising protests to demand rights and welfare for Adivasis; and conducting awareness programmes on women empowerment, indigenous knowledge, and traditional Adivasi practices. Many Adivasis are also employed by these NGOs.

The NGOs organise events that celebrate the traditional practices and lives of the Adivasis, as I witnessed in an event for displaying the Adivasis’ forest produce, crops, and handicraft items; they also worshipped their deities in a small ceremony. Several Adivasis attended the event, as did local political leaders, retired forest officers, mediapersons, and members of other Adivasi rights NGOs who shared a mutually cooperative relationship.

In addition, some of these NGOs have aligned themselves with national and global indigenous rights movements, and their members often participate in events organised by these larger rights networks within and outside India. Local Adivasi organisations created by these NGOs are also entrenched in these networks. A leader of one such organisation showed me his passport with visa stamps from various European countries as well as the United States. He mentioned that he had attended several indigenous rights conferences held outside India, where he had also received, on occasion, the opportunity to speak. Thus, these NGOs not only use the Adivasis’ experience of evictions and their hardships and traditional knowledge to create a discourse around Adivasi rights, self-rule, and autonomy, they also connect it to discourses circulating within national and global indigenous rights movements. Since the enactment of the FRA, their advocacy for claims to ancestral lands under the banner of self-rule has received a further ­impetus.

Since the 1990s, a few other NGOs that advocate for forests and wildlife conservation—besides those working on Adivasi rights—have emerged. Their agenda of conserving wildlife and forests by creating inviolate forest areas has led them to support and actively participate in shifting Adivasis outside the forest. Hence, Adivasi rights NGOs and conservation NGOs have clashed on many issues. While Adivasi rights NGOs blame conservation NGOs for forcing people out of the forest, conservation NGOs argue that Adivasi rights NGOs encourage activities prohibited in the forest, such as collecting forest produce and cutting timber, and also inhibit the development of Adivasi communities by keeping them inside the forests. In turn, Adivasi rights NGOs blame conservation NGOs for co-opting a few prominent Adivasi leaders of NTR by offering them cash incentives and jobs on the condition that they subscribe to a government-sponsored compensatory relocation scheme.8

The activities and discourses of these voluntary organi­sations have shaped the responses of the Adivasis to the FRA in different ways. In this context, it is often difficult to disen­tangle the views and decisions of the people from those of the NGOs. Other conditions, such as the availability of facilities outside the forest, also shape their aspirations and generate varied responses, which I illustrate in the following section.

Disengagement versus Assertion of Rights

In my attempt to trace the various ways in which the Adivasi communities of NTR have engaged with the FRA, I identified two main responses: first, a clear disengagement with the FRA due to a disenchantment with life inside the forest; second, laying claim to the ancestral lands inside NTR through the FRA.

At the time of my fieldwork in 2014–15, most Adivasi families of NTR were granted individual rights, but community rights had not yet been granted in the Kodagu part of the ­reserve. Although I discuss responses to the FRA through the voices of only a few interlocutors, their narratives represent a broader pattern. However, individual responses also vary among and within different families.

Case 1: Disenchantment with Life in the Forests

We got [individual] rights [...] But the problem here is that we cannot build houses without a road. ITDP [Integrated Tribal Development Programme9] sanctioned five lakhs for the road. But it was taken back because this is a national park and roads cannot be built here.

— Madesha

Madesha, a Jenu Kuruba Adivasi leader from Lingapura, had previously been very active in the fight for Adivasi rights in NTR, but he later disengaged from the struggle for Adivasi existence inside the forest. The trajectory of his changing stance illustrates the dilemmas faced by the Adivasis amidst the various forces attempting to reshape their lives. During my fieldwork, many people suggested that I speak to Madesha as he was considered a leader. I first met him during a meeting organised inside NTR with panchayat members and forest officials to address the poor implementation of the FRA. At this meeting, attended by nearly 100 people from different settlements situated inside and outside NTR, leaders from each ­settlement spoke about the issues that they were facing. Madesha, speaking on behalf of his settlement, came across as a fearless leader who did not hesitate to criticise the forest ­department in the presence of forest officials. He blamed the latter for hindering the implementation of the FRA.

