What are rights without benefits?
Over 1.3 million tribals and forest dwellers have got rights over the land they had been using for years under the Forest Rights Act. This can, in some way, be called contemporary India’s largest land regime change—from the forest administration to the rightful owners of forestland. The Act promises another bounty—access to government schemes. But six years after the Act was enforced, lives of the forest dwellers have not changed much. Not one state has initiated concrete steps to officially register the title holders in the state land records. Without this they remain what they used to be—officially non-existent.
Owning a piece of the planet is overwhelming. For Lange Manjhi, resident of Jurakhaman village in Odisha’s Kalahandi district, it is much more than that. He grew up in the forest village and cultivated the land he inherited from his father. But he had no legal right over it. Rather, he was called an encroacher. And an encroacher has no right over government’s development schemes. He cannot even sell his paddy to government agencies, forget about getting government loan to invest in his farm.
So he felt liberated in June 2010 when the Odisha government recognised his land rights and gave him title certificates, or pattas, under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. That month, the state gave titles to 54 families over 146 hectares (ha) in Jurakhaman. Development has started to show in Jurakhaman. Its landscape speaks of the changes FRA has brought in. Of the 54 families, 24 got money from the government to build houses under the Indira Awaas Yojana.
Under the horticulture department’s programme, many have mango trees in their farms, a future money earner. A new lift irrigation project irrigates 24 ha of 14 families. Under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), people have developed their farms. ‘We hope the production will increase,’ says Manjhi.
‘Earlier, we would sell rice to local traders at Rs 500-700 per quintal (100 kg) when government’s price was Rs 1,200 per quintal,’ says Dhan Singh Manjhi, village leader. Government agencies such as Food Corporation of India-authorised markets or farmers’ cooperatives would not accept foodgrain from an ‘encroacher’s’ farm. This year, Manjhi and Lange together sold 4,500 kg of rice for Rs 45,000 to government agencies, an unheard of income in the village.
Development work has been proposed for families which have not availed the benefits yet. An irrigation project is also in pipeline,’ says Sunita Tandy of Kalahandi-based non-profit Seba Jagat, which works for tribal rights.
Like Jurakhaman, many villages in Odisha are showing signs of prosperity. In Khariguda in Koraput district, 46 families got land titles. Of these, 16 constructed terraces on their farm slopes using MGNREGA. ‘My one acre (0.4 ha) farm will now fetch much more ragi,’ says resident Bagh Mudli.
This is the development potential of FRA. Till June this year, 1.3 million families across the country got legal rights over 1.7 million ha, an unprecedented achievement. Most of them got legal right over their land for the first time. In contrast, under the much hyped land reforms programme, the government distributed only 2.2 million ha to 5.64 million families in the past six decades.
‘If FRA is converged with government schemes, as the Act provides, and worked properly upon for at least five years, the economic condition of tribals will change drastically,’ says Giri Rao of Bhubaneswar-based non-profit Vasundhara, which tracks implementation of FRA in the state.
A rough calculation shows that each title holder should have access to 56 government schemes covering land development, subsidised homes and government’s foodgrain procurement programme. ‘This priority convergence with government programmes makes the right an effective livelihood programme,’ says N C Saxena, chairperson of the National Forest Rights Act Committee set up by the Centre to examine the implementation of FRA in 2010.
But the question is: have people reaped the benefits of FRA? The economic boom that these villages of Odisha are experiencing should have become a reality in 170,000 villages across the country. The environment ministry’s India Forestry Outlook study for 2020, published in 2009, estimates that 20 per cent of the forestland under government control would be with people once the Act is fully implemented. This is more than 15 million ha forestland. As many as 31 million ha forestland is used by villages, estimates Forest Survey of India. But the Act’s development potential has been least exploited (see ‘Not implemented, not converged’). Of the 19 states that have state action plans to implement FRA, none has taken up full scale convergence programme.
In Madhya Pradesh’s Bhagpur village, people got titles in 2010. But convergence work is nil. ‘Patta dekar bhool gaye hain (Government has forgotten us after issuing claim certificates),’ says resident Sundari Bai Dhurve. ‘We have to do land-levelling, bunding and need wells, irrigation pumps and electricity,’ says another resident Khuman Veladi. ‘We cannot make a sustainable income on small holdings without these aids.’
In neighbouring Samaiya village, Chotelal Saiyam’s 4.4 ha family land was split among three brothers when they got land rights. ‘When the entire family shared land, some would look after agriculture and others would collect forest produce. Collectively, we managed a decent living. Now each family has to look after its own piece of land. Income from forest produce has fallen,’ he says.
In Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh, convergence work has been undertaken in only two panchayats—Ajgar and Gaura Kanhari. ‘Even in villages where work has been done, only some people have received benefits,’ says Hiralal Sarote, who livs in Katangola village of Madhya Pradesh and works for non-profit Nirmaan.
In Pondi village of Ajgar panchayat, 81 claims were accepted, but only 31 land-levelling and bunding jobs were sanctioned. Only two of the five wells sanctioned could be completed. ‘Now the village is divided along several lines,’ says Fulsingh Kewatia, FRA committee president, ‘Some have both pattas and convergence, some have only pattas and some have nothing at all.’ But the government has a long list of convergence work done in the state. Ashish Upadhyay, former commissioner, tribal development, who was transferred recently, says 70 to 80 per cent of the beneficiaries have been issued Kisan Credit Cards, with loans facilitated through cooperative banks. Till March 2013, as many as 54,000 houses have been sanctioned under Indira Awaas Yojana, 10,000 wells have been sanctioned under MGNREGA, and 20,000 motor pumps given under Central assistance scheme for tribal development. This apart, 7,000 land levelling jobs have been completed.
Down to earth