Taking ownership: How forest-dwellers in Chhattisgarh, Odisha claimed rights over traditional boundary

The recent focus on CFRR under FRA marks a beginning of the second generation use of FRA.

Zumbish, Shuchita Jha
Published: Monday 29 August 2022
Photograph: Richard Mahapatra
Photograph: Richard Mahapatra Photograph: Richard Mahapatra

There is a surge in demand by forest communities to not only access the resources of their habitat, but also to establish their ownership over forests. They are doing so by wielding a previously underused provision of the Forest Rights Act. The forest department, however, is reluctant to let go of its control. Shuchita Jha and Zumbish travel across Odisha and Chhattisgarh to understand how communities have gained through this law and the mechanisms they are setting up to ensure sustainable use of forest resources:

On June 20, 2022 residents of 18 villages in Chhattisgarh’s Udanti Sitanadi Tiger Reserve blocked the busy National Highway 130C. “We need forest resources for survival. Being a tiger reserve, we already lead a life with many restrictions. There is no power supply, access to grazing lands is non-existent and we cannot undertake construction works,” says Arjun Nayak of Nagesh, one of the 18 villages in Gariaband district.

The village residents were demanding rights over forest resources around their villages under Section 3(1)(i) of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, referred to as the Forest Rights Act (FRA).

Under FRA, forest-dwelling communities are entitled to two types of rights: the individual right of settlement and cultivation on forestlands, and a wider set of rights, referred to as community forest rights (CFR), under which communities can manage, collect and sell minor forest produce like bamboo and tendu leaves. Provisions of Section 3(1)(i),referred to as the Community Forest Resource Rights (CFRR), are even broader in scope. They recognise not just forest communities’ rights to access and use forest produce, but also their “rights to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage any community forest resource which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use” (see ‘Spectrum of rights’,).

Once CFRR is recognised for a community, the ownership of the forest passes into the hands of the gram sabha (village council, comprising all eligible voters), instead of the forest department. The gram sabha is free to form its own rules and regulations for management, use and conservation. Without its consent, the forest cannot be diverted for any use, including wildlife conservation.

Effectively, the gram sabha becomes the nodal body for management of the forests. Y Giri Rao, executive director of Bhubaneswar-based non-profit Vasundhara, which has been at the forefront of facilitating FRA implementation in several states, describes CFRR as an “open-ended and indicative” bunch of rights. “Even if a right has not been mentioned in FRA, tribal and forest dwellers can ask for it using the provision,” he says. “Rights under CFRR even include the right to access to forest produce that may not fall in their customary boundary but have been used by the communities for ages. This way, CFRR also bestows rights to pastoral communities who are nomadic,” he adds (see ‘New boundaries’,).

Forest rights activist Benipuri Goswami has led Kamepur village’s fight for community forest resource 
rights (CFRR). 
The Chhattisgarh 
village   was granted CFRR in 2021. (Photograph: Richard Mahapatra)

Though Section 3(1)(i) had always existed in FRA, communities could not claim rights under it initially.

In order to claim rights under FRA, communities have to apply via forms provided by the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA). Till 2012, there were two forms—Form A for individual rights and Form B for CFR. But Form B did not include rights granted under Section 3(1)(i). In 2012, the government amended the FRA Rules to introduce another form—Form C—to provide rights under Section 3(1)(i).

Since 2012, there has been a significant rise in the number of forest communities and villages demanding CFRR. The number of state governments that have granted rights under Section 3(1)(i) has also increased. According to an analysis by Down To Earth (DTE), of India’s 28 states, nine have been granting CFRR (Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh), while four states are processing applications (Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh), as of March 2022. No claims have been filed in Tamil Nadu, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Assam and Tripura. Nagaland and Sikkim already have special laws that secure community rights, while Meghalaya, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram have not implemented the Act. Punjab and Haryana do not have any significant tribal populations.

Chhattisgarh, in particular, has accepted CFRR claims in large numbers. It accepted its first CFRR claim (Jabarra village in Dhamtari district) in 2019. Overall, in the last four years, it received CFRR claims from 3,903 villages and four nagar panchayats in 25 of its 33 districts. Of these, it has accepted 3,782 applications, as of March 2022, as per an official document of the Chhattisgarh Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste Development Department accessed by DTE. The state has also identified 12,500 of its 20,000-odd villages for granting CFRR, says a government official on condition of anonymity.

