Walking in the forest near Ramgarh’s Jitra Tungri hamlet seems straightforward at first. But soon it turns into a strenuous trudge through knee-high grass and brambles, dodging the occasional snake and avoiding what looks like a gaping crater.
The cavity in the earth is due to coal mine subsidence; locals manage to avoid it and all the other perils and reach the top of the hill without batting an eyelid while I stumble and trip along in their wake.
“How on earth did a JCB get here?” I wonder about a construction vehicle that dug trenches atop the hill earlier this year. This is where the district forest department has dug up the farms that these villagers were cultivating, planting trees to compensate against a forest cut down somewhere else.
“Sab kuch chheen liya hai toh hum log marne par aa gaye hain. Kuch khaane ke liye rahega nahi toh hum karenge kya? Bahar jayenge toh yahan kaun dekhega? (Everything has been snatched away and we have been pushed towards death. What will we do if there is nothing to eat? If I migrate, who will look after my family here?),” said Binod Rajwar, a resident of the hamlet.
Rajwar, in common with his fellow residents of Jitra Tungri, is one of the victims of afforestation – a Union government scheme wherein diversion of forests for a project in one place is compensated for by planting double the area of degraded forest land or equivalent non-forest land elsewhere.
The afforestation in question has affected people’s farming, pastoralism and other forest-dependent activities which fall under individual or community forest rights as enshrined in the landmark Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 commonly known as Forest Rights Act or FRA.
In this instance, afforestation has been done on 22 hectares near the hamlet – an area roughly half the size of Vatican City – to compensate for forests elsewhere that had been cut down for mining. The issue here is that these new forests are coming up in areas that were traditionally used by locals for cultivation, for accessing forest produce, for grazing livestock and even for burying their dead. Therein lies the problem, as the legal rights of the forest dwellers come into conflict with the forest department’s interpretation of the law’s mandate.
Earlier this year, the Jharkhand forest department dug pits and trenches in land under cultivation near this hamlet and planted trees which, locals say, are of no use to them. The trenches prevent bullock carts or tractors from accessing local farmlands, forcing the farmers to stop cultivation and pushing them towards penury and destitution.
The majority of Jitra Tungri’s population belongs to the scheduled tribe category. The jungle is an inseparable part of their tribal identity. Now, the loss of a forest in one part of the district has upended their lives in another.
The people of Jitra Tungri tried pointing the forest department officials towards alternative plots that are less suitable for farming. In a bid to save their farms, they even planted saplings in places that would not require large trenches. But, they claim, the department bulldozed through all opposition.
“Simply writing letters doesn’t do anything,” Ramgarh Divisional Forest Officer Nitish Kumar responded to the villagers’ charges. “When we invited them for meetings, they did not engage with us. Even today, if they get titles to the forest land and show us the documents, we will consider it.”
In Bachra village in the neighboring Hazaribagh district, a group of villagers similarly claim to have been robbed of their farmland, and therefore their livelihood, due to another compensatory afforestation project.
Those belonging to the scheduled tribe category, who make up a statistical majority of the local population, have been opposing the plantation whereas another group, made up of those from the Other Backward Classes category who do not use those farmlands and are a statistical minority in the village, has been supporting the afforestation.
Green and clean?
This is not the first time forest rights in India have come in conflict with controversial plantation schemes, as IndiaSpend had reported in 2019. Many policies in India are inherently at odds with the Forest Rights Act, leaving people’s rights to the subjective interpretation of local administration, experts say.
Officially, India’s forest cover stands at 21.7%, registering an increase of 1,540 sq km in the 2021 forest assessment as compared to the 2019 assessment. The eastern Indian state of Jharkhand (the state’s name literally translates to ‘land of trees’) has 29.8% of its land under forests, higher than the national average.
Between 2008-’09 and 2022-’23, India approved 305,000 hectares of forest land to be diverted for non-forest use for 17,301 projects. Around one-fifth of these forests – 58,282 hectares – were lost to mining alone in this period.
In the same period, states and Union territories undertook compensatory afforestation on 934,000 hectares, environment minister Bhupender Yadav told Parliament on August 7.
However, the national forest numbers have been controversial for a long time, with experts insisting that the assessment does not paint the correct picture and pointing to four crucial issues that undermine the data.
The first problem lies in the definition of “forest”. The Forest Survey of India uses satellite imagery and algorithmic interpretation to classify vegetated areas into “very dense”, “moderately dense” and “open” forest. The issue is that the Forest Survey of India classifies all patches of trees with a canopy density of 10% or more as forests – which in practice means that the it includes monoculture plantations such as coconut, rubber, coffee and timber in its calculation of “forested areas”.
Such classification, experts have repeatedly argued, is classic “greenwashing”, with the Forest Survey of India – whose report says that the forest-rich northeastern states of India have cumulatively lost 1,020 sq km of forests – making up for this loss by categorising monoculture plantations as “forests”.
A related issue, experts say, is that the Forest Survey of India does not put its forest cover data in the public domain but merely provides topline numbers – thus, there is no independent oversight and verification of the Forest Survey of India’s claims. This, researcher MD Madhusudan pointed out, leads to glaring discrepancies, which were further underlined in a report in The Hindu in March.
Experts therefore argue that India’s actual forest cover might be less than official numbers – this, while India’s stated aim is to increase total forest cover to 33% of its land area, and it has committed to have an additional carbon sink equivalent to 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.
The money trail
The Union government undertakes afforestation through various schemes such as Green India Mission, Namami Gange, and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. States, too, have their own schemes. The Jharkhand government had announced its target of planting 25 million saplings in the 2023 monsoon season. This is in addition to the afforestation already undertaken in Jitra Tungri, Bachra and other hamlets in the region.
Of all these schemes, the most lucrative is the cash-rich compensatory afforestation fund. When a public or private entity makes an application to cut down a forest for a project, the permission given to them comes with the caveat that they have to pay for compensating it. Over the years, it was observed that there was under-utilisation of the money collected towards compensatory afforestation by states, and so, the Supreme Court in 2001 ordered the establishment of a Compensatory Afforestation Fund and a Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority.
In 2006, separate bank accounts were opened in which the compensatory levies (money paid by companies or agencies towards the forests they diverted) were deposited, and an ad hoc authority was established for the management of this fund. In 2016, the government enacted the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act and, after its rules were formalised in 2018, an amount of Rs 54,685 crore ($6.5 billion) from this ad-hoc authority was brought under government control. Now, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority is tasked with managing and utilising the fund.
The management of compensatory afforestation funds was controversial even before the Act came in place. In 2013, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the government’s auditor, released its report on India’s track record of compensatory afforestation, wherein it flagged “serious shortcomings in regulatory issues related to diversion of forest land, the abject failure to promote compensatory afforestation, the unauthorised diversion of forest land in the case of mining and the attendant violation of the environmental regime”.
An expert, speaking to IndiaSpend on the condition of anonymity, said, “CAF [compensatory afforestation] funds are blood money, because we have already lost those forests and this money is supposed to help compensate for them. No plantation can truly make up for lost forests, and even those plantations are not happening in earnest.”
Other experts have flagged the Compensatory Afforestation Funds Act saying that “it goes further than any other law in the past in denying tribals’ rights in the forests, grabbing their village forests, pastures and commons, and intensifying their forcible relocation from protected forests”, something IndiaSpend noticed first-hand during field trips in Jharkhand.
Coal, forests, forest rights
Jharkhand, one of India’s most coal-rich states, has diverted 15,691 hectares of forest land for coal mining and other non-forest use between 2008-’09 and 2022-’23. Mining is one of the largest causes for forest diversion in India, and a 2019 study across more than 300 Indian districts had found that districts that produced coal, iron or limestone saw on average 450 sq km higher forest loss compared to those that did not produce the same minerals.
Notably, Jharkhand has also done better in compensating for these chopped forests. It tops the list in forests compensated in the year 2022-’23, standing at 17,600 hectares. For the next year 2023-’24, Jharkhand has received Rs 282 crore for carrying out compensatory afforestation.
One of the coal mines in question in Ramgarh, where Jitra Tungri falls, is the Giddi A mine leased to Central Coalfields Limited, a Government of India undertaking. The old mine had diverted 1.44 hectares of forests, and compensated for it by authorising the forest department to take up plantation on double the degraded forest land on its behalf.
Similarly, forest diverted for the Jharkhand Open Cast Mine and for an arch bridge led to a total forest diversion of 10.87 hectare, or area equivalent to around 20 football fields, within Ramgarh, forest department officials told IndiaSpend. Taken together, they compensated for these three diversions by taking up plantation on 22 hectares near Jitra Tungri or area equivalent to around 41 football fields. They planted 36,652 saplings at a cost of Rs 29 lakh (about $35,000), as per the officials.
Before undertaking afforestation, the department approached the village mukhiya, or headman, Ramesh Ram and asked him to hold a gram sabha, or village council, meeting. A gram sabha needs 10% of its total members to be present, failing which it gets adjourned. However, the sabha was held with just 16 people, and it gave permission to the forest department to undertake tree plantation.
“The forest department came here several times, but had to turn around because of our opposition,” said Dhaneshwar Rajwar, a resident of the hamlet. “Then they brought the full force of the system and turned this place into a war zone. When we opposed again, they showed us a handwritten paper (the one that was signed by the gram sabha at the end of its meeting) which had very general words about plantation to be undertaken in the village, without any more details. This village has a population of around 500, but only 16 people were called for gram sabha which is against the rule.”
Ram now claims that he did not know where the plantation was going to be undertaken, its scale, and how it would affect people. He has joined the villagers in opposing the plantation. The question of how he held a gram sabha despite the absence of a quorum is, however, unanswered.
‘With trees come their laws’
Basanti Devi is part of a family of ten. Her family used to farm a piece of forest land, growing paddy and a local millet called Kulthi, among other crops.
“Now we can neither take bullocks nor tractors there,” Basanti Devi told IndiaSpend. “The way they have dug a trench, the land is of no use to us. We are now worried about how we will get by, since I have small children. My in-laws have been living here and cultivating this land for generations.”
Diglal Rajwar had already sown Kulthi seeds when the afforestation process began. “We lost a lot of seeds and money, only the land where rice was planted was left for us,” he said. “That’s why we will have to fight. That land is everything… Baad me ladne nahi dega (we have to fight now, it will be too late later).”
Local villagers pointed out that the species of trees planted on the land are useless to them. “Woh toh aisa ped hai jisme chidiya bhi nahi baith sakte hain, na usme ghosla de sakte hain, neeche ghaas bhi nahi hoga… (Those are the kind of trees where even birds won’t sit or nest, even grass won’t grow beneath them),” said Basanti Devi.
The afforestation programme, which appears to focus on quantity over quality and environmental sense, has been criticised by experts for introducing non-native saplings into various forested landscapes. This, experts have pointed out, is a double blow: not only are the non-native trees of no economic use to the indigenous tribes, these trees also quickly overwhelm the environment at the expense of native trees and shrubs.
Given their understanding of the habitat, residents of Jitra Tungri hamlet decided to take matters into their own hands and undertake their own plantation. “At least that way our land would have been saved,” said panchayat member Chhaya Rajwar. “We were trying to spare our useful land and use the rest for plantation.”
The villagers tried to assert their agency in the kind of species taken up for plantation, but it was not recognised. They claim to have planted around 30,000 saplings, most of them Mahua and other fruit-bearing trees, on the concerned forest land themselves. These were allegedly discarded by the forest department which prefers to plant its handpicked varieties, oblivious to the part native trees play in the traditions and culture of the tribal people.
Resident Sheela Marandi said that in her Santhali community, there is a tradition wherein the woman marries the Mahua tree first before marrying the groom. She is disappointed that the saplings prepared by villagers in the nursery, including Mahua, Sakhua and other fruit-bearing trees, were discarded by the forest department.
