Ten years after the Centre passed a law granting Adivasis and other forest dwellers rights to manage resources in forest lands, Maharashtra has emerged as the front-runner among states in implementing the provisions of this legislation, followed closely by Kerala.

A new report by Community Forest Rights Learning and Advocacy – a collective that brings together community members and their organisations, civil society groups, researchers and academics – showed that Maharashtra’s success came on the back of record recognition of community forest rights in Gadchiroli, an eastern district of the state. “If Gadchiroli is taken out of the picture, Maharashtra’s average performance of CFR [community forest resource rights] implementation as compared to the minimum potential [of forest land eligible for these rights] would be approximately 10%,” the report noted.

It went on to say that Maharashtra had granted villages community forest resource rights in 15% of land with the potential for these rights to be recognised. However, this was only because it had recognised these rights in 66% of the potential land in Gadchiroli. In the rest of the state, there was no implementation at all in 21 districts, between 0% and 33% implementation in nine districts, and between 33% and 66% in two districts.

Note: CFR rights- Community forest resource rights

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, passed in December 2006, was a historic law that gave back to traditional forest dwellers their rights to access, manage and govern forest lands and resources within village boundaries, which had been controlled by the forest department since colonial times.

Under the law, forest dwellers can apply to state governments for either individual or community forest rights – which means they can take ownership of the process of protecting and conserving forests in their areas. They can also gather and sell minor forest produce such as tendu leaves or bamboo, which was an illegal activity before the law was enacted.

However, states have not been particularly proactive about implementing these rights. As the report noted, only seven states have recognised community forest rights at all. Maharashtra has granted community forest rights in 15% of the 1.2 crore acres of potential forest land that could be eligible under these rules, benefitting 5,741 communities. Kerala is a close second at 14%, followed by Gujarat at 9% and Odisha at 5%. Across India, states have recognised only 3% of potential community forest rights.

Note: CFR rights- Community forest resource rights

One step forward, one step back

A strong Adivasi movement in Gadchiroli is an important reason for the district’s impressive performance. Adivasi groups here had pushed for the Forest Rights Act to be passed and pressure from the movement ensured that in May 2008, the state notified rules for the Act and directed gram panchayats to begin holding meetings to file community forest rights claims.

This was followed by a campaign for mass filing of claims, with technical inputs from civil society groups. Mendha Lekha and Marda became the first two villages not only in Gadchiroli but in the entire country where community forest rights were recognised. The applications from these villages became the format for applications after 2012.

“Gadchiroli has a long history of people’s movements, from land rights reforms to Maharashtra’s first employment guarantee schemes,” said Geetanjoy Sahu, an assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai and one of the authors of the report. “You cannot attribute the success here to just one factor.”

This year, around 1,000 of the 1,200 villages in Gadchiroli managed to auction tendu leaves, used in the bidi industry, on their own, avoiding government tenders and spending on advertisements. Through this, villages were able to get as much as Rs 13,000 per bag, Sahu said, and with an assurance of payment within six months, instead of a year, as is the case when auctions are managed by the forest department.

Yet, even as Maharashtra is foremost in implementing community forest rights, it is also slowly attempting to reverse this with new forms of forest management.

In May 2014, the state notified village forest rules that already existed under the Indian Forests (Maharashtra) Act. These rules effectively transfer rights for the management of forest produce from communities back to the forest department. Villages have the right to choose between community forest rights and village forest rules – but without prior knowledge of either, have been guided towards opting for the latter.

There are other government missteps, the report pointed out. The state has begun to lease forest land to the Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra without the consent of gram sabhas. The corporation has felled a large number of trees in these areas, according to the report. The government is also promoting joint forest management committees in villages with community forest rules, thus allowing government representatives to have a say in their decisions.

“Maharashtra has definitely done better than all other states,” said Sahu. “We just have to keep a watch to keep the momentum going.”