Reclaiming the forest: How a Maharashtra Adivasi family won rights on minor produce

A family of five got legal rights over 144 ha of forest in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli. The case offers hope for 250 million Indians whose livelihoods are associated with forests

The Uikey family with two visitors from a neighbouring village, all of whom have received community forest rights (Photos: Vishnukant Govindwad)
The Uikey family with two visitors from a neighbouring village, all of whom have received community forest rights (Photos: Vishnukant Govindwad)

Vishnukant Govindwad & Geetanjoy Sahu

This is the story of Parasvihir, a village of one household of five people and how they gained legal rights to what is called ‘minor produce’ and the management of nearly 144 hectares—the equivalent of 269 football fields—of forest in a remote corner of Maharashtra.

With growing evidence that Indian economic growth is not producing enough jobs for those who live off the land, the story of Parasvihir indicates how this uncertainty and insecurity could be addressed in great measure: by providing legal rights to more than 200 million in about 170,000 villages who depend on forests spread over 85.6 million acres—the size of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar combined—while keeping intact India’s fast-disappearing forests.

It was in 2016 that the head of the family, Varlu Kolu Uikey, 55, a Gond Adivasi from one of the world’s largest tribal groups, who lives in Parasvihir in Dhanora taluka in this eastern Maharashtra district, received what is called a ‘community forest rights’ (CFR) title to the area in question. The state government also approved his claim for ‘individual forest rights’ (IFR) over 2.17 acres, where his family can grow agricultural produce of their choice.

Uikey never went to school, like so many forest dwellers. Less than 60 per cent of Adivasis, who make up a large proportion of forest dwellers, were literate—14 percentage points below the national average—according to the 2011 Census, the last available data. One of Uikey’s two sons has a fourthstandard education, and one of two daughters never went to school. Another son is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts (BA), and another daughter studied till the 10th standard.

No one in the family has held a job, and there is no prospect of one near Parasvihir. “The recognition of community rights has allowed our family to access, harvest and sell minor forest produce to anyone of our choice,” said Uikey. “And it’s improved our financial condition.”

The minor produce that forest dwellers like Uikey can access includes all nontimber plants, such as bamboo, brush wood, cane, tussar, cocoons, honey, wax, tendu leaves, medicinal plants and herbs, roots and tubers. They have management rights to protect, regenerate, manage or conserve any forest resource for ‘sustainable use’.

There are lessons from Parasvihir for other villages nationwide in similar quests under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006—better known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA)—the law meant to formally secure land and livelihood rights for about 250 million tribal people or others who traditionally depended on forests. They should know the process though.

Reluctance to implement the FRA

The FRA sought to reverse the ‘historical injustice’ of the colonial era, which saw forest-dwelling communities as encroachers on the land they used and lived on. While processing the claims for these rights, especially community forest rights, government agencies cannot insist on specific evidence or specify the number of households in the village that depend on the forests in question.

To insist on doing so is to go against the spirit of the FRA, which never intended members of the implementing agencies—the forest rights committee at the level of the gram sabha, the sub-divisional level committee (SDLC) and the district-level committee (DLC)—to have unfettered rights to accept or reject claims without due process.

The grant of such rights is especially significant at a time when old-growth forests are being cut down for mines, dams, roads, violating rights and processes under the FRA, documented extensively by independent reports and media reporting. In July 2022, India’s environment minister Bhupender Yadav claimed that the legal rights of millions of Adivasis had not been diluted in new changes to procedures that govern how forests are given to industry.

But as Article 14 reported in September that year, doing away with the Centre’s responsibility to verify tribal rights had been the environment ministry’s intent since 2019. The potential of a CFR land title can be vast and course-altering for a particular village, as we have seen in many villages across the country, boosting their livelihood and local management of forests.

Yet, given the pressure from industry for forest land, only about half, or 2.23 million of 4.44 million, FRA claims for individual and community rights had been granted till June 2022, The Hindu reported in December that year, quoting government data released to Parliament.

State agencies nationwide have been reluctant to process community forest rights claims, consistently rejecting them on technical and procedural grounds. In Parasvihir village, as our visits and interviews with key stakeholders between January and July 2023 revealed, implementing agencies followed due process in scrutinising and recognising the community forests rights’ claim of the village and did not question the number of households claiming these rights, which were recognised in 2016.

The loneliness of Parasvihir

The household of Uikey, the head of the sole Parasvihir household, is a microcosm of millions who have no clear or conventional sources of income or jobs and have traditionally depended on forests for livelihood. There is a mud road, and it is almost impossible for outsiders to find their way to Uikey’s home deep in a forest in the Salebhati gram panchayat or village council, of which Parasvihir is a part.

Uikey’s house has electricity but no toilet, and he is not part of the efforts of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, the Prime Minister’s Housing Programme, which was to deliver a proper home to each rural Indian by 2022. Uikey’s home uses water from an open well nearby. With no conventional source of income, the family collects and sells forest produce. Earnings vary depending on what grows and what they collect.

