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The Potential of the Forest Rights Act

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Issue date: 
January 29, 2011
Publisher Name: 
Sirisha Naidu
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Neoliberalism in India, rather than consisting of a wholesale withdrawal of the state, has seen its rollback in some spheres and an expansion in others. In the last few decades the state has withdrawn from providing basic goods and services, but has taken a much more active role in promoting new avenues of profitable investment (e.g., those associated with free market environmentalism, facilitating the process of commodification of goods and services that were previously outside the ambit of the capitalist market, and facilitating the privatization of state property). The Indian state has therefore played an active role in original accumulation, which involves the dispossession and expropriation of land from marginalized people in rural and urban areas, as well as ensuring that adequate resources (e.g., natural resources) are available to satisfy the ever-increasing demands of capital. It is in this context that the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA), hailed as a “historic” legislation was passed.

Shankar Gopalakrishnan identifies the opponents of the Act as the forest bureaucracy and the English media, and is particularly critical of the latter’s neoliberal outlook, its attack on the FRA, and its favourable view of state control “as a proxy for policies that favour private capital” (Gopalakrishnan, 2010a). However, he recognizes that certain aspects of the FRA might be beneficial to capital. Indeed, neoliberalism is not a single, undifferentiated process divorced from capitalism; rather its diverse and interlinked practices may reflect a “heightened, evolved and more destructive form of capitalism” (Heynen and Robbins, 2005). In this essay, I offer some exploratory observations about these neoliberal aspirations of the Act.

Reform and Revolution?

The compulsion to design and pass the Act might be located in the demands of a political constituency. It might also be located in the recognition of the growing threat of left-wing insurgency (Gopalakrishnan, 2010b). Samuel Huntington (1968) aptly noted that

If the countryside supports the government, the system is secure against revolution and the government has some hope of making itself secure against revolution. If the countryside is in opposition, both system and government are in danger of overthrow. (pp 292).

The Act however, goes beyond addressing the immediate issue of survival and security for forest dwellers that might be needed to pacify those marginalized and even persecuted by “development”. As Gopalakrishnan notes, it is also “an entry point into a deeper, wider politics of struggle over resources” (Gopalakrishnan, 2010a). For this reason, the representatives of the state (especially the Forest Department) have worked to restrict the scope of the FRA to tenurial security and subvert the provisions of community rights and the rights against arbitrary displacement [1].

As the recent controversy surrounding the sanction of Rs. 25 crore per “naxal-affected” district for so-called development purposes [2] indicates, the Indian state has little or no real interest in changing the terms of its engagement with forest dwellers, nor veering from the path of “development” itself. Control of these monies is to be given to a committee comprising the Collector, Superintendent of Police and District Forest Officer. To the extent that the FRA might stabilize political power and prevent revolutions, the Act might be considered desirable from the point of view of the state but beyond that even the interpretation restricted to implementing private property rights has seen limited success. Oddly, the economic and political context under which the FRA is being implemented is reminiscent of land reform carried out by the US in East Asia where large-scale land reform was accompanied by military suppression of radical forces, and involved no political marginalization of the landed class (see Moyo and Yeros, 2005).

The Environmental Fix

To the extent that neoliberals express an interest in the FRA, their focus has been on institutionalizing a particular property regime in forests (Gopalakrishnan, 2010a). The neoliberal property regimes include policies like titling, land surveys and mapping, establishing state land registries, creating new landholding legislation and removing restrictions on land leasing (Sethi, 2006). The policy goals are tenure security, creation of land markets, and improved creditworthiness, and fulfilling the needs of the agrarian export sector.

With the agroforestry expected to develop 25.36 million hectares of land in the next two decades from current utilization of 7.45 million hectares (NRCAF, 2007 cited in Dhyani, et al., 2009), the focus on property regimes could be beneficial. The bourgeoning agro-forestry sector has received a fillip with World Bank sponsored bio-carbon projects in Haryana and Himachal Pradesh under the Clean Development Mechanism (DTE, 2008), World Bank proposed plantation projects in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, and recent developments on REDD Plus discussions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun in 2010. Understandably, there is a legitimate fear that the newly titled lands could be used for agricultural or forestry related commercial projects. Agro-forestry may not be consistent with livelihood objectives of forest dwellers, but it also may not adequately satisfy the demands for democratization. Experiences with forestry schemes since the 1980s in their many avatars have been criticized for being hierarchical, exclusionary and undemocratic despite adopting buzzwords such as community, participation and decentralization (Sarin et al., 2003). Typically the state (represented by the Forest Department), donors and conservation and development agencies decide the management plan and forest dwellers participate as cheap wage labor and provide free monitoring.

