Empowering Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs): Recognition of Habitat Rights in Chhattisgarh
August 9, 2023
"Our people will finally hold legal rights to our land. Without them, our future would forever be uncertain,” exclaims Indra Bai, as she meticulously weaves another cane basket. Indra belongs to the Kamar tribe, one of India’s Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups or PVTGs.
Within India's diverse tapestry of tribal populations, there exist 75 tribal communities known as the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs), as recognized by the Government of India. This designation arises from their heightened vulnerability compared to other tribal groups.
On the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, Indra Bai and numerous Kamar tribals from 22 villages in Chhattisgarh were granted legal title and rights over their habitat - known as Habitat Rights, under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. These rights serve as a cornerstone for securing the habitat, cultural identity and livelihoods of PVTGs.
Who are the PVTGs
Spread across 18 states and one union territory, the 75 PVTGs inhabit diverse ecological landscapes—from serene plains and lush forests to rugged hills and remote, inaccessible areas. These groups are also culturally different from one another.
Their journeys through social, economic, and educational development vary widely, characterized by limited access to development resources and infrastructure. For instance, some PVTGs like the Sentinelese of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are grappling with the challenges of declining populations.
The Government of India has been instrumental in nurturing the development needs of the PVTG communities, implementing dedicated schemes since the 1990s. A significant leap forward is the Pradhan Mantri Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) Development Mission, introduced in the Union Budget 2023-24. This mission is designed to improving the socio-economic status of PVTGs and bridging gaps in health, education, livelihoods, and basic infrastructure. Collaborating closely with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, UNDP is actively strengthening the implementation of the tribal development programmes and policies at both central and state levels.
Understanding Habitat Rights
In 2006, the Government of India ushered in a transformative legislation called the Forest Rights Act (FRA) to empower forest-dwelling communities, including Scheduled Tribes, and recognize their rights over forestland and resources. Under this act, the concept of Habitat Rights was introduced, aiming to secure the habitat and livelihood of PVTGs and other tribal communities.
Section 2(h) of the FRA defines ‘habitat’ as the ‘area comprising the customary habitat and such other habitats in reserved and protected forests of primitive tribal groups and pre-agricultural communities, and other forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes’.
However, the process of the recognition of the habitat rights is a complex one, demanding a grasp of the concept both within the community and the administrative levels. This has resulted in the slow initiation of the process in many states.
The slow progress in recognizing habitat rights can be attributed to a number of factors, including the absence of comprehensive socio-economic information about the communities and the complexity of the process – which includes the identification of traditional clans and sub-groups and mapping of the habitats.
This process also requires the active participation of community leaders, district administration, and the state government, including building their capacity and awareness.
Recognizing Habitat Rights in Chhattisgarh
On August 9, the Government of Chhattisgarh became one of the pioneering states to recognize the Habitat Rights of Kamar PVTGs from 22 villages within the Magarlod block of Dhamtari district, constituting the traditional Magarlod Kamar Pali.
Since 2021, UNDP has been partnering with the Government of Chhattisgarh ‘s department of tribal and scheduled caste development to strengthen capacities for the effective implementation of Forest Right Act, 2006.
The process of recognition of the Habitat Rights entailed a sequence of consultations with community members, traditional leaders, women leaders, along with the district administration, including revenue and forest authorities.
Subsequent to these consultations, a comprehensive series of training sessions on the provisions and the process of the Act were conducted to enhance the capacities of the community and the implementing officers. Following the training, a meticulous mapping exercise was undertaken, accompanied by the documentation of evidence.
UNDP facilitated the constitution of the Forest Right Committees (FRCs) in each village, which then prepared the habitat rights claims by attaching site verification documents, sketch maps and building a consensus among all Kamar settlements to find resolutions in case of disputes.
These claims were then presented in the respective Gram Sabhas (local governance body of village) for verification and approval, and forwarded to the sub divisional level committee and district level committee for final approval.
Going forward, this process will be undertaken in the other districts where Kamar communities have similar claims. And a larger habitat right title of the entire Kamar PVTG will be prepared by integrating all sub-habitat titles spread across four districts – Dhamtari, Gariyaband, Mahasamund and Kanker in Chhattisgarh.
The Journey Ahead
The habitat rights recognition process doesn't stop here. The success story in Kamar Pali in Magarlod could serve as a model for other state governments. The journey of recognizing habitat rights for the Kamar PVTG community is a step forward in empowering them.
Thanks to the concerted efforts of the Government of Chhattisgarh and the resilient spirit of the PVTG community, their right over their land for livelihood, social, economic, cultural, and religious purposes is now legally recognized and protected. This sets a remarkable precedent for other state governments, civil society organizations and stakeholders to come together and facilitate the recognition of habitat rights elsewhere and enable PVTGs to improve their well-being and safeguard their resources.
India's rich tribal heritage, with over 700 distinct tribal groups, especially Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups, deserve focused efforts to secure their rights and enhance their quality of life. On this International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, it is critical to recognize and celebrate the unique cultures, traditions, and contributions of these communities.
By Divya Saini, Research Assistant, SDG Acceleration and Sreetama Gupta Bhaya, Programme Lead, Tribal Development, SDG Acceleration.