“Genthi hoye gelo (there is Genthi), Tena, Barjariya, Jamun, Kend, Ghalwa, Bel, Mahua, Khokhdi, Putka, Karel hoye gelo (there is Karel) – these are all forest produce that are beneficial to us, we forage them from the jungle,” said Sumitra Devi, an elderly villager. “We eat some of it and also sell it. Mahua tree’s flowers are dried, its oil is used as a medicine for treating stomach ache, headache. In weddings also, these trees have a lot of importance. Even for snakebites, we know which jadi booti (herbs) to use. That is how much the jungle matters to us.“
While the locals have not been explicitly prohibited from accessing forest produce, they want the department to plant more of these trees, particularly Mahua, that are important to them.
The district forest department confirmed that villagers are no longer permitted to cultivate that land or take animals there for grazing.
“Ped lagana koi buri baat nahi hai, lekin ped ke saath saath unka kanoon bhi toh laagu hoga. Isiliye takleef hai (It is not a bad thing to plant trees, but with the trees will come their law),” said panchayat member Chhaya Rajwar, who claims to have been kept in the dark about the gram sabha in question.
She is worried that their cattle will venture into the land out of habit and the department will file cases against villagers. Cattle trespass in a reserved forest or protected forest is an offense as per the Indian Forest Act, 1927. Hay for cattle, firewood for burial and access to the farmed land were subjects that came up repeatedly in interaction with residents of this hamlet.
The law vs the land
Ramgarh’s District Forest Officer Nitish Kumar countered the villagers’ plaints, saying, “What happened in Jitra Tungri was that people did not want to give up their farm lands. We are supposed to only consult the gram sabha; we do not require consent, especially when they want to do things unilaterally.”
According to Kumar, the department held several meetings to take people into confidence, even invited them to his office, and told them that genuine forest rights claims will be settled.
“I said I will come to the village, give me a date. They didn’t. I contacted local public representatives but people didn’t want to listen. If you just claim rights without engaging with the law…. Nobody was ready, they have an encroachment agenda.”
On the subject of species to be planted, Kumar’s response unwittingly underlined the point the villagers were making, about the forest department preferring quick-growing varieties to trees endemic to the environment. The official told IndiaSpend that planting trees like Mahua “is very tough”. Such fruit-bearing trees take 15-20 years to fully grow, he said, and there is often theft of saplings. He said the department tries to maintain a 60-40 ratio of hardy trees and fruit-bearing trees.
Kumar stated that not all of the people who claim eligibility for forest rights are entitled to it as per the Forest Rights Act. “I have not denied burial rights or access to medicinal plants – they always have access to that. Now if you want to do farming, it is allowed up to the extent as was happening before 2005 [as per the Forest Rights Act], not more. If you had two acres before 2005 but have 20 acres now, I can’t give 20 acres, I can only give two,” said Kumar of individual forest rights which are acknowledged by titles. “Even today, we are ready to consider genuine claims.”
The Forest Rights Act covers the rights of forest-dwelling scheduled tribes “who primarily reside in and who depend on the forests or forest lands for bona fide livelihood needs” and of other traditional forest dwellers, meaning any member or community that has for at least three generations prior to December 13, 2005, primarily resided in and depended on the forest or forest land for bona fide livelihood needs.
The residents of Jitra Tungri and Bachra claim that they are covered under these definitions. Experts and activists point out that the government has not done anything to secure forest rights in cases like these. In neighbouring Chhattisgarh where nearly every third person is a tribal, people routinely receive ownership or titles to less forest land under Forest Rights Act than they claim, IndiaSpend reported in October.
“The issues in fact are getting more and more complicated at the ground level,” said Tushar Dash, an independent researcher working on forest rights. “There is no compliance of the Forest Rights Act at all. In fact, when the CAMPA Act [Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority] was proposed in Parliament, MPs had proposed to include compliance of FRA and consent of the gram sabha in it. That proposal was not considered then, and an assurance was given that it will be included in the Rules, which also did not happen.”
Dash pointed out that the ministry and the state forest departments are putting certain conditions while approving the new annual plans of operations [states’ CAMPA plans]. “They have started mentioning that wherever CAMPA projects are getting implemented, prior to implementation the state authorities have to ensure compliance of FRA procedures and also consultation of gram sabha. That is on paper, but we have found that on the ground, for example in Odisha, there is no mechanism in place to safeguard and protect rights, to see that FRA is not violated.”
Sharachchandra Lele, distinguished fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment who researches forest governance said that this is a story that keeps on repeating and he has seen the forest department proceed with plantation on land where individual forest rights claims were still pending. Once the cultivated land gets planted over, as has happened in the case of Bachra and Jitra Tungri, the recognition of cultivation rights becomes almost impossible, said Lele.
“Moreover, if it is forest land inside the revenue boundary of a village, it is almost a given that it falls within the customary boundary of the village and hence it is their Community Forest Resource [CFR] area. Even if the CAMPA process does not explicitly talk about gram sabha consent, if CFR rights were recognised on that land, then the gram sabha would be the final authority. It is because forest rights are not recognised that the forest department treats all forest land as theirs,” said Lele while also pointing out that sub-divisional and district-level committees that are supposed to adjudicate on IFR and Community Forest Resource claims don’t meet regularly and de facto, it is the forest department which takes decisions on titles in practice.
Caste and forest rights
Chhaya Rajwar’s fears of the forest department filing cases against villagers for cattle grazing on plantations found echoes around 60 km away, in Hazaribagh’s Bachra village.
Hazaribagh district is around two-and-a-half hours hours away by road from the state capital Ranchi. If one starts from Hazaribagh’s Katkamsandi block, the winding road to Bachra village takes almost as long, with not a soul in sight. No buses or other vehicles can be seen, other than the occasional motorbike, as the road traverses the moderately dense jungles of Katkamsandi. After dusk, the only lights to be seen are the single yellow bulbs inside houses.
The region is desolate, and rumours of left-wing extremism contribute to the desolation. A number of outfits have been operating or were operating in the past in certain remote and poorly connected pockets of the country, and parts of Jharkhand used to be considered affected by extremism.
When we visited the area, it was a little after noon, and some locals had gathered at an under-construction house to talk to IndiaSpend about their plight.
In December 2022, the forest department officers and staff, along with heavy machinery, descended on the area in force, backed by a police escort. What followed was a months-long protest to prevent the department from undertaking plantations here.
“We had around one bigha (0.610 acre) of land that we were cultivating for generations,” said local resident Devanti Devi. “Since losing the only farmland we had, my husband’s labour earnings of Rs 200 a day is all the income we have, and it is not sufficient. We are a family of six, including two children. We are protesting, but they are not listening.”
Caste introduces a further complexity into the mix. In Bachra, there are natives from the Bhogta and Oraon tribes that fall in the scheduled tribes category. The village is also home to Mehtas and Ranas, who fall in the Other Backward Classes category.
In this region, farming in forested land is being done by the tribals, whereas the Mehtas and Ranas own their own farmlands. Thus, while the Bhogta and Oraon tribals protest the afforestation programme, the Mehtas and Ranas are dissociated from these protests since they are not directly impacted. The schism within the village makes it impossible for the residents to put up a united front.
Sohan Singh Bhogta, an elderly man with a scraggy white beard who is opposed to the plantation, said, “Pehle itna kha rahe the, ab itna kha rahe hain (At first we were eating this much, now we are eating this much),” while making a shrinking motion with his hands.
“On the day they first came for plantation, all of us gathered here,” Sunil Singh Bhogta, 32, told IndiaSpend. “Things got so heated that many of us got injured in the protests. Every time they came, they brought a big force.
“This went on for four months. My plot is around one acre, where a big trench has now been dug. On one side, they planted trees while on the other, they left a small parcel for me. The same has happened with my brothers.”
In search of work, Sunil migrated around 1,800 km west to Mumbai’s Uran soon after IndiaSpend met him, since he has a Rs 20,000 loan to repay and mouths to feed.
