When her husband Maarappan died of Covid-19 in May 2021, Malli M decided to take a stand.

Malli is a resident of Guruthaddanur, a hamlet in Tamil Nadu’s Krishnagiri district, 90 km from Bengaluru. She is one of around 400 members of the Irula community in the village, which has a population of around 600.

Malli decided that she would bury her husband on their ancestral land. It was part of a larger patch of land that they and other members of the village’s Irula community once lived on and cultivated. But in the mid-1990s, the forest department moved the community out, after declaring that the land was forest. The Irulas were settled on a new plot, around half a kilometre north of the old land. Most Irulas, like Malli, however, continued to grow crops on the land they used earlier.

Her family had been cultivating that land for at least 70 years, according to Malli. In 2006, the rights of Scheduled Tribes, such as Irulas, to own and use forest land were recognised with the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, or FRA. Since then, Malli and her extended family have been making repeated applications for titles under the act. “We have applied at least 15 times till now,” said Murukesan M, Malli’s brother. While a few applications returned, rejected, many did not even get a response.

Not only this, in 2020, a year before her husband’s death, forest guards uprooted 40 mango saplings that Malli and Maarappan had planted on their ancestral land, citing as justification the fact that her claims for a title under the FRA had not been settled.

By the time Malli’s husband died, forest guards had issued standing instructions to the Irulas of Guruthaddanur to bury their dead in a new burial ground by a lake near the hamlet.

Malli did not want to do this. In recent years, during the rains, the lake next to that burial ground had swollen and flooded it, washing away soil and exposing buried bodies.

This was particularly distressing to the community because, until 25 years ago, the Irulas of Guruthaddanur had a community burial site, situated on a hillock, not far from their old settlement. “We even had a small temple and a well there,” Malli’s brother Murukesan said.

But when the Irulas were forced to shift their homes in the late 1990s, they were also forced to shift their burial site to a piece of land by the lake, belonging to the village panchayat.

The community remained dissatisfied with the new land, and in 2015, they attempted to reclaim their old land – members of the fifty-odd non-tribal families of the village physically prevented them from doing so. The non-tribals, Murukesan alleged, then used bulldozers to level the land, while forest officials stood by.

Some of the Irula families allege that after this, non-tribals, particularly those whose properties bordered the plot, usurped it to grow crops. A mango plantation stands on the land today, owned by the non-tribals, the Irulas claim.

After her husband Marappan died of Covid-19 in May 2021, Malli M, a resident of Guruthaddanur, in Krishnagiri district, defied warnings by forest officials and buried him on her ancestral land. Photo: Jeff Joseph

After resettling the community in the 1990s, the administration had begun issuing pattas to the displaced families. Some were even given financial support over the years – a few received Rs 35,000 under a Tamil Nadu government scheme, while others received Rs 1 lakh to help them build houses, under the Indira Awas Yojana, renamed the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awas Yojana in 2015.

In total, 40 families have been given 2 cents of land each in the new settlement colony (100 cents is one acre). But 30 more families, living in and around the colony, still await allotment of land and housing. The additional families, Murukesan said, comprise the descendants of those initially displaced, as well as some similarly displaced kith and kin from places such as the nearby Chikkapoovathi village.

Further, residents continue to face obstacles in accessing the lands they had cultivated for years and say that forest guards harass them. According to Malli, before the passage of the FRA, “they used to threaten to charge cases against us for just entering our lands”. After the law was introduced, the threats of criminal cases eased. But, she noted, “our attempts to plough the lands using oxen are vehemently resisted by forest officials”.

It was in this unsettled scenario that Malli, defying the warnings by forest officials, buried Maarappan on their ancestral land, rather than the burial ground by the lake.

In August, her latest application for use of the land was rejected, for the fourth time. Maarappan’s remains now lie buried on officially forbidden territory.

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The conflict over burial land in Guruthaddanur is just one of several indications of how the state of Tamil Nadu is failing to secure the rights of forest dwellers.

In fact, the state has been a notable laggard in the act’s implementation from the very beginning.

The problem began in February 2008, when the Madras High Court ordered the state not to issue any pattas under the act. It issued this order in response to a writ petition challenging the act itself, which was filed by a retired forest officer, V Sambasivam. The petitioner argued that FRA was unconstitutional and should be struck down.

