The Conflict in India’s Forests: Will State-driven Expropriation Continue?

State-driven forest management has essentially been about expropriation for powerful interests. What will this mean for the Forest Rights Act under the new government?

Areas notified or recorded as forests constitute almost a quarter of India's total land area. They are the site of some of India's most valuable resources, as well as the homes and livelihoods of the poorest and most oppressed communities. In the past century, they have also been the focus of the country's most radical, complex, and militant political movements. The last point is more important than is often noted, if only because it clarifies that forests are not merely some kind of “left behind” or marginalised backwater suffering from poverty, but are an integral part of the political economy of capitalism in India. The issues and conflicts that arise in forest areas are a result of that integration, and in turn, they affect the wider economy and society of which they are a part. The post-2014 period illustrates this integration more clearly than perhaps any other time period. 

A State–Capital Nexus

The fundamental conflict around forests dates back to the second half of the 19th century when the British attempts to secure the timber of India's forests led to the passage of the Indian Forest Acts and the creation of the idea of "government forests." The way these attempts played out is beyond the scope of this article,[1] but, in the long run, what was critical was the dynamic they established and that has prevailed ever since. On the one hand, the state administration has, with few interruptions, continuously attempted to enclose and expropriate forest areas, with an increasing level of central control. On the other, those resisting this expropriation have sought at a minimum to defend their areas and, in their more radical manifestations, to democratise control over them.

At its heart, the conflict here is between a state–capital nexus—that treats forests as a source of one or the other resource (originally, timber, and now minerals, land, or even “wilderness” for tourism)—and a broad, diffuse, and variegated resistance that seeks to treat them as territories with multiple uses and a need for collective control and management (Whitehead 2010; Gopalakrishnan 2012). This latter form of politics had its roots in the cultural and political practices of Adivasis and other forest dwellers, and ironically, the wholesale attempt to seize forests resulted in some of these collective practices becoming wellsprings of resistance.[2] This in turn also resulted in India having two traditions of environmentalism when it comes to forests and wildlife. The first has been a “modern,” “elite,” and largely English-speaking form of “conservation” that originated in the 1970s and tied itself to the state machinery and its expropriation drive; and the other is the older, far more widespread, popular tradition rooted in the resistance to expropriation.

The most recent phase of this conflict began in 2003, when a Supreme Court order staying all regularisation of “encroachment” led to a nationwide eviction drive that drove lakhs of families from their homes (CSD 2004). The subsequent mass mobilisation led to the passage of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (hereafter, FRA). It's important to note that the FRA was not passed in a vacuum. It was indelibly marked by the particular political “window”[3] that produced it—the brief period, from roughly 2004–06, when laws such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), 2005, the Right to Information Act, 2005 and the FRA came into existence. These also left their mark on later legislations such as the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 and, to a much lesser extent, the National Food Security Act, 2013. The NREGA and the FRA, in particular, shared a strong emphasis on shifting India's political economy not only towards more “welfare,” but towards a model where public resources would come under democratic, collective control (a certain portion of welfare finance in the case of the NREGA, and forests in the case of the FRA). Further and in particular, because it was rooted in the century-long tradition of resistance in forest areas, the FRA articulated this democratic potential more clearly than the other laws of this period. 

Those fighting for the new law sought to empower gram sabhas (village assemblies) with several key statutory powers: deciding who would receive title to rights; ownership of non-timber forest produce; consent to relocation for wildlife conservation; and most importantly, the power to protect and conserve any forest and, in particular, to conserve and manage “community forest resources.” Read on their own, these provisions were nothing short of revolutionary. For more than a century, forest dwellers had not even had the right to access their own homes or forests without harassment. The new law's supporters sought to overturn this regime in favour of a democratic, collective model of resource management and control.

This change was anathema not only to forest officials, but also to big capital, for whom, the easy access to natural resources had become crucial over the preceding decade (India Study Group 2014). Hence, it was not surprising that even before it was passed, the new law faced intense resistance and efforts at dilution, and this continued after it was passed as well. During the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, forest officials and corporates sought to dilute and undermine the law but faced considerable resistance.[4] This resistance blossomed across the country, with an ever wider range of movements and actors using the FRA to resist expropriation, assert collective control, and take control over natural resources.[5] In the same period, given the fragmented and incoherent nature of the ruling establishment, some of this resistance was reflected within the government as well, with media exposés and interventions by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs sometimes resulting in positive changes or blocking attempts to roll back the law.

Undercutting the Forest Rights Act

This dynamic changed with the Modi government coming to power. In keeping with its overall character as a more pro-corporate and pro-crony capitalist regime as compared to its predecessor, this conflict has taken on a much more polarised and intense character. Within both the central government and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled state governments, unlike in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) period, it was very clear who was in control—the forest bureaucracy and its corporate backers. Yet, even this government did not have the political strength to try to repeal or withdraw the Forest Rights Act completely (Gopalakrishnan 2017).

Instead, it attempted a series of “backdoor” policy changes in an attempt to roll back the achievements of the FRA period. One of the earliest steps in this direction was the notification of rules for the administration of "village forests" by the Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh governments in 2015 (Srivastava 2015a). These rules sought to provide a parallel, forest department-dominated procedure by which villages could secure rights over common and collectively managed forests, and, in practice, the forest department would use pressure and monetary incentives to ensure that this process, rather than the statutory procedure under the FRA, would be followed. This method of undercutting the FRA by essentially creating policies as if it does not exist became the pattern. In 2015, guidelines were issued to allow private companies to take over patches of forestland for growing tree or bamboo crops, and, in these patches, rights would be arbitrarily limited to 15% of the leased area (Shrivastava 2015b). In 2016, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016 was passed, providing for spending a fund of more than Rs 50,000 crore on forestry-related activities that would have a direct impact on forest dwellers, and despite objections from the opposition, the new law did not even contain the words "forest rights" (CSD 2016). An assurance was instead given that the rules under the new act would address forest rights issues, which unsurprisingly did not happen, and in any case was legally impossible (Aggarwal 2018). The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government also tried repeatedly to frame policies that ignored the FRA, including a draft National Forest Policy that failed to mention forest rights or forest dwellers in any meaningful fashion (Kukreti 2019).

It was only near the end of its term that the government acquired the courage to bring this process of sabotage to the point of destroying the FRA entirely. This was reflected in two developments in 2019. The first was the prolonged silence of the Modi government in a Supreme Court case challenging the Forest Rights Act, which led the court to issue an order which would have resulted in over a million families being evicted (Sethi 2019). The second was the framing of proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA) which, among other things, would empower forest officials to use firearms and to take away forest rights merely through the payment of monetary compensation (Sethi and Shrivastava 2019). Both of these would essentially destroy the FRA. The Supreme Court put its own order on hold after nationwide protests, but at the time of writing, the proposed amendments to the IFA have not been withdrawn.

Way Ahead

This was the situation as the country went to elections. Now that the BJP has come back to power, it is likely that these efforts at reinforcing expropriation and centralisation will continue. On the other hand, linkages between such resistance in forest areas and resistance elsewhere are deepening. The fact that state-driven forest management has essentially been about expropriation for powerful interests is perhaps clearer under this regime than ever before. The result is likely to be an increasing polarisation around these issues. In the short and medium term, this is likely to lead to a more concentrated attack on the FRA and an attempt to restore a complete rule of the forest bureaucracy corporate capital. But, in the longer term, this polarisation may also lead to a kind of mass democratic resistance similar to the one that produced the FRA in the first place. This new resistance, however, will now be a part of a larger democratic resistance. This may, therefore, result in new political and policy possibilities, not only resulting in a defence of the FRA, but, hopefully, seeking to go beyond it.

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