Estimating the potential of community forest rights: What makes implementation challenging

Given the complexity of land and forest settlement in India and the poor quality of land records and maps available, generating an estimate is not an easy task

By Shruti Mokashi, Sharachchandra Lele
Published: Wednesday 12 April 2023
Photo: iStock.
Photo: iStock. Photo: iStock.

Even after 16 years, implementation provisions under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, have been far from satisfactory. One of the many reasons for non-implementation is a lack of clarity about where and how much forest land might be eligible for Community Forest Resource Rights (CFRR) claims.

Consequently, there is no “target” that state governments must reach and against which their performance can be measured in terms of recognising CFRR.

To address this gap, researchers from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) have estimated the potential area that could be marked for granting of CFRR and locations of villages with this potential in four states: Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra.

Given the complexity of land and forest settlement in India and the poor quality of land records and maps available, generating an estimate of how much land could come under CFRR and where is not an easy task.

A crude estimate can be made from village land use data provided in the census' village amenities tables. This pertains to the forest area within a village's revenue boundary.

But an estimate based on data from census tables is likely to be significantly lower than the actual area where communities traditionally exercised community rights, especially in central India.

This is because the process of forest "settlement" (notification and demarcation) followed in these states resulted in large tracts of forests being demarcated as Reserve Forest (RF) and being kept outside the revenue settlement, thereby not being part of any revenue village and therefore not showing up in the census tables.

These large RF patches have many settlements inside them, and of course have many more abutting or adjacent to them. Field data shows that residents of these villages (inside and adjacent to the forest area) were using these forests and exercising customary rights over them.

The researchers, therefore, estimated the CFRR potential area in two parts. All villages having more than 10 hectares (ha) of forest area within their revenue boundaries as per Census 2011 were identified and they formed one part of the estimate.

The second part began by identifying those villages that are in or adjacent to RF patches that are outside village revenue boundaries. Then, using a thumb-rule that the customary boundaries of these villages should extend at least 2 km into the forest, the team identified and estimated the area in such a buffer to forest-adjacent villages using GIS.

This 2-km figure is a very approximate thumb-rule, based on field observations about the areas that are likely to be under customary use and management. The total CFRR potential is the sum of the areas in both parts.

Based on the analysis, the team estimated that in each of the four states, CFRRs should be recognised in around 11,000 to 19,000 villages; additionally, it should cover more than 50,000 sq km each in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, and more than 20,000 sq km in Jharkhand.

Across these four states, some 60,000 villages could potentially claim CFRR under FRA over an area of at least 1,83,000 sq km. This amounts to 70-90 per cent of the recorded forest area in these states.

This will potentially benefit the livelihoods of a total of around 62.6 million people, including some 23.6 million belonging to Scheduled Tribes and 6.6 million belonging to Scheduled Castes (as per Census 2011). When compared with the actual CFRR area recognised, it is clear that while Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra have made some progress, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand are lagging far behind.

The ATREE team has also developed a WebGIS portal to make the maps of these CFRR potential areas publicly available. The WebGIS displays state, district, tehsil and village boundaries for the four states.

For comparison, it also presents, where possible, information on "CFRR potential realised" which villages have received CFRR, of what kind, and over how much area. Some features of WebGIS include indication of potentially claimed and unclaimed forest areas, village search function, display of basic census population and land use data of a village, the ability to use Google or Bing satellite imagery as base map and an area measurement tool. 

Shruti Mokashi is a post-doctoral research associate and Sharachchandra Lele is a distinguished fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru. 

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

This first appeared in State of India's Environment, an annual publication by the Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment

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