Later, in April 2008, the court clarified that the state could go ahead with the implementation of the act. However, it directed that “before the certificate of title is actually issued, orders shall be obtained from this Court”.

While similar restrictive orders in states such as Andhra Pradesh and Odisha were challenged by the governments and vacated in 2009, Tamil Nadu treated the order as a stay on FRA itself.

It was only in 2015 that the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department of Tamil Nadu filed an interlocutory application before the Supreme Court to vacate the stay. This too happened only at the urging of the Central tribal affairs ministry, which had petitioned for all such cases to be shifted to the Supreme Court.

Subsequently, in February 2016, the Supreme Court set aside the Madras High Court’s order of April 2008. According to a government press release, the court agreed with the Centre that “when the FRA is being implemented across the entire country, there is no need for such an order to restrict its operation in only one State”.

But despite the removal of restrictions, the implementation of the FRA in Tamil Nadu remained poor.

A 2017 assessment found that Tamil Nadu was the worst performing state in the country when it came to the implementation of the FRA – it had not issued any titles at all under the act. It was only in January 2018, more than a decade after the act was introduced, that the state finally issued its first FRA titles.

Currently, Tamil Nadu is the fifth-worst amongst 20 major states in terms of the number of individual titles granted. But of the other four, only Bihar has a larger tribal population, of 13.37 lakh, compared to Tamil Nadu’s 7.95 lakh; the other states, namely Himachal Pradesh (3.92 lakh), Uttarakhand (2.92 lakh) and Goa (1.49 lakh) have significantly smaller tribal populations.

According to data as of June 30, out of the 33,775 individual applications received at the grama sabha level across Tamil Nadu since the passage of the FRA, only 8,144 individual titles have been issued so far. This represents a rejection rate of 75%, while the national average for rejection of individual FRA applications is around 50%. Odisha, which has issued the largest number of individual FRA titles, has a rejection rate of around 25%.

According to the latest available data from the tribal affairs ministry, no new individual FRA titles have been issued by Tamil Nadu since November 2020.

This is particularly surprising for a state which boasts of a relatively inclusive governance model, with considerably better human development indices than many other parts of the country.

A senior Chennai based environmentalist, who wished to remain unnamed because they work closely with the state government, blamed the forest department for the poor implementation of the FRA in the state. “The forest department has been against FRA from the very beginning,” they said. “It was a former forest official who challenged the act in court and delayed its implementation for so long.”

Officials of the district’s forest department told Scroll.in that they had cleared all pending FRA applications at their level, but that the process had been stuck further up the hierarchy; they declined to furnish further details about the matter.

Within Tamil Nadu, the performance of Krishnagiri, where Guruthaddanur is located, in issuing FRA titles, is particularly dismal. Up to October 2021, out of the 1,194 individual applications received at the grama sabha level in the district since the passage of the act, only 71 were issued titles – an approval rate of 6%.

Travelling through the district’s villages of Guruthaddanur, Chinnakuthi, Chikkapoovathi, Ramandoddi and Kumbalam, I found numerous instances in each village, of Irulas whose applications had been ignored for more than two years.

The lack of titles had also blocked them from accessing rights and benefits that are due to landowners. According to CR Bijoy, an independent researcher primarily involved with indigenous peoples’ struggles in India, “FRA titles are enough to avail all facilities otherwise available to landowners.”

Many non-tribal residents of Guruthaddanur, for instance, have availed of subsidies to install drip irrigation systems on their land. This allows them to efficiently raise lucrative crops, such as mango, which need relatively high amounts of water.

“We too wish to grow mango,” said Malli, who, after she lost the mango saplings that she planted, has now planted less lucrative neem and lemon saplings, in parts of her land.

Further, Irulas are also often barred from preparing their land between seasons. “The forest guards stopped us from ploughing last week and asked us to wait for permission,” said a distressed Murukesan over the phone in October. “If we don’t prepare the land now, we will miss the rains,” he added. In the absence of any means of irrigation, they remain dependent on rains.

But it wasn’t just those who had been denied titles who suffered – in all the villages, there were also families who held titles, but whose rights officials simply refused to recognise.

This despite the fact that one of the rules issued under the FRA, in 2012, stated that the government should ensure the delivery of “all government schemes including those relating to land improvement, land productivity, basic amenities and other livelihood measures” to those whose rights have been recognised under the act.

Tushar Dash, an independent researcher on forest rights governance, explained that there was “no uniform understanding or guidelines on how these convergence activities are supposed to be taken” – that is, on how rights and benefits under different laws and schemes should be made available to all eligible categories of beneficiaries.

In some other states, notably Odisha, the state government has sought to avoid this confusion by issuing such guidelines to help tribal people avail benefits of various government schemes offered by the state.

In Tamil Nadu, confusion is rampant on the ground. Those who held FRA titles explained that even forest officials misinterpret the FRA and claim that the title only confers some rights, not full ownership.

Such was the case with Muniyamma Balappa, who is 56 years old and lives in the small hamlet of Chinnakuthi, 45 km from Guruthaddanur. There are 37 Irula families in the village, of whom only seven have land titles – Balappa is one of them. Meanwhile, the approximately 30 non-Irula families, which include members of Scheduled Caste and Most Backward Class communities, have more secure landholdings.

Obtaining the title didn’t make the work of farming easy for Balappa. The little rainfed farming she could afford left her at the mercy of the unpredictable weather. The low, erratic returns from her land were accentuated by its small size of 0.4 acre, or less than half a football field.

Muniyamma Balappa, of Chinnakuthi, managed to secure a forest rights title for her land. But the unpredictable weather and its small size meant that farming it remained a struggle for her. Photo: Jeff Joseph

Meteorological conditions were also not in her favour. Krishnagiri district is a drought-prone region lying on the leeward side of the Western Ghats. Traditionally, cultivators in the region practised rainfed farming of low moisture crops, such as ragi. This changed after the Green Revolution of the 1970s, when borewell technology slowly entered the region, and made groundwater more accessible for farmers, allowing them to change crop patterns to their preferences.

In 2019, Balappa decided to attempt to dig a borewell on her land. Until then, she had grown ragi and horse gram, and she reasoned that with a borewell, she would be able to grow rice, which needed more water, but could also ensure greater returns.

Balappa hired a bore-digging vehicle from Krishnagiri town, and accompanied it to her land in Chinnakuthi, to the spot where she had decided to dig. But before it could begin, forest guards arrived at the spot and ordered her to stop the work. “Did we give you ownership of the land, they kept asking,” Balappa said.

While Balappa argued that she had been granted an FRA title over the land, the guards insisted that ownership could only be proved with revenue department documents – specifically chitta documents, which are proof that an owner has paid tax to the department, and which are commonly used as proof of land ownership. They argued that an FRA title only gave her rights to use the land, and that the land still belonged to the forest department. The borewell diggers were turned back.

Balappa returned to rainfed farming as before. “We too want to grow rice,” she said, standing on her fallow farmland when Scroll.in met her in April.

But even those Irulas who manage to dig borewells face considerable problems after.

Around 2008, Sivaraj N of Kumbalam village, in Krishnagiri’s Shoolagiri block, dug a borewell and installed a diesel pump-set to help irrigate his fields.

While the measure was supposed to improve productivity, it gradually made farming more expensive. Depending on soil moisture and stage of crop growth, his land had to be irrigated multiple times a week – this meant a significant expense on fuel for the pump-set. In April 2022, diesel prices hovered at around Rs 100 per litre, at which rate using the generator was prohibitively expensive for Sivaraj. “The generator needs three litres of diesel daily,” he said.

Sivaraj obtained an FRA deed in March 2018, though, he noted, he was only granted a deed for 3.25 acres of the 8.75 acres over which he claimed possession. Nevertheless, he then applied to avail of free electricity provided by the Tamil Nadu State Electricity Board for users of agricultural pump-sets. But his efforts were stymied. The state’s electricity board “won’t take my application saying I don’t have a chitta,” said Sivaraj.

Experts argue that even if lands over which FRA titles have been issued have not been included in revenue records, the title-holder is nevertheless entitled to benefits such as power subsidies. But, according to Tushar Dash, “ the misinterpretations, lack of understanding and deliberate misunderstandings of individual officers on the ground decide the course of action for FRA title holders.”