They grow some paddy, but that is for their own consumption. The forest department provided the Uikeys with a gas connection in 2022, but since the closest gas agency is 10 km away in the neighbouring village of Dhanora, the family depends on fuelwood to cook.

The benefits of legal rights As the FRA rules required, Uikey’s gram sabha constituted a community forest resource management committee on 4 December 2016 and opened a bank account in its name at the Central Bank of India, Gadchiroli, after the family was granted FRA rights. He visited neighbouring Dhanora to learn about trade in the kendu leaf, which the family has harvested since 2016 and is used to make bidis.

Varlu Kolu Uikey in the backyard of his home in forests of Maharashtra’s
Gadchiroli district;
Varlu Kolu Uikey in the backyard of his home in forests of Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district;

In addition to recognised IFR land, which Uikey was farming before he received legal rights to it, he owns 3 acres of revenue or non-forest land within the village boundary. The two sons, 26 and 20 years old, and two daughters, 32 and 28 years old, help Uikey in growing paddy or collecting forest products from the 144 hectares over which they now have community forest rights.

Manure from six cows, four oxen and nine goats is enough to fertilise the thin soil of his farmland. Since there are no daily wage workers available, he bought a tractor for Rs 5 lakh with a bank loan and a motorcycle for emergencies. Uikey and his family said a recognised CFR title had myriad benefits. No one from the family has looked for employment since, no one has migrated, and land productivity has improved.

They were relieved, they said, from their previous ordeal of worrying about work. He talked enthusiastically, explaining how his family members had consistently benefited from the recognised CFR areas over the last seven years. In 2016, the year their claim was recognised, the family collected and sold forest produce, especially kendu leaves and bamboo to a contractor, earning Rs 56,336.

Their income fell to Rs 15,983 and Rs 25,810 over the next two years, before recovering to and stabilising at Rs 50,445 in 2019. The pandemic did not adversely affect their income, which was about Rs 50,000 in 2021 and Rs 45,000 in 2022. Since the family could not find labour to collect kendu leaf from all over their allotted area, they engaged neighbours from nearby villages, paying them daily wages.

This arrangement provides employment to their neighbours, who otherwise had to search or migrate for work.

How Uikey claimed his rights

The FRA, as we said, does not require a specific number of households to live in a village to get forest rights. Claimants must submit their claims with more than one piece of evidence to claim both IFR and CFR from a list of such evidence in section 13 of the FRA Amendment Rules 2012.

Uikey filed IFR and CFR claims over 2.17 hectares and 143.97 hectares of forest in 2014 with evidence. He submitted a nistar patrak, a letter from the revenue officers of the village and panchayat office, as evidence of his IFR and CFR claims. They certified his claim that the family farmed and depended on the forest land before 13 December 2005.

The gram sabha, which comprised the five members of the Uikey family, passed the resolution and forwarded the claim to the SDLC (the sub-divisional level committee) for verification. The SDLC passed his claim, accepted the evidence and forwarded IFR and CFR claims to the DLC (the district-level committee), which recognised both claims in 2016.

The title recognised the exclusive rights of Uikey’s family over minor forest produce, grazing, fishing and other products of water bodies, and rights to protect, regenerate, conserve, or manage the ‘community resource’ over 143.97 hectares in two swathes of land within the revenue boundary of the village.

The pressures of success

Uikey’s family may have won their community rights, but they have found that they must face a variety of challenges to keep them. The elite of neighbouring villages often exploit the resources of Parasvihir’s forests without informing the Uikeys, who cannot patrol or monitor their forests. The district administration has shown no interest in dealing with these problems.

Instead, government officials, especially from the forest department, told him that the recognised CFR would be withdrawn if he could not protect it. Help has come from SRISHTI, a local NGO working on rural development and livelihood issues in Gadchiroli. Since November 2022, SRISHTI has helped the Uikeys demarcate their CFR, map the forest and biodiversity resources, build linkages with neighbouring villages and prepare a community forest resource management plan.

Lessons from Parasvihir

The first lesson from Parasvihir is that institutional support is central to enforcing the FRA, irrespective of the size of the village claiming community forest rights. For community forestry to achieve environmental and economic gains, the rights of communities over recognised land clearly require institutional backing.

While SDLCs and DLCs nationwide often, whimsically and arbitrarily, reject community rights’ claims, the case of Parasvihir indicates how local state institutions, from panchayat to district collector, can create an enabling environment, and provide documentary, technical and institutional support.

The size of the Parasvihir village did not stop the SDLC and DLC members from processing and recognising the CFR claim of one household over 143.97 hectares of forest. The provisions of FRA prescribe that all types of claims under the Act be verified fairly and impartially. While the Uikeys’ determination is apparent, it is the state that is primarily responsible for enforcing the law to undo historical injustice to India’s forestdwelling communities.

Many have spoken of the mindset change required among administrators nationwide if the FRA is to be implemented in letter and spirit. Hopefully, they can all learn from Parasvihir.

(Vishnukant Govindwad is a PhD scholar and Geetanjoy Sahu is a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Reproduced with permission from Article 14)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines