The failure of the Forest Rights Act’s implementation, compounded by conflicts with other legislations like PESA, underscores the need for a comprehensive and coordinated approach to address the multifaceted issues faced by tribal communities.
The Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 was envisioned as a transformative legislation aimed at recognizing and securing the rights of forest-dwelling communities over their ancestral lands and resources. It aimed to rectify historical injustices and provide a legal framework for the protection of traditional forest dwellers’ rights. However, the implementation of the FRA has often been marred by challenges and conflicts, particularly in cases where other legislations intersect or where bureaucratic inefficiencies impede its proper execution.
The case of the Kolam tribe in Yavatmal’s Shiratoki village serves as a poignant example of the complexities and shortcomings associated with the implementation of the FRA.
Shiratoki, nestled in the heart of Yavatmal District, Maharashtra, holds a unique position both geographically and culturally. The Kolam tribe, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), calls Shiratoki home, navigating the challenges of geographical isolation, limited resource access, and historical marginalization. Their rich cultural heritage and traditional forest-based livelihoods are central to the tapestry of indigenous heritage in the region.
The journey of the Shiratoki people from a state of relative isolation to becoming beneficiaries of the FRA’s provisions highlights both the potential and the pitfalls of this legislation. Despite being granted forest area under the Collective Forest Rights Act in 2016, the subsequent events underscore the difficulties faced by these marginalized communities in fully realizing their rights. One of the major conflicts arises between the FRA and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) of 1996 (Act No. 40 Of 1996). PESA is designed to safeguard the traditional rights and customs of scheduled tribes, ensuring that local self-governance institutions have a say in the decision-making processes affecting their communities. Conflicts emerge due to conflicting mandates and unclear delineation of authority in cases where the territories of forest-dwelling communities overlap with areas governed by PESA.
The Shiratoki village in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal District, falls within the ambit of PESA, which complicates the implementation of both legislations. Forest officers and other stakeholders, often guided by their own agendas, have played a role in steering the course of the community’s trajectory. The transition from forest-based activities, such as the collection of tendu leaves (used for making bidis), to collective agriculture, represents a pivotal point in this journey. The intervention of forest officers and intermediaries like the contractor who purchased the tendu leaves, disrupted the community’s traditional means of sustenance and forced them to adapt to an unfamiliar mode of livelihood. This shift reflects not only the vulnerabilities of these communities but also the power dynamics that underpin such transitions.
The involvement of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and developmental agencies like the Gramin Samasya Mukti Trust and Mission Sumriddhi has been instrumental in assisting the community in adopting collective natural farming. While these initiatives have provided alternative avenues for sustenance, they also underscore the limitations of state support.
The government’s failure to provide adequate resources, infrastructure, and training for sustainable agricultural practices has left these communities dependent on external aid. As evidenced in Shiratoki, a plethora of challenges continue to obstruct the path to self-sufficiency. These challenges span across various domains, from basic infrastructure to economic empowerment. The lack of government support in terms of access to electricity and water resources hampers the community’s ability to implement modern agricultural practices effectively. The absence of suitable marketing mechanisms, coupled with the undifferentiated pricing of their produce, reflects the larger systemic issue of market access and equitable pricing for indigenous products. Education emerges as a critical concern for such communities. While efforts are being made to educate their younger generation, illiteracy among adults remains a challenge. The aspiration to educate their children and secure a better future is undermined by a lack of government employment opportunities. Allegations of bribery and corruption in securing government jobs not only reinforce the marginalization of these communities but also erode their faith in the democratic institutions meant to serve them.
Despite these adversities, the tribal people exhibit remarkable resilience, determination, and democratic awareness. Their desire to create a prosperous future for their children and protect their cultural heritage underscores their agency and aspirations. However, the absence of substantial government assistance threatens their ability to thrive in their ancestral lands. The spectre of migration looms large, as these communities may be compelled to seek employment in neighbouring areas due to the lack of viable opportunities in their own habitat.
The case of the Kolam tribe in Shiratoki village is emblematic of the broader challenges faced by forest-dwelling communities in asserting their rights and achieving sustainable development. The failure of the Forest Rights Act’s implementation, compounded by conflicts with other legislations like PESA, underscores the need for a comprehensive and coordinated approach to address the multifaceted issues faced by these communities. The struggle for forest rights is not only about legal provisions but also about empowerment, equitable development, and the preservation of cultural identities. The story of Shiratoki village serves as a clarion call to rectify these systemic shortcomings and create an enabling environment where marginalized communities can flourish on their own terms.
Aditya studies at the Himachal Pradesh National Law University, Shimla. This piece has been extracted from his research report following his stint as an Abhijit Sen Research Intern with the National Foundation for India.