In April, Sivaraj stood before a half-acre field with an abandoned crop of ridge-gourd. “If I had water, this patch would have gotten me 2,000 kg,” he said. At Rs 25 a kilogram, this would have fetched him Rs 50,000, he calculated. But having grown without water, the shrivelled gourds wouldn’t even cover his trip to the market.

Sivaraj, like Balappa, is relatively well off amongst the Irulas of his village. There are 32 Irula families in Kumbalam – of them, 14, including Sivaraj’s, possess an FRA title deed. Having failed to avail free electricity, Sivaraj now questions the utility of the FRA. “I wasted years trying to get the title deeds,” he said.

Sivaraj N, of Kumbalam, with his wife and daughter. Sivaraj obtained an FRA title, then applied for free electricity under a government scheme, but was denied it because he didn't have a chitta. Photo: Jeff Joseph

Dharman B, of the nearby village of Ramandhotti, whose FRA application was processed along with Sivaraj’s, noted that obtaining a title under the act was of little use to him too. He, too, tried to avail of a free electricity connection for his pump-set. But even after he obtained the title in 2019 and applied with it, the electricity department rejected his applications.

Dharman had bought a diesel motor pump in 2014, after taking a loan of Rs 1.20 lakh. In 2020, he attempted to grow a crop of tomato on his land – but diesel prices skyrocketed through August and September that year, plunging him into a financial crisis.

The pump lies abandoned on his farm now. Burdened with a debt he cannot service, Dharman says he can no longer afford to spend time in government offices nor in his farmland. He tried selling the diesel pump-set, but he was only offered scrap value.

He recounted that he even requested the electricity department to provide him with a regular metered connection, without subsidies. “But they wouldn’t, saying I only had rights and not ownership of the land,” said Dharman.

He added, “We are worse off than how we were before any of this started.”

Dharman now works as a bricklaying daily wager, and travels between 30 km and 40 km every morning in search of work in the nearby towns of Berigai and Hosur. Sivaraj now rears the few sheep and cows he owns.

“What can we do?” said Sivaraj. “We are told we are eligible for these facilities, but officers don’t agree.”

The Irulas of Krishnagiri who have approached authorities to avail of their rights and benefits due to them, have found themselves sent from one department to another – but no officials have been willing to take the responsibility of resolving their problems.

Nearly four years ago, in September 2018, after finding out that their application for free electricity depended on their possessing a chitta, Sivaraj and Dharman had approached the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare department in Krishnagiri district, seeking exemption from these conditions, arguing that they were FRA title holders, that their lands were still classified as forests, and that, therefore, they held no chittas. The department implements all the programmes and schemes related to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the state.

The district’s tribal welfare officer, Shiva Shankaran wrote a letter on September 3, 2018, marking copies to Sivaraj and Dharman, asking the electricity board to ensure that electricity connections were given to the FRA title holders, even if they didn’t possess chittas.

But the board didn’t heed this request.

Dharman then wrote to Chennai and obtained a recommendation from the state head of the department, who wrote to the tribal welfare officer in Krishnagiri, directing that “steps should be taken to provide electricity connection to the lands provided to individuals”.

Attaching all the communications and recommendations, Sivaraj and Dharman both applied for a connection on January 9, 2019. The electricity board replied in February 2019, repeating the assertion that their applications could not be processed without a chitta.

When Scroll.in approached officials from different departments, they claimed that there was little they could do.

Dharman, of Ramandhotti, borrowed Rs 1.2 lakh in 2014 to buy a diesel motor pump for his farm. After he was denied free electricity, skyrocketing fuel prices in 2020 left him in a financial crisis. Photo: Jeff Joseph

Anchala Mary, sectional engineer of the Tamil Nadu State Electricity Board in Krishnagiri, said that connections could not be issued without establishing ownership, for which chittas were essential. She argued that it was up to the tribal affairs and forest departments to sort out the matter with the revenue department. “We cannot do anything,” she said.

According to Mary, once an FRA title is issued for a piece of land, the government should ensure that its status is changed in official records from forest land to revenue land. This, she said, would allow individuals to obtain chittas and pay tax to the revenue department, then access government benefits. “There are at least 7,000 villages located inside forests in India though exact numbers are still unknown,” said Dr Y Giri Rao, director of Vasundhara, an organisation that works on natural resources governance, among other areas. “The FRA asks for such forest villages to be converted into revenue lands as per the state revenue laws.”

