Silpidi is a tribal village located in Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh. In 2015, the village was in the news for being the first in India to receive Habitat Rights under the Forest Rights Act of 2006.

These are special rights given to the Scheduled Tribes who traditionally have used their land for livelihood, social, economical, cultural and religious purposes. This provision gives the particular communities rights over such lands.

Charra Singh Rathuria was among those from the village who played a key role in creating awareness among the local people on these Rights. On visiting his village this year, it was learned that he died in 2020. His wife, Soni Bai, told Mongabay-India, “He worked hard to ensure Habitat Rights for the region. He used to roam around several villages.”

Rathuria’s son Mannu Singh, who has complete education up to the Class 5, is now a farm labourer. He does not know much about Habitat Rights but has a faint memory of a big event organised in the village in 2015, where a certificate was given. He is not sure what the certificate was about.

Other residents of the village, like Gyan Singh Marawi as well as Kaleshwar Mandle who has completed a Master’s degree, do not know about the concept of Habitat Rights.

In 2012, the Forest Rights Act was amended and the provision of Habitat Rights was included in it. Three years after that, on December 9, 2015, a certificate of Habitat Rights was given to Baigachak, an area in the Dindori district that comprises seven villages, including Silpidi. Prior to this, no other community had been given these rights.

As per Section 3 (1) the Forest Rights Act, 2006, forest-dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers have rights on all forest lands. Further, rights including community tenures of habitat and their habitation for primitive tribal groups and pre-agricultural communities, have been ensured, under Section 3 (1) (e) of the Act.

Among the primitive tribes in India, there are 75 listed communities. A habitat, as defined under Section 2 (h) of the law, is any customary habitat of primitive tribal groups, pre-agricultural communities or other forest dwelling scheduled tribes in reserved or protected forests.

Simply put, special rights are given to certain tribal groups that have traditionally used forest land for livelihood, social, economical, cultural and religious purposes. This provision gives the particular communities rights over such lands.

A Baiga tribe woman in the forest areas close to her village in Baigachak region. Credit: Alok Prakash Putul.

Initially, when the Habitat Rights were announced, there was some confusion because the Hindi translation of Habitat Rights used the word word awaas, commonly used for a house. People presumed it was a housing scheme like the Indira Awaas Scheme. Later, the central government came out with a clarification. Amid the confusion, the process to grant the Habitat Rights to Baigachak in Dindori district started.

The seven villages of Baigachak – Silpidi, Dhaba, Rajni Sarai, Dhurkuta, Limauti, Jilaang and Ajgar – received the Habitat Rights in 2015. It was assumed then that with such certification, the traditional rights of the Baiga tribe living in these seven villages would be preserved. However, the current reality is that the majority of the people in these villages are not aware about these rights.

Naresh Vishwas, a social worker, was one among those from this region who fought for the rights. He told Mongabay-India that it was a matter of pride that the region received the rights, but what these rights entailed was not clear to them.

Vishwas said that even after six years since the villages got the Habitat Rights, there has been no geographical map of the area. The Union government’s Tribal Affairs Ministry in 2020 framed guidelines for implementing the Habitat Rights through an expert committee. Vishwas was also a part of the committee. However, the report has not been made public. Because of this, an adequate understanding of the community rights and its compliance could not be ensured.

“There is negligible awareness on the subject of Habitat Rights in all the villages which got the rights, except Silpidi,” said Vishwas. In 2018, the forest department was about to clear the forests of Ghonghipar and Kewaarmada and the Baiga tribe people were pressured to give up their land. However, after showing the Habitat Rights papers, the forest areas in Silpidi were saved, but people in the other villages were not that aware about these rights, narrated Vishwas.

He told Mongabay-India that the Habitat Rights certificate also had a provision where the area and authority needed to be mentioned, however, the Habitat Rights certificate has just remained an official paper.

Vishwas said that after Dindori, some villages in Mandla district also received the Habitat Rights but the mistakes that happened in Dindori were not done in Mandla. After Mandla and Dindori, the process of giving Habitat Rights has also started in Patalkot. Vishwas termed this as an achievement of the tribal communities.

He said that unlike the community forest rights of one village, the Habitat Rights ensures the rights of the entire tribe to the habitat. However defining and explaining this is a challenge which is likely to take some time.

A woman in Silpidi village outside the anganwadi. Credit: by Alok Prakash Putul.

Sahil Garg, Divisional Forest Officer of Dindori, told Mongabay-India that the precise meaning of Habitat Rights, its limitations and other details are yet to be made clear. In such a situation, expecting awareness on the issue from the Baiga tribal people, many of whom are not educated, is ignoring the reality of the situation.

However, this problem is not limited to Madhya Pradesh alone. Odisha-based Y Giri Rao is a member of the special committee formed by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs for the Habitat Rights and Community Forest Rights.

He says that the subject of Habitat Rights is not as simple as individual and community forest rights and that it is important to understand the traditional system as well as the natural and traditional boundaries of the tribal communities.

“Habitat Rights does not belong to a village but rather to the whole community. In Odisha, 165 villages inhabited by the Juang tribe were brought under Habitat Rights. If the area of the tribe is spread in three different districts and they have been given Habitat Rights, all three districts and all the villages earmarked will be covered under the Habitat Rights. If there is any objection, the matter will face hurdles,” Giri told Mongabay-India.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.