When I interviewed him four months later, his stance was very different. During that interval, Madesha had decided to move outside the forest, availing the forest department’s rehabilitation programme. His decision came as a surprise to me, not only because he had been referred to as someone who led the fight for Adivasi rights, but also because none of the other Adivasis of his settlement had mentioned this shift. In fact, it turned out that Madesha had not told anyone about his decision since the region has been fraught with conflicts and hostility between those opting for the rehabilitation programme and those who wanted to stay inside the forest. He also feared allegations that he had taken a “commission” (bribe) from the forest department to persuade other families to move out, so he decided neither to tell anyone nor to help others move out. Madesha’s primary concern in taking this decision was to look after the welfare of his family, which included his elderly parents, wife, and two children.

Another main concern was the lack of facilities inside the forest, which had not improved despite the (supposed) implementation of the FRA. Most Adivasis living inside the forest complained about the lack of amenities—no access to electricity, safe drinking water, good housing, road networks, and so on. As Madesha’s narrative—which I have quoted at the beginning of this paper—indicates, his frustrations with life inside the forest arose not only from its lack of facilities, but also from his parents’ past struggles for survival under the restricted living conditions inside the forest. He and his parents had lost patience waiting for a better future inside the forest, given that they had the option to move outside where there are more ­opportunities for a better and more secure life. Although Madesha had received individual land rights, he was unable to improve common facilities (roads, water supply, electricity, or proximity to schools) because infrastructure can only be provided by the government at the community level on the gram sabha’s recommendation. Thus, the overall well-being of individual families is contingent upon community resources and infrastructure, which are difficult to obtain due to the forest department’s concerns over providing these facilities inside an “inviolate” tiger reserve. This made Madesha and many others disenchanted with the possibilities offered by the FRA, despite their initial optimism.

Besides the lack of facilities, another reason often cited for Adivasis leaving the forest and disengaging with the FRA was conflicts with wildlife. For Adivasis living in the northern part of NTR, this was a major concern. Lakshmi, a Jenu Kuruba, lives in the northern part of NTR. Hers was one of the fields damaged by elephants a few years back, leading her to stop cultivation. She mentioned that crop and property damage had increased over the years due to strict forest conservation policies, which has led to an increase in the animal population inside NTR. Conflicts with elephants were so severe in some settlements in other parts of NTR that people slept in tree huts. Their houses and temples were severely damaged, and despite receiving individual land titles under the FRA, they were ­unwilling to stay inside the forest. The success of strict conservation policies in NTR made the FRA insignificant or irrelevant for these people, and they began seeking better options outside. Thus, the FRA, which was enacted as a counter to the dominant state-led conservation model, was now being undermined by the consequences of the same model.

The above case highlights a few conditions that have made some Adivasis disengage with the FRA and seek better lives outside. Their ideas about life in rehabilitation colonies have been confirmed by relatives and others living there who ­believe that their lives have improved due to access to better and increased facilities. Moreover, they are happier living away from the restrictive forest department regime.

In addition to their personal experiences of living inside the forest, the Adivasis’ decision to leave the forest was also influenced by conservation NGOs, who offered them incentives to move out. However, there are others who continue to stay inside the forest, and still others who live outside and have recently begun to claim rights over the ancestral lands from which they were evicted. Next, I turn to these cases and discuss the strategies that they have adopted to assert their rights.

Case 2: Claiming Ancestral Lands

In the 1970s, everyone had land and paddy fields over here. Many people were shifted out. So we are asking [them] to give land [to] those who are staying here. That’s why we are not shifting out.

— Sundar

Sundar, a Betta Kuruba over 60 years old, lives in Maradahalli settlement inside the forest. Along with several other families, he moved here from his earlier settlement deeper inside the forest during the evictions around the mid-1970s. He and many others have refused to shift to rehabilitation colonies, where they have been offered agricultural land and housing. Instead, they are claiming their rights to redress the injustices done to them over the past four decades.

Chandra, a Jenu Kuruba, is an Adivasi leader who lives ­inside the forest in the Hosahalli settlement. In articulating his claim to his ancestral land, he talked not only about righting previous injustices but also of eliminating any future possibility of harassment by the forest department—something he has experienced intimately. Over the past decade, the forest ­department has filed several cases against him over illegal timber cutting and collection of forest produce. The forest ­department has often filed forest-offence cases—especially against Adivasi leaders—as a tactic to coerce people to leave the forest. On more than one occasion during my fieldwork, I met Chandra as he was going to a court hearing in a nearby town. These ongoing cases, however, have not dissuaded him from presenting himself as an Adivasi leader claiming rights, nor has it induced him to shift outside the forest. On the contrary, he proudly stated that his resolve has strengthened as the number of cases filed against him has increased.