“In recent years, the focus has been on CFRR. When claims of one village are accepted, neighbouring villages also become interested,” says Alok Shukla, a forest rights activist based in Chhattisgarh. The ongoing protest in Udanti Sitanadi Tiger Reserve also happened after the state government accepted CFRR claims of five villages in the reserve in 2021. The remaining 47 villages in the reserve, including the 18 protesting, have now demanded CFRR. In August 2021, Chhattisgarh became the first state to grant CFRR in an urban area, when it accepted claims of three nagar panchayats in Dhamtari district on 4,127 hectares (ha) of forests.

Odisha is the other state that has been accepting CFRR claims on a large scale. It has accepted 4,098 of the 6,068 CFRR claims it received till March 2022, says Rao. “This is a step towards recognition of community-led ecological restoration, forest conservation, sustainable forest-based livelihoods and biodiversity conservation in the district,” says Dayanidhi Naik, district welfare officer, Nayagarh, which is home to traditional forest protection communities that have been practicing their management system for a century. In November 2021, the state granted CFRR to 24 such villages in the district.

A 2020 study by Bengaluru-based non-profit Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) estimated that in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jhar-khand and Maharashtra—four states with significant forests and tribal populations—some 60,000 villages could potentially claim CFRR rights covering a forest area of about 183,000 sq km. Jharkhand has 73.59 per cent of the state’s area under tribal districts, while the figure for Chhattisgarh is 68.5 per cent, for Madhya Pradesh 49.35 per cent and for Maharashtra 46.87 per cent, as per as per “India Sate of Forest Report 2021”.

“Instead of allowing the government to impose its felling-or exclusion-oriented plans on the forest landscape or imposing its agenda through pseudo-participatory processes such as Joint Forest Management (JFM), or leaving the forests de facto open-access, CFRR enables a statutory process of decentralised forest management by the gram sabha,” says Sharachchandra Lele, lead author of the study.

MoTA, the nodal agency for FRA implementation in the country, does not keep data separately for CFR and CFRR, and clubs them under the CFR category (see ‘Spectrum of rights’,). But the ministry’s data shows that the states are now more at ease in accepting community forest rights than individual rights. This was also the find of a 2021 study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, which looked at the claim settlement trend in the 15 years since implementation of FRA. “The rate of recognition of forest rights from 2014 to 2021 is only 27% of all individual forest right claims received. Though, for CFR, it is 69%,” states the report. Geetanjoy Sahu, associate professor at the School of Habitat Studies, TISS, says that since 2014 there has been stagnancy in individual claims, but the percentage of community forest rights had increased pan-India.


The recent focus on CFRR under FRA marks a beginning of the second generation use of FRA. For the first three years of the Act’s implementation—2008-10—the community rights provision was rarely used. In August 2009, two tribal villages—Mendha Lekha and Marda—in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra became the first to win CFRR, including the right to collect and sell minor forest produce under Section 3(1)(i). The state government allowed it under “Other rights” column in Form B. Till this time, community rights mostly included diverting forestlands for community/government infrastructure like health centres or schools.

What explains this surge in granting CFRR in the last decade, particularly the past couple of years? “The attraction in the first phase of FRA was settling habitation and cultivation rights by giving pattas (titles). But to build a political constituency of tribal and forest-dwelling communities, the right of complete management is not just appealing but also empowering, because these communities did manage the forests before the department took over,” says an advisor to the Chhattisgarh chief minister, on condition of anonymity. In both Chhattisgarh and Odisha, the ruling political leadership has been vocal in granting CFRR. In Odisha, the ruling party’s electoral losses in the 2019 general elections and the state elections, even in some tribal majority areas, could also be a reason. “After the individual rights of settlement and cultivation are recognised, the logical thing is to recognise community rights. A political message of taking it up on a mission mode came from the chief minister’s office,” says a secretary to the Odisha government, on condition of anonymity.

“There has also been a push from gram sabhas for CFRR,” says Tushar Dash, an independent expert on forest rights based in Odisha. The state is going to set up an FRA Support Cell to facilitate filing and settlement of CFRR, says Das. In Chhattisgarh the United Nations Development Programme is working with the state government to speed up the process. Rajasthan, where FRA implementation has been relatively poor, has undertaken a Van Adhikar Abhiyan since August last year to spread awareness of the rights and to be proactive in granting community resource rights.

