Landless to landowners: helping Tribal communities claim their rights

India's Forest Rights Act can become the global model for ecosystem-based adaptations that promote nature conservation while alleviating poverty

April 4, 2023

Millions of Tribal people like Somari Bai have been provided land titles in the last decade

UNDP India

Bent over, harvesting her paddy field under the scorching March sun, Somari Bai is unperturbed by the heat of the oncoming Indian summer. As she methodically picks her way through the field, she stops to drape her sari over her head, the only protection against the harsh sun.

“I am used to hard work. I have had a hard life and hard work is the only thing that kept my family alive,” says the 60-year-old with a determined look. “I don’t want to bore you with my sad story,” Somari adds with a smile.

Belonging to the Gond tribe, in the state of Chhattisgarh in Central India, Somari Bai bore the brunt of fate early in her married life. She lost her husband, father-in-law and mother-in-law in the same year, and the responsibility of earning a living and raising her two children fell upon her. 

She started collecting forest produce such as mahua flower, tendu and paan leaves, and fruit like chaar and chika from the forest nearby and sold them at the local market. But it was difficult to make ends meet. 

“My income was too less to educate my sons and feed all of us,” says Somari.

A woman from tribal community selling forest produce at the local market

UNDP India

Climate change, coupled with unplanned development, has wreaked havoc on biodiversity, resulting in a reduction in forest coverage, a fall in non-timber forest produce, and a decrease in land available for cultivation. According to the 2011 Census, the tribal population accounts for approximately 8.6% or over 104 million of India’s total population, with more than 50% of tribals living in forest areas.

Tribal communities remain vulnerable often due to forced displacement and lack of land ownership.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act), however, has proved to be an effective tool for empowering tribal communities and combating discrimination. The Forest Rights Act (FRA) recognizes contribution of the tribal community, especially women, to forests and grants equal land ownership rights to women and men in the community. It is for the first time that joint titles on individual land are mentioned in any legislation, and it also recognizes rights of single women over land. 

Somari's son Bhupesh after a day's work on the family's farm

UNDP India

Since 2012, UNDP has collaborated with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to strengthen the Act’s implementation across the country, holding several training capacity building and awareness workshops with implementing officers from the National to the District level, as well as assisting in the preparation and monitoring of a roadmap for State implementation. So far, UNDP has supported the process of recognizing about 2.2 million forest titles (21,46,782 individual and 1,02,889 community titles) for forest dwelling tribal communities in India.  

For many people like Somari, this meant that they could finally own land that would be legally theirs, removing the uncertainty of being displaced and providing them with a stable livelihood source. Somari received a land title for over 2.5 acres of forest land.

“I dug a borewell on my farm started cultivating paddy along with vegetables. I was the first person in my village to take such an initiative. I then started selling my crop in Government mandis,” says Somari.

All this helped increase her household income from Rs 25,000 to Rs 1.20 lakhs per annum, thus improving her living conditions.

A tribal woman collects tendu leaves from the forest

UNDP India

The Special Report on Climate Change and Land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2019, stated that land titling and recognition programs, particularly those that authorize and respect indigenous and communal tenure, can lead to improved management of forests, including for carbon storage. The Forest Rights Act can become the Global model for ecosystem-based adaptations that promote nature conservation while alleviating poverty.

UNDP is working at all levels of Government for seamless implementation of the FRA, from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to State Governments to Gram Sabhas (Local Government). This includes strengthening institutional capacities, enabling tribal people to apply for land titles, and supporting Gram Sabhas to conserve and protect forests, wildlife, and bio-diversity through the preparation of community forest conservation plans.

While recognition of rights is essential for tenurial security and creating records of rights, UNDP’s partnership with the Central and State Governments has also focused on the linkages with other development programs so that lives of the forest rights land holders is further improved.  

For e.g. in Chhattisgarh, UNDP India and State Tribal Welfare Department Chhattisgarh in partnership with the Foundation of Ecological Security (FES) has made special efforts to recognize the rights of tribal communities over fish and other reservoirs products, as well as pastures for livelihood. Individual forest rights holders are being provided post-claim assistance such as land levelling, bund-bonding, manure, seeds and irrigation equipment-related assistance as a result of the convergence of different Central and State Government schemes.

Chameli Bai from Masulpani Village in Kanker District, Chhattisgarh is such an FRA beneficiary. The 42-year-old single mother received about an acre of land and started cultivating paddy, besides collecting and selling forest produce.

Chameli cultivating her paddy crop

UNDP India

She was then encouraged by the local team to  apply for the rural employment guarantee scheme - MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scehme), which helped her to gain additional income during non-farming days. The ownership of land has also meant opening up of employment opportunities for tribal people, especially the women.

Ramba Tigham works at the Forest Board’s processing unit in Chhattisgarh’s Dhamtari district

UNDP India

“Because my family can cultivate on their own land, we don’t have to go out of the village looking for work. In my case, this also meant that I could look for a job close to my home,” said  22-year old Ramba Tigham who works at the Forest Board’s processing unit in Chhattisgarh’s Dhamtari district.

“Land for tribal families has finally given them the power to change their fortunes,” she says with a smile.