The promotion of property rights in the forest sector will also provide incentives to engage in conservation and management to support the anticipated high growth carbon market. The World Bank’s State and Trends of the Carbon Market 2010 reported that the value of the global carbon market stood at $144 billion in 2009 [3]. While carbon finance dropped in 2009 as a response to the global economic crisis, At the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility’s third Participants Assembly meeting that took place in Washington DC in September 2010, donor counties committed $100 million in new pledges [4] to support REDD Plus initiatives. Incidentally, it is seen as the only silver lining in global negotiations over the successor to the Kyoto Protocol that is set to expire in 2012. According to Mr. Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Environment and Forests indications, India will participate in the bounties of the REDD Plus initiatives.

The commodification (even if incomplete) of forest goods and services re-engineers social and cultural notions of forests and nature to fit within the market rubric. Livelihoods can be conditioned through the market with the monetizing of forestland and forest resources and creating what Karl Polanyi termed as “fictional commodities”. This opens up the possibilities for the creation of a new capitalist class in the rural areas, dominated as they are by agrarian interests. The promotion of agroforestry on the one hand provides raw materials, and on the other hand provides fodder to sustain financial instruments in carbon and other forms of environmental trading. As Castree (2007) suggests about free market environmentalism and Sagari Ramdas (2009) demonstrates in her study on FRA implementation, there is sufficient reason to doubt the “ecofriendly motivations” of such instruments. Instead they may be viewed as environmental fixes to the problem of sustained economic growth (Castree, 2008; also see Naidu and Manolakos, 2010).

Self Provisioning, Social Reproduction and Enclosures

Under previous stages of capitalism, original accumulation freed up resources for efficient exploitation by capitalist production but was able to accommodate or absorb the consequent reliance of the population on wage labour, and produce rising wages and better economic conditions for workers. However, one may not expect past histories of capitalist industrialization to replicate themselves in a different milieu. Not only is the current form of capitalist development unable to maintain earlier levels of labour absorption, increasing labour flexibilisation and a decline in social provisioning (e.g., the rollback of the public distribution system) within a neoliberal economic regime serves to accentuate the fact that the system is increasingly unable or unwilling to accommodate the costs of social reproduction (see NCEUS, 2009).

Under conditions of insecure and oppressive wage employment, there is an increasing compulsion to engage in self provisioning by production of use values from land and other natural resources, and relying on the rural social net (Moyo and Yeros, 2005). The FRA partially fulfills this need. However, historically, self-provisioning has been beneficial to capitalist production as is acknowledged by writers in the 17th-19th century. Michael Perelman provides ample examples of writers who believed that workers should have some access to land so that they are not wholly reliant on wage labour but not sufficient to afford them independence from wage employment (Perelman, 2007). This sentiment is reflected in the following proposal in an 1800 issue of the Commercial and Agricultural Magazine

. . . a quarter acre of garden-ground will go a great way toward rendering the peasant independent of any assistance. However, in this beneficent intention moderation must be observed, or we may chance to transform the labourer into a petty farmer; from the most beneficial to the most useless of industry. When a labourer becomes possessed of more land than he and his family can cultivate in the evenings . . . the farmer can no longer depend on him for constant work, and the hay-making and harvest . . . must suffer to a degree which . . . would sometimes prove a national inconvenience. [5]

Perelman surmises that individual property rights in land served as an inducement to more readily accept enclosures of the commons and so that agricultural employers could “profit from a cheaper labour force”. The latter follows from the subsidy that household production, care work as well as petty commodity production provides to proletarianised and semi-proletarianised wage labour. While livelihoods analysis scholars positively refer to the condition in which workers are forced to maintain a dual or multiple income strategy as livelihood diversification, it points to the insecurity associated with and inadequacy of wage labour employment. Secure access to land will allow workers to spend their “free” time and investment in providing for themselves outside of the market, thereby leaving workers to produce a higher surplus value in wage labour (Moyo and Yeros, 2005). Further, the existence of land as a fallback, however inadequate, also means that labour can always be pushed back to the land when no longer needed (Breman, 2000: 241). FRA implementation with its high rejection of claims and provision of titles to land much below that filed in claims is again consistent with this thesis though it is unclear whether this is a well-thought out strategy or merely points to the reluctance of the Forest Department to give up territorial control over forest land.