The TISS analysis finds that the direct economic benefit from forest produce, collective bargaining power, and organised grassroots mobilisations have led to a higher demand for CFRR titles. “This could be attributed to the increased power and collective action of gram sabhas, aided by forest rights NGOs and funding agencies’ support to upscale the recognition of forest rights in the last few years,” says the TISS report.

To study how the villages that received CFRR are managing the forests and its produce, and also to understand the kind of systems they are putting in place to steer this change, DTE travelled and analysed 19 villages and three nagar panchayats in seven districts of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra and Gujarat:


  • Migration has drastically reduced due to economic benefits after getting CFRR
  • Success in improving quality of tendu leaves with better management practices, increasing income

Chargaon village in Chhattisgarh’s Dhamtari district has been quite successful in utilising forest rights to generate livelihood. The two gram sabhas of the village—Naya Basti and Purana Basti—received CFRR for separate areas in August last year and have streamlined the growing and selling of forest produce. “It has not even been a year since we received CFRR title for about 2,045 ha forests and we already have a nursery in our village. It has over 20 varieties of saplings to be planted in our forest,” says Deonath Netam of Naya Basti. They have also set up a forest protection mechanism under which families are assigned guarding tasks.

Better returns from forest produce have reduced migration from the village. Almost all the residents of the village used to migrate for work, says Netam. “Cultivation of forest produce, be it mahua or herbs, has increased. The complete freedom to use forest resources has reduced migration drastically. The residents have been selling tendu leaves through intermediaries ever since they received forest rights,” he says. A ranger with the forest department visited their area and told the gram panchayat that 1,000 sacks of tendu leaves were sold from Naya Basti in March-April 2022. No other village in the vicinity has sold this amount of tendu leaves,” he adds.

The gram sabha has also come up with a visual roadmap of community initiatives for efficient forest management, says Netam, showing a document. It has 13 circles in different colours with guidelines for various functions, such as the boulder check-dam to curb soil erosion, managing big rocks, grazing, small-scale forest produce and disposal of waste. The guidelines are written in the language used by traditional forest dwellers. The roadmap, though just for use in the planning phase to guide communities on forest management, is an extensive document. “Our gram sabha’s approach is that we have to save our forests from misuse, deforestation, hunting and animal poaching,” says Sugmalal Vatti of Chargaon.

Less than a year after being granted community forest resource rights, Chhattisgarh’s Chargaon village has already developed a nursery and improved incomes by selling tendu leaves  (Photographs: Purushottam Singh Thakur)

Kamepur village, Gariaband district,Chhattisgarh

  • Stopped tree felling by forest department
  • Studied their forest’s biodiversity using forest department’s data

In 2021, Kamepur got CFRR for forests that were under JFM. “When the forest officials recently came to fell the trees, we did not allow since we have CFRR. The gram sabha will decide,” says Udairam Netam, the president of Kamepur village’s Forest Rights Committee (FRC), a village-level institution formed to manage forests. The village has adopted what it calls a “forest constitution” under which JFM has been merged with the FRC accountable to the gram sabha. Every day, four people from the village guard the forests, which has 302,000 tendu and 254, 288 sal trees, as per an extensive survey done by the village, based on the forest department’s data. “We will sell the tendu leaves and sal seeds directly to government. An annual earning of R30 lakh is assured for the village,” says Udairam. “For a community that earns 70 per cent of its livelihood from forests, CFRR is an economic freedom as well,” he says.

Since receiving community forest resource rights in 2012, residents of Loyendia village in Odisha have regenerated their bamboo forest on the Ugadi mountain and are now living sans interference from the 
forest department (Photographs: Arabinda Mahapatra)

Loyendia village, Kandhamal district, Odisha

  • Stopped a private firm from harvesting bamboo in the Ugadi Parvat mountain
  • Regenerated bamboo forest and made fire lines to prevent forest fires

Loyendia received CFRR quite early, in 2012, and today has an evolved community forest management. The lush green forest on the Ugadi Parvat bears testimony to the conservation efforts of the residents of Loyendia, which has just 13 households that lie in the middle of pristine forest on the mountain. There is only one way to reach this village—a 3-km-trek from the last paved road of the adjacent town Phulbani.

