Nearly a third of land-related conflicts are in parliamentary constituencies where the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) is an “important” election issue, says an analysis by Land Conflict Watch, a comprehensive database of land-related conflicts in India.

In these constituencies, 117 of the 781 documented, land conflicts directly affect forest dwelling communities and involve nearly 2.1 lakh hectares of land as well as 6.1 lakh people, the analysis released on Friday noted.

Nearly 44% of the 117 conflicts were triggered due to conservation and forestry projects, such as plantations, and involved forest administration. “This suggests that the main adversarial party in such conflicts is the Forest department,” said Anmol Gupta, one of the authors of the report.

About 88% of the conflicts involve non-implementation or violation of key provisions of the FRA. Other major points of conflict are the lack of legal protection over land rights, forced evictions, dispossession of land. About 110 conflicts are in constituencies reserved for Scheduled Tribes and 77 in constituencies reserved for Scheduled Castes.

Maharashtra, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh have the maximum number of “core” FRA constituencies, defined as where more than 20% of the resident electorate are eligible to claim rights available under the FRA.

The States with the maximum number of conflicts involving forest rights issues in FRA-critical constituencies are Odisha, Chhattisgarh and the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

2.45 million titles

The latest estimates from the Centre say that as of February 2024, 2.45 million titles have been accorded to tribal and forest dwellers across the country. Until the same period, five million claims to title have been received, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs noted, with about 34% of claims having been rejected.

Ahead of the polls beginning later this month, the Indian National Congress (INC) has rolled out a ‘tribal manifesto’ or ‘Adivasi Sankalp’ comprising six guarantees that include speedy settlement of pending FRA claims within a year and a process to review rejected claims. Last month, the Environment and Tribal Affairs Ministry wrote to Chief Secretaries of States and union territories to update revenue and forest records to ensure settling of forest rights to avail benefits under the PM JANMAN scheme. This is to provide sections of tribal groups access to houses, clean drinking water, sanitation and health.

The FRA, officially known as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, is a piece of legislation that enables tribal communities and forest-dwelling citizens to claim legal rights over the forest land they have occupied for generations but in many cases, denied a say or authority in its management or free access to forest produce. It gives gram sabhas, or village councils, the right to decide on how best their forest land can be used. Any transfer of forest land for non-forestry use now requires their consent. However the implementation of the FRA has been controversial. While several have been granted titles under its provisions, hundreds of thousands of tribals have seen their claim to titles rejected. The FRA lays down criteria under which tribal inhabitants can claim title to their land. However, the exclusions it imposes, impediments by the forest bureaucracy, and provisions of other Acts such as the Forest Conservation Act and the Wildlife Protection Act have, in the eyes of analysts and researchers, posed hurdles to the proper implementation of the FRA.

The current study builds on an earlier study, called the People’s Forest report in January, which found that 153 of India’s 543 parliamentary constituencies are those where the settling of rights could be a key issue, affecting their voting decisions. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won 103 of these constituencies, with the Congress winning only 11 of these seats. ‘Others’ won 39 seats in Andhra Pradesh (5), Maharashtra (10), Odisha (11), Telangana (5). In 42 constituencies, seats reserved for ST, the BJP won 31 (73.81%), and the INC won only 3 (7.14%).

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