The Forest Rights Act augurs differently for two tribal communities in Kerala
The joint committee set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to enquire into the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of the Forest Rights) Act, 2006, came out with its final report in December 2010. The report suggests that some states had not even started initial procedures to give rights to forest dwellers. But other states like Kerala had vested individual land titles.
We visited Ponkuzhi, a lively colony of Kattunaikka and Paniya tribals in Wayanad district of Kerala, in November 2010 while conducting fieldwork for a collaborative study by ATREE, an environmental group in Bengaluru, and NORAGRIC (the Department of Environment and Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences). The study sought to place the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in a larger regional history of adivasi land alienation and legislative attempts by the state to restore alienated land.
The Ponkuzhi story is illustrative of the experience of Paniya tribals in Wayanad. It is a story of farm bondage and how a community gradually got alienated from forests. The powerlessness of the Paniya tribals is also a product of feudalism and colonisation for coffee and tea plantations.
In Ponkuzhi we also interacted with the Naikka tribals. A comparison of the two adivasi communities shows how within the same geographic region tribal communities could benefit differently from land and conservation rights.
But first, a brief profile of the two communities.
Paniyas constitute 45 per cent of the adivasi population in Wayanad. Bonded labourers till the 1970s, they later became a source of cheap labour for the coffee and tea plantations in the district. After bonded labour was abolished some people from the community received land from landlords, but most others were rendered landless. Several government land distribution schemes introduced after the abolition failed to take effect and most Paniyas continued to be landless.
Though the Paniyas have a long agricultural history, they did depend on forests for tubers. The tubers saved them from starvation during their years of bondage. But after abolition of farm bondage and subsequent availability of coolie work in colonised land, a marginal income ensured food security for the community and in turn reduced their dependence on forests.
Naikkas constitute nine per cent of Wayanad’s adivasi population. They are more dependent on non-timber forest produce (NTFP) than the Paniyas. The community’s relative isolation from communities outside forests has led to it been classified as “Primitive Vulnerable Tribal Groups” by the Kerala government.
These two separate colonies, located on the fringes of the Wayanad wildlife sanctuary and on either side of the National Highway 212, constitute the Ponkuzhi colony, which falls under Wayanad’s Noolpuzha panchayat.
Of the 79 Forest Rights Committees (FRC) formed in December 2008 in Wayanad to initiate the claims process, one FRC was constituted in Ponkuzhi. This FRC mainly consisted of Naikkas.
Claims for individual land and community forest rights were submitted in December 2009 and most colony members received their individual titles for holdings ranging from less than 50 cents to an acre (100 cents=1 acre or 0.4 hectare). The allocation of community forest rights was to begin in July 2009, but there has not been much progress on that front.
Nevertheless, the applications for community forest rights are instructive for researchers studying tribal communities in the region. They show how the dependence of the Paniyas on forests and forest resources is not as marked as that of the Naikkas'. For instance, the latter had applied for rights over amla (Phyllantus emblica), kurundoti (Sida sp), firewood, lichen, honey, traditional medicinal plants, fishing, firewood, cattle grazing and burial grounds. But the Paniya tribal community only applied for rights over firewood, fishing, amla, cattle grazing and burial grounds.
Such difference in dependencies also reflected a difference in opinion on the FRA. The Naikkas exuded optimism and security. Take Kamala, a Naikka FRC member, for instance. Aware of her role and responsibilities as an FRC member, she had helped people in her colony when they filed claims. She told us, “Receiving these titles means the government is finally doing something for us. We can now do what we want with this land, and once we receive community rights we can earn more money.”
Madhavan, chairperson of the FRC committee, also expressed hope that FRA would give them security in accessing forest resources. “The comfort we get living here, we can get nowhere. Here we don’t have to pay for basic necessities in life like water and firewood. Life in (the) town will be very difficult for us. We are not used to it,” Madhavan told us.
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.