While Chandra continues to live inside the forest and resist the threats of the forest department, Shetty, who lives in Kanakapura just outside the boundary of NTR, remembers the old days and wishes to relive and revive them through the FRA. He remarks on their heavy dependence on coffee plantation labour since the 1970s:

We need to manage our lives from those earnings [wage labour in coffee plantations]. There [inside forest] we had our own land. We used to grow our own food. We used to grow food organically without using any [chemical] fertilisers like we are getting here.

This shows that his desire to reclaim land inside the forest is not just to assert legal rights or correct historical wrongs, but also to revive an earlier way of life—when their dependence on the government or market for food and healthcare was limited. They perceive those days to have been more carefree. They believe that living inside the forest will assure them a relatively self-sufficient and independent life, which is not possible outside the forest. This view is based on their past four decades of post-eviction experiences. As I mentioned above, such narratives about organic and chemical-free cultivation appear to stem not only from their memories and experiences but also from the discourses circulated by Adivasi rights groups, who talk about the “natural life” and “environment-friendly” practices of the Adivasis. Drawing from international discourses on indigenous communities, these NGOs also claim that Adivasis are the rightful and true custodians of nature. In this context, one cannot read the respondents’ narratives in a straightforward way, as they are clearly inflected by dominant ideas about pristine nature and the superiority of Adivasis’ ­traditional practices. However, this does not make their claims less authentic. As other scholars have noted, given the influence of indigenous people’s movements around the world, ­Adivasi claims to the forest are often made most effectively through the language of indigenous knowledge, “traditional” environment-friendly practices, and their symbiotic relationship with the forests (Ghosh 2006).

Sundar, Chandra, Shetty, and others, who are claiming their rights over ancestral lands, share common apprehensions about leaving the forest and living outside:

We know this land, its trees, its food, its water, and its animals. Our ancestors were here, our gods are here. This is the only way of life we know. We can never go hungry in the forest. Many people who shifted to the rehabilitation colonies outside have fallen sick within a few months of shifting out.

They associate a sense of uncertainty and unfamiliarity with the world and life outside the forests and remain sceptical about promises of a “better future” made by the forest ­department and conservation NGOs to convince them to shift to the rehabilitation colonies.

Furthermore, the experience of being evicted from their ancestral lands has produced a sense of betrayal in relation to the forest department. Sundar showed me a teak plantation ­behind his settlement and mentioned that they had planted and protected those trees. During the colonial and postcolonial periods, the forest department raised teak plantations in NTR to grow valuable timber for sale. Adivasis were used as labou­rers in these plantations and were allowed to practice kumri cultivation, growing ragi alongside teak. This ensured that the Adivasis protected not only their crops but also the plantations. This practice was followed across NTR, and many Adivasis have used this history to question evictions carried out to “protect” the forest, given that it was they who historically protected and raised the forest. For Sundar and others, their claims to ancestral lands, made through the FRA, are also ­directed at reclaiming their position as the rightful custodians and true owners of the forest.

In this context, several Adivasis of settlements inside NTR have adopted another strategy to claim their rights—that of refusing to accept individual titles granted to them till their community rights are also recognised. I discuss below how this strategy is deeply entangled with claims to ancestral lands.

Refusal to Accept Rights Granted

Under the FRA, families living inside the forest can apply for individual as well as community rights to the forests that they have used before 13 December 2005. Accordingly, families living in Maradahalli and Hosahalli applied for both kinds of rights, community and individual. While the status of their community rights was unclear at the time of my fieldwork, most families were granted individual titles. As mentioned above, evicted families had lost their cultivation lands and came to occupy only a few cents10 (ranging from 2 to 70 as per the records of the tribal welfare department in Kodagu) of homestead land. I found that many families were not aware of the specificities under each category of rights granted under the FRA. They believed that through the FRA, they could get both housing and cultivation rights over their ancestral lands inside the forest. Since individual claims were filed only for the land that was currently occupied inside the forest, most people received individual rights only over their few cents of homestead land, which they occupied after getting evicted from their earlier settlements. However, they were demanding rights over ancestral lands within the forest as well. The delay in granting community rights was widely perceived as a denial of their rights. In response, several Adivasis refused to accept their individual land titles, since they believed that these did not represent rights to their ancestral lands. As Prakash, a Jenu Kuruba, said:

They have given [us] rights only for the house. But we are asking them for two to three acres of land along with the permission to build a house where our parents used to do agriculture before. (Prakash)

Thus, the history of evictions from NTR has also shaped the contemporary demand for land rights. Because of this history of unjust evictions, many families adopted the strategy of refusing to collect individual rights papers for only the homestead land. Thus, we see here that the Adivasis do not see individual and community rights as different categories as defined under the FRA. Rather, the separate categories make little sense to Adivasis in the context of their historical dwelling in and use of the forest and the recent history of evictions.

While a certain lack of clarity and miscommunication reg­arding the act existed among the people, those who refused to accept individual rights were not necessarily victims of this ­incomplete understanding, but were also influenced by their own past experiences and injustices as well as by Adivasi rights NGOs. Such a sentiment was consistent with the rhetoric of self-rule and autonomy derived from international discourses around indigenous communities, a domain familiar to these NGOs.


One of the primary reasons for these divergent responses was the strong influence of both conservation advocates and Adivasi rights activists, who have shaped Adivasi politics according to their own agendas. This has divided local Adivasis into two broad camps. The languages of “our land” and “we are its protectors” as well as “we want to live like others” were used to assert their position either for claiming rights over ancestral lands or their desire to move out of the forest. These different responses did not fall into a neat pattern in terms of locality or community. Rather, they varied within particular settlements, groups, and families.

This paper demonstrates that the capacity of the FRA to meet its objectives depends upon specific histories, the socio-economic infrastructure, and political discourses in a particular location. The cases presented in this paper demonstrate the different ways in which the Adivasis of NTR engage or disengage with the FRA, or, at times, utilise it in ways not envisioned in the policy. By highlighting the plurality of responses to the FRA, I have tried to indicate how different kinds of rights claims have emerged in one region—some intended by the policy, others unintended. Local conditions, including the history of evictions, uneven access to facilities inside and outside the forests, the presence of NGOs, and the varying aspirations of Adivasis themselves, influence how the FRA is received or invoked. Also, local perceptions of rights and well-being are drawn not only from personal and community experiences of neglect and eviction, but also from entrenched international discourses around indigenous rights.

This paper also demonstrates that the Adivasis do not perceive the various provisions of the FRA—individual rights, community rights, and the provisioning of facilities—as distinct options or different kinds of rights. Instead, the choices for their own futures and well-being, available to them within specific locales, depend on access to all of these provisions, which have not been forthcoming. Recognition of only one of the rights neither ensures their well-being nor redresses the past injustices done to these communities.

Thus, the varying responses of local communities suggest that the procedures and modalities through which the FRA ­becomes available to people are not adequate to meet the goals of this policy—either in redressing historical wrongs or ensuring their well-being inside the forests. This conclusion points to a larger concern, which is that policies that promote decentralised, participatory, and inclusive governance continue to operate within a centralised framework based on presuppositions that are made on behalf of people, and not with or by them. It also suggests the reproduction of the long-standing authoritarian conservation regime. I suggest that the FRA is still dawdling, in terms of day-to-day governance and implementation, on the path to achieving its goal of ensuring
participatory and democratic forest governance.


1 I have used pseudonyms for all persons and settlements to protect their identities and maintain the confidentiality of my respondents. In accordance with my research ethics protocol, I have not provided the exact locations or population sizes of each settlement, since they are features that make the settlements easily identifiable. However, I have retained actual place names, such as Nagarahole, Kodagu, and Mysore, to provide context to the discussion.

2 The FRA is officially known as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. In this paper, I use the term “Adivasi” to refer to communities specified as Scheduled Tribes under Article 342 of the Constitution. The “other traditional forest dwellers” are communities other than Scheduled Tribes, who are defined in the FRA as those who have primarily resided in forests for at least three generations prior to 13 December 2005, and who depend on forests for their bona fide livelihood needs.

3 The FRA defines minor forest produce as “all non-timber forest produce of plant origin including bamboo, brush wood, stumps, cane, tussar, cocoons, honey, wax, lac, tendu or kendu leaves, medicinal plants and herbs, roots, tubers and the like” (Section 2[i]).