Further de jure rights also bring livelihoods and management practices hitherto unmonitored or uncontrolled within the ambit of state control (Poffenberger 1999 in Aguilar 2005). For instance, claiming forest rights necessarily disciplines the previously undisciplined population engaged in podu (slash and burn agriculture in Andhra Pradesh) into practicing settled agriculture. This represents a change in lifestyles conditioned by the FRA (Ramdas, 2009). While on the one hand, the market and the state can now control livelihood and related practices of forest dwellers, the settling of rights with its narrow interpretation of access and proprietorship, opens up vast amount of resources at the disposal of the state to engage in promoting capitalist interests and nation building (Springate-Baginski and Blaikie, 2007). This may be pursued without the need for even weak assurances that forest dwellers would partake in the resultant prosperity.

The potential implications of the FRA in enclosing the commons are not lost on its supposed beneficiaries as this quote from an interview by Sagari Ramdas (2009) with a Savara woman from Srikakulam district, AP suggests

I don’t know whether I was (more) free before the act or after the act. Earlier I was a “thief” in the eyes of the law, but learnt to survive. Now I am “legal” and have legally lost my land as the government took all and gave me nothing. We have “legally” been granted “two acres” of community land, whereas all this is ours (pointing to the hills beyond). We reject these titles. We reject these plantations. We will continue to struggle.

Concluding Thoughts

Heynen and Robbins (2005) list four aspects dominant to capital’s neoliberal agenda:

… governance, the institutional political compromises through which capitalist societies are negotiated; privatization, where natural resources … are turned over to firms and individuals; enclosure, the capture of common resources and the exclusion of the communities to which they are linked; and valuation, the process through which invaluable and complex ecosystems are reduced to commodities through pricing.

All four aspects of this agenda are embodied in India’s forest policies and are being imposed on the FRA. This essay discusses ways in which neoliberal capital might benefit from a neoliberal interpretation of the FRA, it must be noted that it also has to contend with a forest bureaucracy unwilling to fully implement even the most neoliberal friendly aspect of tenure security. Apart from neo-Malthusian narratives of the destruction of forests by poor forest dwellers, this might be explained using the notion of territorial logic (Harvey, 2003) that is reluctant to give up power over the forest sector as well as the fact that not all factions of capital will benefit from FRA implementation, one example is that of the Vedanta project in Orissa.

As a land reform program, the FRA is limited. Even on paper there is no intention to address the growing economic differentiation, no acknowledgement of landless forest dwellers, nor is the titling process accompanied by planned investment in agriculture (Das, 2010) or cheap sources of credit (Lerche, 2011). Its transformatory potential thus does not emerge merely from the change in property rights (to the extent that even this occurs). Rather its potential is vested in the space that it allows for a change in the discourse on forest rights with its inclusion of provisions for community rights and against arbitrary displacements, the political space that it allows for challenging existing hegemonies, and for building broader mobilizations (Gopalakrishnan, 2010a) - these are issues not tackled in this essay. The challenge that forest dwellers and their allies thus face is not only to secure the implementation of the FRA but also challenge its neoliberal interpretation.


[1] See the Campaign for Survival and Dignity website http://www.forestrightsact.com/component/content/46?task=view , http://pib.nic.in/release/release.asp?relid=69078

[2] http://www.indianexpress.com/news/snubbed-plan-panel-tells-pm-funds-to-officials-in-naxal-areas-very-bad-idea/736318/0

[3] http://go.worldbank.org/D2V9XWYHM0


[5] Cited in Thompson, E.P. (1963).The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage), pp. 219- 20. In Perelman (2007).


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I thank Panayiotis Manolakos for his comments.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut