Reclaiming Tribal Forests in India

Written by:

  • G. Akhila, India Leader for the International Indigenous Working Group on HIV & AIDS (IIWGHA) and ITDS NGO Polavaram, West Godavari District
  • Pandi.Rameshbabu, Doctoral Fellow, Department of Social Work and Sociology, Acharya Nagarjuna University. Nagarjuna Nagar. Guntur, Andhra Pradesh

Keywords: Forest Rights Act, Tribal lands, NGO Advocacy, India.

In this article, the writer tries to help readers understand the issues contained within the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and how it influenced development. It also describes the role of civil society, NGOs and government officials in creating awareness of the FRA process as it relates to eligible Tribal beneficiaries including those affected by HIV and AIDS, supporting their welfare in Andhra Pradesh.

Indigenous peoples (Tribals) in India are popularly known as Adivasis implying ‘aboriginals’ or ‘original inhabitants’. The Indian government refers to them as the Scheduled Tribes (STs) as outlined in the country’s constitution. Most of the Tribal communities have been dwelling in forests for centuries. Traditionally, forests have provided most of their foods, medicinal products, firewood, fodder and other needs. In the long process of history, forest areas have become state property as well as the source of raising revenue from timber and other forest resources to the successive governments since the colonial period.

Since independence, these policies have led to deforestation through the transformation of forests into agricultural lands. This has also resulted in the loss of livelihoods and displacement of various Tribal societies and communities. Commercial exploitation at the hands of outsiders, and degradation of forests and other natural resources have caused imbalances to ecological and sustainable environments.

For 15 years, the Integrated Tribal Development Society (ITDS) has been networking collectively with likeminded tribal organizations in Andhra Pradesh and advocating for tribal rights, land rights, tribal women rights, and tribal displacement rights. The ITDS was founded in 1998 by Sri G. Anil Kumar, a member of the Koya Tribe. He is described as an educated Tribal social activist who serves “scheduled Tribal people”. Specifically, he has done work with the economically and educationally deprived people of the West Godavari Tribal Agency Area in the State of Andhra Pradesh.

The ITDS has been conducting 60 village-level orientation workshops on FRA land rights in 15 Tribal villages in West Godavari. The tribal people who attended became aware of the FRA and learned how to advocate with forest officers and revenue officers to obtain FRA land titles. They also learned about the Right to Information Act (RTI Act) and how to use it for gaining FRA land titles. It total, 1500 Tribal women and men attended the workshops. Of these, 15 women identified as being infected or affected with tuberculosis and 16 female attendees identified as affected by HIV and AIDS.

Advocacy with Government officers and ministers

The ITDS has facilitated advocacy discussions regarding the plan approval process of lands for Tribal families and Tribal women living with HIV and AIDS. Advocacy actions include postcard campaigns aimed at political leaders, the Prime Minister, Ministry of Tribal Welfare, the President of India and others in the Government. State Governors were also targeted. Four Advocacy meetings were also held with the District Collector, the Project Officer for Information Technology Development Agency (ITDA), the Revenue Divisional Officer, Jangareddy Gudem and Mandal Revenue Officers.

The Right to Information Act Application Submissions

As a result of village-level meetings and meetings focused specifically on awareness and advocacy of the RTI Act, eight (8) applications under the Right to Information Act were submitted. The applications asked why the government did not sanction lands to eligible Tribal women, including to eligible Tribal families affected by HIV and AIDS. The Tribal women applied to through the Project Officer of the ITDA, the Revenue Divisional Officer Jangareddy Gudem and Concern Mandal Revenue Officers.

Due to this advocacy and the applications through the RTI Act, government officers replied to the applicants’ concerns and ensured that the applications were forwarded to the Concern Officers. Ultimately, the land survey was undertaken and the process for FRA land titles distribution was engaged.

Within a short time period the Government of India completed the process of sanctioning and distributing lands to Tribal people through the implementation of the Forest Rights Act. 5% of the lands allocated to the applicants in this article now belong to Tribal women affected by TB, HIV and AIDS. This shows that by upholding Tribal (Indigenous) rights, that tribal women and men living with and affected by TB, HIV and AIDS also benefit in Andhra Pradesh and throughout India.