Eighty-year-old Petra Kanhara—the founder of the village—is content that the interference of the forest department is a thing of the past. “I came here in 1982, with my wife and children, and cleared a small area for cultivation of vegetables and paddy for my family’s needs. The forest department filed a case against me for practicing jhum (shifting cultivation). Every time I needed something from the forest, I had to take permission from officials, who would ask for bribes in the form of vegetables or poultry. Now, at least my children do not have to face this,” he says.

The village has CFRR over 500 ha of forests. Bamboo is a key resource for the residents for construction, sale, and as food in the form of bamboo shoots. But the Odisha Forest Development Corporation had contracted out bamboo to a private paper mill and would pay the village residents a paltry amount for labour. Once the village got CFRR, their first decision was to stop the mill from using the bamboo from their forests. After this, the village formed a Community Forest Management Committee (CFMC) and adopted a new management plan. “The rule here is that one can take fuelwood and timber for personal use, but cannot sell it in the market. We do not allow outsiders to harvest bamboo or timber and take action if we see anyone exploiting the forest,” says Padmini Kanhara, president of the village CFMC.

The village plan for the forests is primarily implemented by its women residents. For instance, the fire lines (vacant land stretches to prevent spread of forest fire) are managed by women, who also guard the forests. “Ten years ago, the jungle was totally degraded due to exploitation by the paper mill. Now there are 10 to 50 bamboos in each bush and there must be at least 500 such bush in the whole area. This forest is ours now and we know how to protect it,” says Jai Ram Kanhara, secretary of the CFMC. “The forest department is pressuring us to make a Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC), which comprises members of forest community and forest officials, but we have refused. If we form it, the forest will go into the hands of the forest department again,” says Kanhara.

A woman in Kamtana village of Odisha breaks mahua seeds that she collected from the forest. Minor forest produce like mahua provide additional income to the residents   (Photographs: Arabinda Mahapatra)

Kamtana, kandhamal district, Odisha

  • Increased production of tubers, which had depleted under the forest department
  • Additional income from sale of minor forest produce

Kamtana has seen a turnaround after it got CFRR over its forests in 2012. A decade ago, it struggled to access tubers and herbs—a major source of food for the community—from forests due to interference by the forest department. Local varieties of tubers and other plants were nearly depleted in the village. Now they are abundant. This was possible as the village imposed its own plan that focuses on sustainable uses of local forest resources. “We do not collect forest produce for selling,” says Jasoda Kanhara, a resident. “We only sell the surplus.” This year, Kanhara has sold around 20 kg of dried amla, 5 kg mushrooms and 12 kg of mahua seeds, earning R2,000 over and above the income from farming in the last six months.

Pipri village, Kalahandi district, Odisha

  • Residents earn more after getting autonomy over tendu leaf auction
  • Developed linkages to market to sell minor forest produce at better rates

In Kalahandi district, 83 villages with CFRR have seen major economic benefits as they have developed market links to trade forest produce. Pipri village, which got the title in 2010, started tendu leaf auction this year and earned R8 lakh in just 25 days. “This is four to five times what the government centres pay. Each family gets R1,200 per day if they make 200 bundles. They even get the payment the same day, unlike earlier when they used to receive it after two months,” says Karuna, a resident of Pipri.

Ten villages in the same district have made a panchayat-level federation for selling bamboo, which comes under the Baksandu gram sabha. They sold bamboo worth R60 lakh in just four months this year. “There are four-five bamboo varieties and the price depends upon the quality,” says Karuna. The earnings of the gram sabha are divided in three equal parts—one goes to the CFMC, the second to the gram sabha for development work in the village and the third is used to pay the labourers.

Bidapaju village, Nayagarh district, Odisha

  • Stopped tree felling by forest department
  • Fixed prices on harvesting bamboo for personal use

Residents of Bidapaju village have started taking care of their forest and guarding the trees even as their CFRR claim is under process. It was only in 2020 that the 150 residents of the village came to know about FRA through a non-profit, Nirman. This led them to apply for the claim and mark their traditional boundary for the same. “It was August 2021. The elderly of the village were asked to show us the traditional village boundary. Residents of the adjacent village, Manjari, were doing the same. This is when a dispute between the two villages over traditional boundary broke out,” says Bhagwat Nayak, 68, a resident of Bidapaju “After two hours of arguments, we decided to make a mango tree the boundary,” says Kumari Manshi, president of the CFMC of the village. “We also got a signboard to mark the boundary, the area and other details. We have claimed 298.65 ha of forestland under the CFRR.”