Basanti Devi, who was part of the village forest rights committee, said that the committee was not notified about the plantation. “What if they take away our houses next?” she asks. “They had threatened to demolish our houses [built on forest land] in the past. My rights have been snatched, something I had never thought was possible.”
The village mukhiya, Prakash Kesri, said the locals are now surviving on government rations. “This area has very few labour opportunities, which means migration, just like the way Sunil has to migrate,” Kesri said. “The tree plantation has forced people to the brink of starvation. I am afraid people will be forced to die by suicide.”
The afforestation in Bachra is to offset forests that were diverted elsewhere, the district forest office confirmed to IndiaSpend, but the officials did not share details of the project, such as which deforested areas are sought to be compensated by this afforestation, how many saplings were planted and at what cost.
Saba Alam, divisional forest officer of Hazaribagh West division, said that 50% of plantation activities in the division right now are that of compensatory afforestation, and confirmed that the plantation in Bachra was also undertaken as per the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act.
“They have some houses there and they claim they have given an FRA application for a title, but we have no knowledge of that application,” Alam said, referring to the protestors. “From what I gather, there were only 5-6 houses there before 2005, now there are 18-19 houses. We have not touched the houses… I don’t think there were permanent farms either, but I’m not sure about that. After the FRA enactment there may be some kind of encroachment.”
He claimed that the villagers were consulted about the tree plantation, but when asked to share supporting documents, he did not respond to calls or messages. This story will be updated when we hear from the officer.
Birender Rana, a representative of the minority other backward classes faction of the village, reached out to IndiaSpend and claimed that the people who claim to be suffering are actually encroachers and have no forest rights.
“They have been living here only for eight-10 years,” said Rana. “They have applied for titles several times. If their claims were genuine, they would have been given titles. They have a lot of land other than this forest land.”
Rana claimed that the forest department had taken due permission from the gram sabha before undertaking the plantation work. He, too, did not share any documents to support this claim.
Consent vs consultation
Jharkhand Jungle Bachao Andolan’s Sanjay Basu Malik said he has been seeing such violations as in Bachra and Jitra Tungri for decades now.
“Often it happens that the forest department selects such land for plantation that is claimable, where people can apply for individual or community forest rights in the future [as allowed by FRA],” Malik said. “In many instances, people have uprooted those saplings, court cases were filed… Now the department digs trenches to alienate people from the forests.”
Malik argued that it should be the gram sabha that leads the afforestation drive, and that it should have a right over the compensatory afforestation funds, whereas in practice it is barely even consulted as mandated by the Compensatory Afforestation Funds Act.
A key issue that fuels the existing confusion is that there are various laws surrounding forest lands, and these laws typically don’t speak to one another. “The biggest challenge with the FRA,” says environmental lawyer Arpitha Kodiveri, “is that we’ve not created harmonising legal principles in other forest laws.
“So essentially, the FRA is like a standalone Act, whereas the Indian Forest Act, the Forest Conservation Act and even the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act very seldom mention how forest rights will be protected under those legislations. And so you have a situation where it’s almost like the laws are already in conflict.”
IndiaSpend visited Jitra Tungri on September 17, which is the last day of the month of Bhadrapada in the Hindu calendar. On this day, pujas and rituals are held in honour of Vishwakarma, who as per Hindu mythology was the architect of the gods.
People pray to Vishwakarma and perform rituals to honour their workplace and the tools of their trade, such as tractors, ploughs and other farming implements. Binod Rajwar’s family had decorated their tractor in colourful streamers for the occasion, with everyone dressed in festive finery.
Despite the celebratory atmosphere, Binod is worried. His family has lost half the land they were cultivating owing to the forest department’s trenches. Their income has reduced by over 50%, and he and his brothers will have to do manual labour to support the household.
“Jitna ladai tha humne lada, ab toh aage kuch nazar hi nahi aa raha hai… (We fought as much as we could, now I cannot see a way out),” said Rajwar, as he watched his toddler son playing nearby.
(This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network for the Asia-Pacific collaborative cross-border reporting project titled ‘It’s A Wash’)
(Aparajita Dmonty, intern with IndiaSpend, contributed to this report)
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.