Forest Rights Act and Environmental Issues in India


Dr Ravi P Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

16 Apr 2018 – The Indian Forest Act was established by the British government in 1927   according to which all the forests and the forest lands became a property of the British government and the customary rights of the tribal populations and other peoples were suspended.  Anybody living in these lands even though they may have been living there for centuries was subject to the provisions of the Act and had to take permission from the British officials who were posted there. The purpose of the Act was not to protect forests but to convert them into the property of the Colonial British government.

This Act caused acute harassment and tensions among the people, mainly the tribal peoples who had been surviving in these forest lands in their simple life styles for centuries. These regions made available forest produce, shelter, fishing, hunting resources for the tribal peoples. The forest produce consisted not only of some edible fruits but also timber for cooking and building their huts, leaves again for use in the huts as well as for decoration, and several other daily benefits. Water was available from the mini rivers that flowed through these regions as well as from the ponds that existed in these lands. Fishing was possible in the ponds but care was taken not to capture all the fish so that in succeeding years also, fish was available.

With restrictions placed by the Indian Forest Act, the tribal people felt lost and cheated as their survival was at stake. They had to beg and beseech at the hands of the officials for entry into and use of the forest produce. This was the state of people living in these regions that was sought to be improved by the Indian Forest Rights Act (FRA) that was set up in 2006.

The new Act basically provides two benefits to forest dwellers:

  • Grants legal recognition to the rights of traditional forest dwelling communities.
  • Provides communities living in these lands opportunity for forest and wildlife conservation.

The problems of the Adivasis (tribal people) have become more acute as infrastructural activities such as building dams, roads and mining activities were promoted. As a result, the people living in and around the forest lands began to be evicted from their hutments that they had been living in for generations. The fact was that these lands located in several parts of India were rich in mineral resources such as coal, iron ore, bauxite (for aluminum) and uranium necessary for the emerging nuclear plants. These factors and the building of dams led to increased eviction and displacement of Adivasis without adequate compensation. Their problems have become exacerbated with the entry of MNCs — both Indian and foreign.

For example, in the Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha and Jharkhand which is home to the Kond tribes, the people are being forcibly evicted for extraction of bauxite. The Konds worship these hills as living gods and when they are evicted, they not only face the usual problems of displacement but also are denied the worship of these hills. A whammy of sorts for these poor and defenseless people.

The tribal peoples were earlier able to use the minor forest produce such as timber, bark of trees leaves, fruits etc. for cooking, building their hutments, for medicinal purposes and for other daily needs. Their survival and livelihood depended on these community resources. They were able to fish in local ponds and lakes, they could hunt in the forest areas, they could also practice jhoom (shifting) cultivation in nearby areas that allowed lands to replenish themselves over time. There was a close-knit relationship of Adivasis with nearby forest lands and villages. The relationship was mutually beneficial. While the forest lands provided tribal people with sustenance, livelihood and dignity, the forests were protected by them from degradation and pollution. The question of over exploitation of natural resources did not arise since the Adivasis lived simple and frugal lives and did not indulge in wastage.

Conflicts in tribal areas

As indicated earlier many forests and remote regions especially in tribal areas have been taken over or encroached for building roads, railway lines, construction of dams or for mining and other similar activities. These areas are found in several States of India especially in Orissa (Odisha), Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh etc.

There is a close relationship of the tribal population with the neighboring hills and forests. When their lands are taken over, the people feel deprived, resentful and helpless and sometimes indulge in violence. The situation as far as the tribal population is concerned is particularly alarming since they are heavily dependent on the forests, hills, lands and water bodies for their survival.

This has been poignantly summed up in the book Out of this Earth by Felix Padel and Samarendra Das published in 2010, in the following words:

Out of earth we are made and to earth we shall return. But how well do we know our earth? How well do we understand how it feeds us? Or what are we doing to it through mining? Our modern lifestyle depends on extracting and processing huge quantities of minerals and oil. But what is the real cost we are making our earth pay?

Adivasis are India’s indigenous or tribal people. They developed a lifestyle and social structure close to the earth many centuries ago. Most still live by cultivating the soil and gathering food from the forest. They experience the costs of mining most acutely, and understand its consequences better than most.

It is relevant to repeat the evocative description of this relationship by the well-known writer and activist Arundhati Roy in the Forward of this book:

The low flat-topped mountains of Orissa contain some of the largest deposits of the best quality bauxite in the world….But these bauxite mountains have been home to the Dongria Kond tribe long before there was a country called India or a state called Orissa. The hills watched over the Kond. The Kond watched over the hills and worshipped them as living deities. Now these hills have been sold for the bauxite they contain. For the Kond it’s as though God has been sold…

Their simple lifestyles, their close-knit relationship with the local environment — forests, soil, air and water bodies, all have led to the concept of sustainable development. They were able to keep the rivers and water bodies clean for domestic, agricultural and for fishing purposes. Some trees were cut for cooking, building of their hutments and for occasional decorative and cultural purposes, but large scale deforestation was unheard of. The air quality was good since there was no industrial and non-biodegradable garbage that could pollute the air or water.

Adivasis did not have access to modern technology such as electricity, railways, household gadgets etc. and so from our point of view, they led what is generally called primitive lives. However, this primitive lifestyle allowed them to lead culturally enriching lives. They were adept in local knowledge systems such as having familiarity with certain herbs and plants for medicinal purposes, preservation of food, building of local temples elaborately carved with local figurines, construction of toys, decoration pieces, musical instruments and the like. They had their distinct languages; they possessed a rich repertoire of traditional music and dance forms.

A Tribal Museum in Bhopal (capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh) was constructed and inaugurated in 2012, is rich in the cultural and art forms of tribal lives.  Seeing its various sections, one cannot but help admire the varied artifacts on display that have aesthetic and colorful beauty and resonance and reflect the creativity of the indigenous peoples of the State.

Their so called primitive and simple lifestyles led to preservation of the environment. It did not lead to degradation of the air, water bodies and soil that is a blot on our modern technological lives and that is leading to global warming climate change, extinction of several species of flora and fauna, and disease.

In conclusion we can say that the degradation of the environment is a cause of serious concern for all forms of life. We need to understand this clearly and help to reverse the developmental paradigm that is being followed.

The indigenous peoples have since pre historic times been living in harmony and in a close and harmonious relationship with nature. For them the environment was a living entity that provided them with sustenance and livelihood and in turn that needed to be protected from pollution and degradation.

While developmental activities are needed to remove large sections of our populations from poverty and deprivation, the developmental paradigm has to be tailored such that it does not result in large scale destruction of the environment and dislocation of millions of tribal peoples from their natural habitats. They have been leading dignified lives based on their own laws and traditions. Their life styles were not primitive but were culturally rooted in their own knowledge systems and customs. We need to learn from their simple but enriching life styles.


Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, an educationist, Gandhian scholar and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 16 Apr 2018.

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