Though the village is yet to receive the title, the residents feel responsible for the forest and have prepared a plan for the protection, conservation and use of forest produce and timber. Showing DTE a receipt book, Manshi says, “We have started keeping record of all the bamboo and timber that residents use. For one log of timber, one must pay R50 to CFMC, while the cost of a bamboo stalk is Re1. “The request should be submitted to the gram sabha, which will ensure that no one uses more timber or bamboo than is absolutely necessary,” she adds.

Narmada district, Gujarat

  • 30 villages earn R32 crore from sale of bamboo in 2013-18
  • Villages stayed self-sufficient during the pandemic due to the economic benefits

From 2013-14 to 2017-18, some 30 villages in Narmada district sold 115,000 tonnes of dry bamboo to a private paper mill and earned R32 crore, says Ambrish Mehta of Gujarat-based non-profit ARCH Vahini. Post COVID-19 pandemic, the mill stopped buying the bamboos, leading to an economic setback. Maktabhai, a resident of Sagai village, says, “We could survive during COVID-19 pandemic due to the economic benefits incurred after CFRR. We received the title in 2013, which ensured that 100 per cent proceeds from our sale would come to the gram sabha. In Narmada, 193 villages have received CFRR so far.

Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra

  • Vegetation index increased after it got CFRR title in 2009
  • Autonomy over selling tendu leaf leads to rise in income

There is no comprehensive assessment of how the villages with CFRR have regenerated the forests. Madhav Gadgil, ecologist and writer, says there is scientific proof of overall ecological progress in villages under CFRR for the last one decade. He refers to a study underway in Dhanora and Gadchiroli districts of Maharashtra to monitor vegetation index after the titles were allotted. “Our study shows there has been an increase in vegetation index in the two districts. The forest department was not ready to share the maps that demarcated the CFRR and forest department areas. But Harini Nagendra, who earlier was with the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, used remote sensing data to map the biodiversity in the 17 villages in Gadchiroli where we had an idea of the CFRR boundaries, and observed that the vegetation index had improved since the time the forest passed into the hands of the people,” says Gadgil.


The Forest Rights Act (FRA)recognises community forest resource rights (CFRR) over an area that is traditionally used by the local communities. This is how the traditional boundaries are set:


The CFRR claimant village has to call upon a meeting of the gram sabha (village council consisting of all eligible voters) to decide the village’s customary or traditional boundary


In this meeting, a core group of village residents is formed. These residents have better knowledge about traditional boundaries and are experienced in community management, protection, conservation and regeneration of forests and forest resources. The gram sabha prepares a preliminary map of the community forest, which is approved by each member of the group. Sometimes, the village ropes in technical experts to mark the boundary lines using GPS


The gram sabha prepares a notification on the proof required to make a CFRR claim. The residents have to provide proof of uses of the forest. In some cases, old village maps are provided to infer uses. At times, residents provide challans of forest departments for violations to claim use.


A detailed map of the community forest to be claimed is prepared, tagging the location and landmarks within the traditional boundaries of the village. In case of pastoral communities, the map shows the landscape that people traditionally use every season and which they protect, regenerate, conserve and manage for sustainable use


A sketch map of the claimant village is drawn with help of the elderly residents, as well as people in four bordering villages. The ancestral boundary of the claimant village is discussed and decided. The border villages are also consulted on the use of the patches of forest that fall in the area, as all of them have equal rights over the forest once the claim is recognised. Preparations are made for GPS mapping of the area, which must be done in the presence of officials from the forest and revenue departments


After verification of the boundaries, the claimant village seeks a “certificate of no objection” from its neighbouring villages. The villages also agree on the common forest area being used by communities from more than one village. The gram sabha must ensure that all disputes among villages are settled


The village files the claim at the Sub-Divisional Level Committee (SDLC), headed by sub-divisional magistrate or deputy-collector. This is the second stage of the claim process after the gram sabha’s approval. SDLC directs the forest and revenue departments to verify and sign the area map that has been submitted. As per FRA, if the authorities do not visit the claimant village even after two intimations from the gram sabha, the village can conduct the verification process on its own


Once the claim is approved by SDLC, it moves to the District Level Committee (DLC), which is headed by the district collector or magistrate. Clearance from DLC is the final step, and the body subsequently directs the forest department to change the status of the forest in its records

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