India’s forest-dependent communities will benefit from policies recognising their integrated agri-forestry livelihood

Targeted interventions aimed at building resilience to natural and climate-related challenges may be necessary

By Gautam Prateek, Sumendera Punia
Published: Wednesday 04 January 2023
India’s forest-dependent communities will benefit from policies recognising their integrated agri-forestry livelihood
Photo: iStock Photo: iStock

Around 1.6 billion people in the world live within 5 kilometres of a forest, according to a recent study

In India, the Forest Survey of India (2019) estimated, roughly 26 per cent of the total 650,000 villages can be classified as forest fringe villages, where forests fulfill significant socio-cultural and livelihood needs.  As of 2019, these villages were home to around 22 per cent of the country’s total population.

But these communities are often ignored during policymaking. During the onset of the pandemic, for instance, when states had to shut down economic activities, the precarious condition of India’s agrarian people was covered extensively in studies and assessments. But the forest-dependent communities (FDC) got very little space in this debate. 

In fact, when movement of agricultural commodities was allowed on April 15, 2020 amid the lockdown, forest produce was not included in that ambit. It was added only the next day. 

Not much is known about the overall wellbeing of FDCs in India due to a lack of comprehensive assessments. (SAL & CFR-LA are exceptions.) 

To bridge this gap and understand the food insecurity of FDCs, PRADAN, a non-profit that works towards eradicating poverty in India, and the School of Rural Management (SRM), XIM University carried out a collaborative study in June-August 2021. It covered 2,258 households in 141 villages of 24 districts, located in the seven states of Central India. 

These seven states constitute around 42 per cent of the total estimated population in the forest fringe villages of India. Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha are among the top five states in terms of the percentage of population in forest fringe villages.

The assessment revealed interesting information on the inter-related aspects of food security, livelihood and out-migration in the FDCs of central India.

Food insecurity & livelihoods

Food security is a major concern for FDCs in central India, as it directly impacts their well-being. In the study, although a majority of households reported dependence on forest-based livelihoods, their income from forest products was relatively low. 

Wage and cultivation income are more prominent sources of income in these communities, reflected in the Situation Assessment Survey of 2021 as well. 

One of the notable findings of the study was that a majority of the households were found to be food insecure, despite having acceptable levels of diet diversity. 

The average income of FDCs was also found to be lower and the percentage of landless households was higher than the latest figures on agricultural households in India. 

This alludes to the livelihood challenges faced by the FDCs, their link with nutrition and the need for improved income-generating opportunities.

We found that the majority of respondents reporting income from forest resources often do so without adding value to the forest resources. Fodder (all kinds), sal and tendu emerged as the top three forest resources meant for commercial sales. 

Furthermore, most of the sales are being made either to the forest department or being sold in the local markets, either independently or to the local contractors. 

Additionally, a majority of the respondents reported to be illiterate and were not much aware of forest rights. This limited their access to forest resources and income-generating opportunities. 

The bright side: With awareness, the likelihood of claims for forest rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also called the Forest Rights Act (FRA), increased, our assessment showed.

Interventions promoting greater awareness and recognition of rights for the FDCs under FRA can, thus, go a long way.

Food insecurity & migration

All the seven states covered in the study are hotspots of migration at the national level, and this was recently evident in multiple articles and studies published since the onset of COVID-19. 

Migrant households, which made up around 18 per cent of the sampled households, were more likely to experience food insecurity than non-migrant households, the PRADAN-SRM study showed.

In addition, these households had smaller average landholding sizes and were located much further from the forests than the non-migrant households. 

Although additional research is needed, areas distant from the forest may be more plausible sources of migration. 

Challenged access to basic amenities and shocks to livelihoods were also found to be more pronounced for the FDCs. Natural and climate-related shocks were the most widely reported vulnerabilities by the majority, underscoring the crucial need for planning mitigation and adaptation strategies for greater resilience and wellbeing of the FDCs. 

In terms of basic amenities, it was observed that a majority of FDCs depend on public pumps for water, and 36 per cent of households had no toilet facility at home. 

Policy implications 

The seven sources of income growth outlined by the interministerial committee didn’t explicitly mention forestry. But the following quote from the policy recommendations mentioned in the Doubling of Farmers’ Income report conveyed a vital point:

It is necessary to recognise non-timber forest products (NTFP) as a source of income at par with agriculture in the case of tribal communities and facilitate them to improve the practices of gathering minor forest produce.

The results of the PRADAN-SRM study indicate that agriculture and wages are the primary sources of household income for FDCs in India. Therefore, it is important for policy planning and implementation to consider the intersection of forest-based livelihoods and agricultural development as means of addressing poverty. 

It would be simplistic to consider FDCs solely in terms of their reliance on forests, or agrarian communities solely in terms of crop cultivation. One approach that may be worth considering is the promotion of more forest-based farmer-producer organizations, which have been a central focus of agricultural development efforts in recent years.

Overall, ensuring access to forests for the purpose of generating income, as well as addressing basic needs such as education, sanitation and access to clean water, should be prioritised. 

Additionally, targeted interventions aimed at building resilience to natural and climate-related challenges may be necessary to support the well-being of FDCs.

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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