Evolution of Forest Rights in India from 1856 to 2006 | In Depth Analysis of FRA & Its Issues

Evolution of Forest Laws in the British Period

1856: Lord Dalhousie emphasized the need for a definite forest policy. Railways were first introduced to India in the year 1853 from Mumbai to Thane. Increasing difficulty of obtaining adequate supplies of timber (needed for the great extension of railway lines then being undertaken) was one of the main reason for this cognisance.

Another reason – The Indian teak, suitable for ship building, saved England during the war with Napoleon.

1865: The Indian Forests Act of 1865 extended the British Colonial claims over forests in India

1878: The Forest Act of 1878 was introduced and it truncated the centuries-old traditional use by communities of their forests and secured the colonial governments control over the forestry. The provision of this Act established a virtual State monopoly over the forests in a legal sense on one hand, and attempted to establish, on the other, that the customary use of the forests by the villagers was not a ‘right’, but a ‘privilege’ that could be withdrawn at will.

1927:  The Indian Forest Act, 1927. In continuance with the forest use policy of 1878, this landmark law – India’s main forest law, had nothing to do with conservation. It was created to serve the British need for timber. It sought to override customary rights and forest management systems by declaring forests state property and exploiting their timber.

This Act does not lay down a specific definition for forests. The act establishes three categories of forests, reserve forest, protected forest and village forest.

Reserve forest = Most restricted, constituted by state govt on govt property


Evolution of Forest Laws in the Post-Independence Period

1952: ‘National interests’ overrode all interests and forests were viewed as a national asset. It was made clear that local priorities and interests and claims of the communities around forest areas should be subservient to larger national interests

1976: National Commission on Agriculture recommended that ‘production of industrial wood would have to be the raison d’etre for the existence of forests’, and this would have priority over the needs of individuals and communities.

The same year also witnessed the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution, which transferred the forests from the State List to the Concurrent List, thus re-emphasizing the role of the Central Government in the management of forests.

1980: Forest Conservation Act, 1980 was passed to check further deforestation and conserve forests. 4 major objectives of this act were –

1) restricting the use of forest land for non-forest purposes

2) preventing the de-reservation of forests that have been reserved under the Indian Forest Act, 1927

3) restrict leasing of forest land to private individuals, authority, corporations not owned by the Government

4) to prevent clear felling of naturally grown trees

In essence, the Act merely shifts powers for decisions concerning forest land use from the State to the Centre.

1988: National Forest Policy 1988 was enacted and this was a drastic shift in the approach towards management of forests in comparison to the post-independence Forest Policy of 1952.

While conservation of forests in the national interest remained a policy objective, the emphasis shifted to the bona fide requirements of the marginalized individuals and communities who were dependent on the forests.

Some of the other acts related with forestry and tree plantation are as follows:

– The Wildlife Protection Act 1972
– The Environment Protection Act 1986
– The Biodiversity Protection Act 2003

We won’t discuss them in detail here but this listing is just to let you know that forest conservation is not done in silo. There are a lot many actors and laws in play and they tend to play enabling (& sometimes conflicting) roles. We will see that as we discuss the challenges in FRA (2006) in detail.

Introduction of Forest Rights Act, 2006 


For the first time, the Government of India via the Scheduled Tribes and the Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, admitted that

Forest rights on the ancestral lands and their habitat were not adequately recognized in the consolidation of state forests during the colonial periods as well as in Independent India resulting in Historical injustice with the scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers, who are integral to the very survival of the forest ecosystem.

Who is a forest dweller under this law, and who gets rights?

There are two stages to be eligible under this Act. First, everyone has to satisfy two conditions:

– Primarily residing in forests or forest lands;
– Depends on forests and forest land for a livelihood (namely “bona fide livelihood needs”)
– That the above conditions have been true for 75 years, in which case you are an Other Traditional Forest Dweller

#1. The FRA is in addition to and not in derogation of the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act, 2006, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and other State Forest Acts. Therefore the protective provisions contained in these Acts will continue to apply.

#2. This Act does not provide any unrestricted legal right to any person (including a Scheduled Tribe or Other Traditional Forest Dweller) to enter a forest area now and start clearing and occupying forestland. The provisions of the Wildlife Act, Forest Act and other applicable laws may be invoked to remove such fresh illegal and ineligible encroachments.

#3. Nowhere in the FRA is it stated that all rights are granted with immediate effect. Only after the district-level committee, comprising the DC, DCF and others, issues a certified copy of the record of forest rights and title will the claimant acquire a legal right over land and forest produce.

What kind of rights forest dwellers get under this Act?

#1. Land Rights

Ownership to land that is being farmed by tribals or forest dwellers subject to a maximum of 4 hectares. Ownership is only for land that is actually being cultivated by the concerned family, meaning that no new lands are granted.

The land cannot be sold or transferred to anyone except by inheritance

#2. Use Rights

The law secondly provides for rights to use and/or collect the following:

a. Minor forest produce things like tendu patta, herbs, medicinal plants etc “that has been traditionally collected. This does not include timber

b. Grazing grounds and water bodies

c. Traditional areas of use by nomadic or pastoralist communities i.e. communities that move with their herds, as opposed to practicing settled agriculture

#3. Right to Protect and Conserve

Though the forest is supposed to belong to all of us, no one except the Forest Department had a right to protect it.

For the first time, this law also gives the community the right to protect and manage the forest.

This is vital for the thousands of village communities who are protecting their forests and wildlife against threats from forest mafias, industries and land grabbers, most of whom operate in connivance with the Forest Department.

Rights of conversion of forest villages into revenue villages

Understand the difference between a Forest Village and a Revenue Village

Forest Village = Settlements which have been established inside the forests by the forest department of any State Government for forestry operations or which were converted into forest villages through the forest reservation process.

Revenue Village = A Revenue Village is a small administrative region in India, with defined borders, that is recognized by the District Administration. One revenue village may contain many hamlets.

The conversion from FV to RV enables villagers get benefits of welfare schemes. This means tribals will then get all the constitutional rights given to a citizen of India.

How are rights recognised?

3 Step Procedure:

1) First, the gram sabha (full village assembly, NOT the gram panchayat) makes a recommendation

2) The gram sabha’s recommendation goes through two stages of screening committees at the taluka and district levels.

3) At both the taluka and the district levels, any person who believes a claim is false can appeal to the Committees, and if they prove their case the right is denied

The main power under FRA is accorded to gram sabha for identification of beneficiaries. Execution Flaws: Gram sabha are either non existent or their role is not clear or their resolution are not recorded.

What are the major issues with respect to the implementation of FRA?


There are various factors that have prevented the proper implementation of the FRA since its passage in 2006:

#1. The process of documenting communities’ claims under the FRA is intensive — rough maps of community and individual claims are prepared democratically by Gram Sabhas. These are then verified on the ground with annotated evidence, before being submitted to relevant authorities. The Gram Sabha is treated as a public authority under the FRA, and if the higher authorities under the law reject its claims, substantive reasons have to be provided for doing so. This exhaustive process is why the official diktat to implement the FRA so quickly lacks any understanding about the extent of the task and labour involved.

#2. Reluctance of the forest bureaucracy to give up control – The forest bureaucracy has misinterpreted the FRA as an instrument to regularise encroachment. This is seen in its emphasis on recognising individual claims while ignoring collective claims — Community Forest Resource (CFR) rights as promised under the FRA — by tribal communities.

#3. Enviro Ministry wants exceptions – To make matters worse, the Union environment ministry has been issuing circulars to make exceptions for the projects from taking consent of the gram sabhas under FRA. About a year back, the ministry exempted linear projects such as roads, railway lines, transmission lines passing through from the requirement of taking permissions of gram sabhas.

While technically these circulars are being issued by the ministry to fast-track development projects without having to amend FRA, they effectively exclude the participation of forest dwellers in decision making on development process, which has essentially been the spirit of FRA.

#4. Execution level issues – 

The Gram Sabha/ Forest Rights Committee have to receive all types of claims of rights and document it with proper receiving, but in most of the states the Gram Sabha/ FRC do not have desired infrastructure and technical know how to keep these records.

The main target group of this Act are mostly illiterate and therefore filling and submission of forms regarding the claims becomes very difficult. In this situation many middleman and some bad elements starts operating with vested interest.

There is lack of awareness about Community Forest Resource provisions among local communities as well as government officials. The act provides right on thirteen different types of community rights but only two or three rights are often seen to be claimed and without proper corroboration, which often led to rejection of claim.

In absence of authentic records of evidence in situation discussed above the role of revenue and forest departments becomes very important and the actual eligible people also have to face serious problems in claiming rights for them.

In most of the states the authentic data regarding the occupation of land before the cut off date i.e. 13.12.2005 such as remote sensing maps etc. are not available for whole area thereby creating a major problem in ascertaining the claims for rights over the land.

Environmental concern of Forest degradation from the implementation of FRA

The FRA provides grants of land to forest dwellers – in situ – to the extent of their present holding but not exceeding four hectares. Here lies the major problem with this legislation.

With fragmentation, forest edges come more and more into contact with human activity resulting in degradation. The FRA has set the stage for another round of massive fragmentation. This will also lead to serious human–wildlife conflict.

Way Forward:

If the government is serious about implementing the FRA, it should confront the forest bureaucracy and make it clear that any obstruction on their part is unacceptable.

There is a clear need to strengthen the nodal tribal departments, provide clear instructions to the State and district administrations, and encourage civil society actors.

Tribal Ministry needs to step up its ante!

Misc. Information (Useful for showing the importance of forests and environment in classical India)

The earliest historical evidence of forest and their use in human life in India relates to the Mohenjodaro-Harappa civilization (about 5000-4000 BC).

The seals and painted pottery recovered from the Indus Valley show the pipal and babul (species Ficus and Acacia, respectively), which we regard as celestial plants.

Kautiliya’s Arthshastra also suggests a systematic management of forests. The quantum of punishment for felling of trees was proportionate to the utility of the tree.

The Gupta period (200-600 AD) witnessed a distribution of forests similar to that of the Mauryan period. The Mughal period (1526-1700) was characterized by a continuous destruction of forests for timber and clearance for cultivation.

Questions from Prelims Daily 

#1. With reference to the ‘Baiga’ community of India, consider the following statements:

1. They live mainly in the Sal forests of Maikal Hills.
2. They have won habitat rights under the Forests Rights Act of 2006.
3. They are kept in the category of particularly vulnerable tribal groups.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

(a) 2 only
(b) 1 only
(c) 2 and 3 only
(d) 1, 2, and 3

#2. Which of the following states has become the first state to notify a vast expanse of its mangroves as “reserved forests”?

(a) Maharashtra

(b) West Bengal

(c) Karnataka

(d) Gujarat

Questions from Target Mains

#1. It is said that the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 has been opaque and there is serious lack of awareness about its provisions not only among the beneficiaries but also among the officials in charge of implementing it. Discuss the causes and the way forward.

#2. The Forest Rights Act (2006) and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (1996) have established a framework for local self-governance in demarcated (or “scheduled”) areas, yet their full implementation is fraught with many challenges. Critically analyse these challenges and suggest ways to overcome them.

Did you like the compilation? Go ahead and put your answers in the comments.

Also read: Newstrail on Forest Policy of India

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