But an official of the tribal department told Scroll.in that even where other departments were willing to provide villages with facilities without such paperwork, the forest department often blocked progress.

Anbu, superintendent of the tribal welfare department in Krishnagiri who would only give his first name, said that on the ground, it was the divisional forest officers, or DFOs, who could approve or object to other departments’ initiatives. “Whether it is electricity or bore wells, it is for the DFO to give permission,” he said.

Sitting in a laidback office in Hosur, 60 km from Krishnagiri, the DFO, Karthikeyani K, though receptive to questions, claimed that problems such as securing of electricity connections for agriculture or of digging borewells, were relatively new. She put the onus on the revenue and the tribal welfare departments to coordinate a solution. “Our mandate doesn’t focus on tribals,” Karthikeyani said.

But it was forest guards working in her department who stopped Balappa from digging a borewell – making clear that at least in some cases, it was the forest department that exercised powers over tribal people and restricted them from freely using their land

A visit to each of the above offices is an 80 km journey for Balappa, Sivaraj and Dharman, and means the loss of a day’s wage. “I had sat outside every office in Krishnagiri on an empty stomach, only for them to tell me in the evening to come back later,” said Sivaraj about the delays. “I didn’t even have money to buy tea.”

Observers note that some states have done a better job of ensuring that FRA title holders can access government schemes.

Shomona Khanna, a Supreme Court lawyer and former legal advisor to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs, argued that the fact that states like Maharashtra and Odisha had devised ways to ensure that FRA title holders could access government schemes indicated that the Tamil Nadu government was to blame for the failures of these processes in the state. “The state government is dragging its feet when it comes to recognising forest dwellers, who are among the most marginalised communities, as equal citizens,” Khanna said.

About the arguments that FRA titles are not equivalent to ownership documents, she said, “These are red herrings.”

In Odisha, the state government took the initiative to issue detailed guidelines in February 2017 for the conversion of all forest villages, un-surveyed villages, old habitations and other forest settlements into revenue villages under the Forest Rights Act.

According to reports, the state is aiming for a “full rollout” of the act by 2024.

In November 2022, the Odisha government also issued new guidelines that stated that after the FRA titles were issued, the recognised forest area had to be clearly demarcated and incorporated in government records, and that a copy of a document known as “the record of rights”, which listed the rights that were recognised, had to be provided to the title holders.

Meanwhile, the Irulas of Krishnagiri are still being denied basic facilities and government benefits that could help fulfil their aspirations as farmers. Karthikeyani K, the divisional forest officer of Krishnagiri, said she was not aware of whether the state had any specific plans to ensure that FRA title holders could access various rights and benefits under state schemes.

K Ashokkumar, the AIADMK member of the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly who represents Krishnagiri, said he was unaware of the matter when Scroll.in contacted him over the phone. A Chellakumar, of the Indian National Congress, the member of parliament of Krishnagiri, declined to offer any detailed comments, saying he wasn’t familiar with the matter. He promised to take it up with the bureaucracy. “I had asked the DFO and collector to issue pattas” to those who applied for titles under the FRA, he said.

Prakaash Y, MLA of the ruling DMK, who represents Hosur within Krishnagiri district, said he blamed the forest department for the problems in implementation, saying that the department’s objections were holding up the work. When asked why the work of the state government was being blocked by its own officials, he declined to discuss the matter in greater detail. T Ramachandran, the Communist Party of India MLA of Thalli, another constituency within Krishnagiri where tribal people struggle with the same problems, claimed their party had once protested at the collectorate on behalf of the tribals, but to no avail.

CR Bijoy noted that the state’s continuing denial of land rights to tribals was deeply unjust. “Tribals have the least carbon foot print in the world and yet it will be them digging a borewell which the forest department resists vehemently, rather than the diversion of large swathes of forest land or the department itself foolishly and catastrophically converting grasslands into grandis plantations,” he said, referring to a variety of eucalyptus grown for firewood, plywood and pulp. He added, “Moreover agriculture is a very small part of the country’s tribal economy. Given the low productivity of forest soil and little prices their produce fetch, their scales are miniscule. The department really have no ground to stand in their way.”

Jeff Joseph is a researcher with Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change and natural resource governance in India.