Forest Rights Act: A decade old but implementation remains incomplete

  • Indian government enacted the Forest Rights Act in 2006 to correct the historic injustice done to tribal people and forest dwellers but the implementation of the landmark legislation has been far from satisfactory.
  • A recent study reveals a large variation in the outcomes of claims submitted under the FRA Act across states. It found that states with more forest cover have higher claim distribution rates, while states with presence of left-wing extremism are associated with higher claim rejection rates.
  • Experts working on the issue on the ground believe the biggest hurdles in proper implementation of the FRA Act are the forest bureaucracy and corporate interests.

Since its enactment in 2006, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) has been hailed as a step to correct the historic injustice meted out to tribal people and forest dwellers in India, but even over a decade later, its implementation “has been uneven since its inception and remains incomplete,” finds a recent study.

In the study,  Jocelyn I. Lee and Steven A. Wolf of the United States-based Cornell University conducted a critical assessment of the implementation of the Forest Rights Act of India and revealed that “there is a large variation in the outcomes of claims submitted under the Act across states.”

The study analyses the implementation of the FRA 2006 across India for the period 2008-2017 by examining the rates of formal distribution of rights claims at the level of individual states. It aims to explain variance across states through reliance on political, economic and ecological considerations.

It emphasises that a “greater extent of forest cover is associated with higher claim distribution rates, while the presence of left-wing extremism is associated with higher claim rejection rates.”

The study highlights “important governance tensions underlying prospects for environmental conservation through decentralisation of forest management authority”. It indicates that the “local political climate and interests, along with existing ecological conditions, may mediate implementation of forest policy reforms in an important way.”

“Sweeping institutional change to socioecological relations and property rights may be difficult to achieve in a country where political relationships and controls over access to resources differ across local contexts,” said the study published in the Land Use Policy journal.

The study highlights that there are several trends in the processing of FRA claims with major ones like high variation among state in the number of claims received and titles distributed.

Banner Image: Activists allege forest bureaucracy is one of the biggest hurdle in FRA Act’s proper implementation. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

For instance, the analysis reveals, that the “cumulative state distribution rates range from zero percent to approximately 66 percent with Kerala and Odisha both having issued titles for about 66 percent of all claims received within their states.”

“The distribution rate of zero belongs to the state of Tamil Nadu where a high court ban on the issuance of titles was in place until early 2016. The next lowest distribution rate (1.5 percent) occurs in Bihar, which has some of the lowest total numbers of claims received, distributed, and rejected,” it said.

High potential, poor implementation of FRA Act

Passed in 2006, the FRA Act seeks to make amends to India’s tribal community and other forest dwellers. The Act makes provisions for recognising and giving the forest rights to forest-dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional communities residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded.

It also aims to strengthen the conservation regime by recognising forest dwellers’ right to sustainably use and manage forests.

According to Indian government’s Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) data, which is the nodal department for the implementation of the FRA Act, till September 2018 end, a total of 4,219,741 claims (individual and community claims) have been filed and 1,889, 835 titles (individual and community claims) amounting to 17,848,733 acres of forest lands have been distributed. But this also means that a total of 1,934,345 claims were rejected by the government which is more than the approved claims.

Sanghamitra Dubey of the Community Forest Rights – Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA) Process, a group of experts who are working on the issue of community forest rights across India, said, the “FRA sought to democratise forest governance in India by securing rights of adivasis and forest dwellers and by empowering gram sabhas to govern community forest resources.”

She emphasised that it has estimated that FRA can recognise rights over at least 40 million hectares of forest benefiting about 200 million forest dwelling communities living in 170,000 villages in India.

“However the revolutionary potential of FRA is out of reach for the tribals and forest dwellers due to the extremely poor implementation in most of the states. Recognition of CFR (community forest rights) is particularly ignored. A major reason for this state of affairs is the complete lack of political commitment and resistance by forest bureaucracy,” said Dubey.

Meanwhile, the study observed that “this research and most of the academic and popular critiques of FRA available emphasise political constraints to FRA implementation.” It also emphasises on the need of challenge of capacity and capacity deficits that confront local people and communities eligible to make effective FRA claims.

“The challenges of understanding the law and the opportunities for making claims, for navigating the documentation and application procedures and for organising in a manner that moves implementation forward and advances accountability of claims processing and claims determinations are non-negligible,” said the study.

“There is a reason to believe that mixed incentives within states contribute to slow implementation and perhaps to high rates of rejection of claims, but the weak capacity of claimants merits consideration and investment,” it added.

Studies estimate that FRA Act’s proper implementation can benefit around 200 million forest dwellers. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

Experts and environmentalists, who have been working on the issues of forest rights, highlighted several reasons behind the non-successful implementation of FRA Act 2006 so far.   

Shankar Gopalakrishnan, who is the secretary of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national platform of forest dwellers groups, said the single biggest obstacle was and continues to be the “forest bureaucracy” which doesn’t want to recognise and respect people’s rights because they feel it as a threat to enormous power they enjoy over the forests which cover a large part of country.

“Due to this, we see passive neglect and criminal sabotage in the implementation of the law. The other major impediment is the corporate factor and their interest in India’s forests. Due to these two forces combining there has been a poor implementation of the FRA Act,” said Gopalakrishnan.

He, however, stated that despite all the impediments “FRA has been a huge step forward because it changed the discourse around these issues in India”.

“More and more communities, people and organisations have been using it as a tool to fight for justice. We have seen FRA being evoked across the entire country – from northeast to Maharashtra. It’s a huge step forward,” he added.

Dubey of CFR-LA stressed that a major concern in the implementation of the FRA Act is that, over the years, a series of enactments, policy measures and guidelines issued by the central government have diluted the FRA Act and the structure of democratic governance by gram sabhas.

“Ten years ago, the national campaign of adivasi and forest dwellers had led to the enactment of FRA which brought in a new vision of democratic governance of forest in India. The vision is progressively diluted in recent years with the dilution of FRA. The CAF (Compensatory Afforestation) Act, new national forest policy, the creation of land banks, diversion of forest land without the consent of gram sabhas have worked to reverse the democratic governance framework set up by FRA and threaten to bring back the colonial model of forest governance,” she added.


Lee J.I., and Wolf S.A. (2018). Critical assessment of implementation of the Forest Rights Act of India. Land Use Policy, Vol. 79, 834-844.


Banner Image: Activists allege forest bureaucracy is one of the biggest hurdle in FRA Act’s proper implementation. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

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