Madhya Pradesh assembly elections 2018: Rights of tribals over forest land key election issue

Madhya Pradesh assembly elections 2018: Madhya Pradesh, where assembly elections are slated on November 28, has the largest population of tribespeople in India, but recognition of forest rights in the state is negligible compared to states such as Maharashtra and Kerala, according to a recent study.

madhya pradesh elections Updated: Nov 27, 2018 14:26 IST
Jayashree Nandi
Jayashree Nandi
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
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Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force guard EVMs ahead of Madhya Pradesh assembly elections, at MLB School in Jabalpur, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. The state votes on November 28.(PTI)

Recognising the right of local dwellers’ over forest land and resources may influence voters’ preferences in the November 28 Madhya Pradesh assembly elections, especially in seats dominated by tribal communities.

The state houses the largest population of tribespeople in India, with around 22% of the state’s 78 million people being tribal, but recognition of forest rights in the state is negligible compared to states such as Maharashtra and Kerala, a recent study by the non-profit research group Community Forest Rights-Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA) has found.

The Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 grants legal recognition to the land and livelihood rights of forest dwellers. The act recognizes the rights of forest dwellers to live in forest land, to gather forest resources like fruits, leaves, firewood and others, trade in them and to conserve forest resources as per their traditional practices.

“We found that the national average of recognising community and individual forest rights was only 3%, MP was zero while Maharashtra was 18% and Kerala with 16% led the implementation in states,” said Radhika Chitkara of CFR-LA. The research group made the assessment of FRA recognition potential for Madhya Pradesh based on data from the 2011 census.

The group estimates that in 167 of the 230 assembly constituencies, at least 20% of the voters were eligible for recognition under the Forest Rights Act. In 14 of constituencies, at least 80% of the voters were eligible for recognition under the act, the report said.

“The habitat rights of particularly vulnerable tribal groups like Baigas, Bharias and Saharias haven’t been recognised. Tribal people are affected by large scale acquisition of forest land and lack of livelihood opportunities,” said Tushar Dash of CFR-LA.

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The issue has found a mention in the manifestos of both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress. The Congress manifesto states, “We will ensure those tribals who did not get pattas (land) under the Forest Rights Act of 2006 get it and we will also ensure it is made cultivable. We will give ownership rights to the tribals of the land.” The BJP manifesto states, “We will give priority to develop and protect forests through forest management committees and forest communities.”

And, in a place like Jhabua, which is in the heart of the state’s tribal belt, implementation of forest rights is a significant poll issue. During the election campaign, senior tribal leader and MP from the Ratlam-Jhabua constituency, Kantilal Bhuria, has promised the Congress would protect land and forest rights of the tribals and reminded his mainly tribal audience that it was the Congress-led UPA government that introduced the forest rights act. To counter him, the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate from Jhabua, G S Damore, has pointed out the various steps the party has taken to implement the forest rights act.

Activists say the lack of forest rights also drives migration. Vijay Panda, a Barwani-based tribal rights activist, said, “A large number of tribal people from western MP migrate to the neighbouring states of Gujarat and Rajasthan in search of jobs every year after harvesting their crop in October. They have started migrating to southern states also. This is because there is nothing to do here and they have no rights over forest land or forest resources like bamboo and tendu.”

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Another demand by the locals is to give gram sabhas ownership rights over forest produce such as tendu, whose leaves are used to wrap bidis, and bamboo. Maharashtra is the only state to have vested ownership rights on tendu and bamboo in gram sabhas. “It is not a difficult task. The maps and khasra numbers are all there. Make the gram van samitis responsible for those areas and the forests will grow,” said Shankar Tawadle, leader of the Khedut Mazdoor Sangh in Alirajpur.

Counting of votes for assembly elections will be held on December 11.

(With inputs from HTC in Bhopal)

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First Published: Nov 27, 2018 13:00 IST