4 As per the Section 2(g) of the FRA, a “gram sabha” is a village assembly that consists of all adult members of a village. Gram panchayats have to convene these gram sabhas at the level of a hamlet or group of hamlets or habitations as per Rules 2A and 3 of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Amendment Rules, 2012.

5 Halehalli and Ajjapura were old settlements situated in the western part of the reserve, which were completely evicted. Hosahalli and Maradahalli were situated inside the forest, near the main road, while Lingapura and Kanakapura were situated on the periphery of the reserve, with the latter being situated outside the forest. The settlements situated in the northern part of the reserve consisted of both Yerava and Jenu Kuruba families. Hosahalli, Maradahalli, and Lingapura consisted of both Jenu and Betta Kuruba families, while Kanakapura consisted of Yerava, Jenu Kuruba, and non-Adivasi families. Apart from Kanakapura, which was established mainly by the evicted families, the eviction pattern was similar across all the settlements mentioned in this paper, that is, these settlements consisted of families who had lived there before the evictions started as well as families who had got evicted from different parts of NTR. I discuss some aspects that were specific to particular settlements, such as elephant problems in the northern part of Nagarahole.

6 Many coffee estate owners in Kodagu employ Adivasis as full-time labourers and provide housing for them within the plantations. Although I was told that many families had shifted from the forest to such housing, people did not know the exact plantations to which they had moved; hence, I could not contact any such evictees.

7 Kumri is a modified form of shifting cultivation that began during the colonial period in the forests of Kodagu. In kumri, teak saplings were grown in the gaps between ragi crops cultivated by the Adivasis inside the forests.

8 The Karnataka Forest Department started the government-sponsored compensatory relocation scheme in 1998–99. A total of 616 Adivasi families from NTR were shifted to nine rehabilitation colonies built in Mysore district close to the boundary of NTR. These families were given cement houses, agricultural land, cash, and other facilities, such as piped water supply, community centres, and proximity to healthcare centres, schools, and markets.

9 The Integrated Tribal Development Programme is run by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs; it provides each state funds for implementing schemes and programmes for the welfare of Scheduled Tribes.

10 1 cent = 0.01 acre = approximately 435.60 square feet.


Agarwal, N (2018): “Forest Rights Act, 2006: The Case of Tharu Adivasis of Uttar Pradesh,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 53, No 15, pp 73–77.

Agrawal, R (2014): “No Rights to Live in the Forest: Van Gujjars in Rajaji National Park,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 49, No 1.

Asher, M and N Agarwal (2007): Recognising the Historic Injustice, Campaign for the Forest Rights Act, Pune: National Centre for Advocacy Studies.

Bandi, M (2015): “Forest Rights Act: Land Distribution and Livelihoods of Forest Dependent People,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 50, No 4, pp 59–66.

Bijoy, C R (2008): “Forest Rights Struggle: The Adivasis Now Await a Settlement,” American Behavioral Scientist, Vol 51, No 12, pp 1755–73.

CFR-LA (2016): “Promise and Performance: Ten Years of the Forest Rights Act in India,” Citizens’ Report on Promise and Performance of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, after 10 Years of its Enactment, December, Produced as part of Community Forest Rights-Learning and Advocacy Process (CFRLA), India.

Ghosh, K (2006): “Between Global Flows and Local Dams: Indigenousness, Locality, and the Transnational Sphere in Jharkhand, India,” Cultural Anthropology, Vol 21, No 4, 501–34.

Kumar, K, N M Singh and Y G Rao (2017): “Promise and Performance of the Forest Rights Act: A Ten-Year Review,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol LII, Nos 25 and 26, pp 40–43.

Ministry of Tribal Affairs (2014): “Forest Rights Act, 2006: Acts, Rules and Guidelines,” Government of India and United Nations Development Programme,

Ramanujam, R V (2017): “Forest Rights in Baiga Chak, Madhya Pradesh,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol LII, Nos 25 and 26, pp 47–50.

Sahu, G, T Dash and S Dubey (2017): “Political Economy of Community Forest Rights,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol LII, Nos 25 and 26,
pp 44–47.

Springate-Baginski, O, M Sarin and M Reddy (2012): “Resisting Rights: Forest Bureaucracy and the Tenure Transition in India,” Small Scale Forestry, Vol 12, No 1, pp 107–124.

Upadhya, C (2005): “Community Rights in Land in Jharkhand,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 40, No 41, pp 4435–38.


Updated On : 17th Jun, 2020


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top