Poor implementation of the Forest Rights Act could be a deciding factor in nearly a quarter (133) of the 543 parliamentary constituencies in the 2019 general elections, according to an analysis by Community Forest Resource-Learning and Advocacy or CFR-LA, an NGO network.
Analysing the results of the 2014 general elections in the 133 constituencies with a large proportion of tribal dwellers, the analysis finds that the number of voters eligible for land rights under the Forest Rights Act is more than the margin of victory in more than 95% of the seats.
This implies that any political party that promises effective implementation of the Forest Rights Act and other laws protecting land rights of tribespeople could defeat the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party in these constituencies. The BJP government has been criticised for not protecting the rights of tribespeople during the court hearings that led to the Supreme Court ordering that forest dwellers whose claims had been rejected by respective state governments be evicted. The order was later put on hold.
CFR-LA cites the BJP’s defeat in the 2018 assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh to support its argument.
Forest Rights Act, which legalised forest-dwellers’ land rights in 2006, is critical to the rights and livelihoods of at least 200 million Indians – as much as the population of Brazil – of whom 90 million (45%) are tribespeople. Ever since its enactment, Forest Rights Act has been a point of contention between forest-dwellers and governments, resulting in land conflicts over 550,000 hectare of forest land (four times the area of the state of Delhi). These conflicts affect the lives of more than six million people, as per the data collected by Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers and journalists across India.
How voting pattern might change
All the 133 constituencies analysed by CFR-LA have more than 10,000 hectares of forest area eligible for coverage under Forest Rights Act and more than 20% of their respective electorates affected by the law.
In the 2014 general elections, the ruling BJP had won about 59% of these 133 seats; the Congress had secured 4%, though it was the runner-up in 62% of seats.
In its manifesto for the 2018 assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, the Congress promised to implement the Forest Rights Act. It won 68% more seats of the total 39 seats reserved for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes compared to the 2013 assembly elections, while the BJP recorded a loss of 75% seats, as per the CFR-LA’s assembly election analysis.
“BJP remains extremely vulnerable to a campaign based around Forest Rights,” the analysis said.
In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where the Congress did not win by large margins as it did in Chhattisgarh, the party did not push the land rights issue vehemently, the analysis points out.
Except for Maharashtra, and to some extent in Gujarat, Forest Rights Act implementation in BJP-ruled states such as Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh has been “shoddy and aimed to subvert the intent of the law”, the analysis says.
Voters fear loss of land rights
At least 40 million hectares of forest land – more than 50% of India’s forest area, and bigger than the area of Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh combined – are covered by Forest Rights Act and issues related to the rights and livelihoods of forest-dwellers and tribespeople.
At least 170,000, one-fourth of the villages in the country, are eligible for rights under Forest Rights Act, as per the analysis.
CFR-LA has not included the constituencies in Lakshadweep, Andaman and Nicobar, Jammu and Kashmir, and the northeastern states, which have large tribal populations but for which data on potential rights holders are not available.
To put together this database, CFR-LA has used two sources – data from the Election Commission of India on the results of parliamentary constituencies that voted in 2014 and Census 2011 data on constituencies eligible for Forest Rights Act.
These 133 parliamentary constituencies have reported a high rate of wrongful rejections of forest land rights, leaving tribals and forest dwellers vulnerable to mass eviction, said Tushar Dash, an Odisha-based researcher and member of CFR-LA. Forest communities in these constituencies have already reported poor implementation of Forest Rights Act and rampant violations of forest rights, forcible plantations by forest departments and land grab for the creation of land banks, he added.
After the Supreme Court’s order, Congress Chief Rahul Gandhi had asked all chief ministers in states ruled by the Congress to file a review petition against the mass-eviction of tribespeople and other forest dwellers. He had earlier demanded that Congress chief ministers undo all the changes brought in by the preceding governments that impacted tribal rights. He also called the incumbent BJP government at the Centre a “silent spectator” for not protecting the rights of tribes under the Forest Rights Act during court hearings.
Two days after Gandhi’s letter to Congress chief ministers, BJP president Amit Shah too sent similar instructions to chief ministers in states governed by his party. “I have spoken to all CMs [chief ministers] of BJP-ruled states in the situation arising out of the Supreme Court’s order on the eviction of tribals living in forest areas,” he tweeted on February 25. “The states will be soon filing review petition and care will be taken to safeguard the rights of our tribals and prevent eviction.”
Subsequently, the central government sought a temporary stay on the Supreme Court order alleging flaws in the process followed by states that led to a high rate of rejection of land right claims. The court stayed its order and gave the states four months to file affidavits on the centre’s allegations.
How election results might be affected
It was the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government that enacted the Forest Rights Act in 2006. But in the 2014 general elections, the party fared badly in parliamentary constituencies where Forest Rights Act was a core issue, the CFR-LA analysis points out. The Congress, however, emerged as a runner-up in as many as 83 of the 133 forest-rich constituencies (62%).
Of 68 seats from among the 133 where the Congress and the BJP were in direct contest, the Congress won only three seats. “One may safely say, that these 68 constituencies can be decisive in influencing next government formation,” the analysis says.
However, in four of the nine states where the BJP and the Congress were in direct contest for these 68 seats, the incumbent BJP state government was voted out in the 2018 assembly elections, the analysis shows.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.