by Janeesha Singh
Tribal Community and their Land Rights: Tracing the History
The forest belts in India are home to 250 million people, where the primary source of income for such families is forest produce. Through the implementation of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 during the colonial era, the British government armed itself with arbitrary power to take over the forest land, without any recourse or relocation of the traditional inhabitants of this ‘reserved and protected’ land. The tribal communities occupying these areas were subjected to legal action, often through eviction, fines and arrests. This led to a decline in the social sense of ownership among the tribal communities, as there was no law in place that sought to protect their interests.
However, due to growing dissent in these belts, the government agreed to grant ownership of the land subject to how long it had been occupied by the tribal communities through a Patwari, i.e., keeper of records. However, this system failed to factor in the lack of records with the tribal communities, ultimately vesting excessive power in the hands of the Patwaris to exploit the landless tribal communities.
In the post-colonial era, the government sought to correct the “historical injustices” that the tribal communities had been subjected to by enacting a comprehensive legislation, i.e., the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. The FRA laid down a procedure for proving land ownership as well as resettlement of forest dwellers in situations wherein their area is designated for animal sanctuaries. However, as is common with most systems and institutions in India, it wasn’t long before the implementation of this system was imbued with corruption. The critics of the Act have pointed out the failure of the act to disseminate information to the grass root level to ensure that the dwellers are well versed with the law and the procedure relating to filing of claims, which would in turn lead to lower number of rejections.
Locating the land rights of the tribal women
The society of the tribals has often been acclaimed as a prime specimen of an egalitarian society. However, modern institutions and forces have exacerbated the gap between tribal men and women, as well as between tribal women in urban areas and rural areas. Despite being avid believers of Hindu tradition of patriarchy, tribal women form the backbone of the tribal economy in most parts of northeast. Many studies have shown that tribal women are often physically as well as socially adapted to live in extreme hardships, letting them interact with the men on an equal basis.
As far as the institution of inheritance is concerned, daughters often receive a share in the father’s property. For instance, while Tripuris follow a patrilineal system of inheritance, the father customarily gifts a share of the property to the daughter. On the other hand, theoretically, Jamatiyas and Halams do not believe in giving a share to the daughter, however in reality, there is a plethora of instances where the daughter receives some land. While there exists a sexual division of labour amongst most tribal communities, women’s contribution to the economy makes them less dependant on their male-counterpart, thus, making them less susceptible to ill treatment or suppression. A prevalent argument, propounded by Das Gupta, is that higher work participation of the tribal girls was conducive to fetching an appropriate price for their marriage settlements, thereby reducing the tribal girls to a marketable commodity. However, on the flip side, it can be argued that the higher work force participation is a strong indicator of the higher status of women in the society.
One of the objectives of FRA 2006 was aimed at redefining gender and environmental justice by recognising the capacity of a tribal woman to nurture forest space. The Act was meant to empower women, enabling them to live with dignity and freedom to pursue livelihood by eradicating elements of subjugation and gender discrimination that was inherent in the pre-existing system. Tribal women have been subjected to grave violence at the hands of the forest bureaucracy. They have been displaced from their forest regions and forced to live as refugees in new forest regions as “criminals” and “law-breakers.” The violence has taken different forms: losing control of their resources, being displaced from the means of production like water and land, and often by negation of their knowledge.
The legislation in question has become an instrument for the State exercising hegemonic power over the forest resources as well as restricting the freedom of the tribals by retaining the power to make final decisions regarding governance of forest resources. Superficially, the Act seems to grant autonomy to women in relation to their rights over the forest lands. However, in January 2008, nine different PILs were filed by retired forest officials as well as conservationists challenging the Act. They argued that the Act in question paved way for the local government to destroy the forests. The Act empowered the governments to increase attacks against the tribal communities, especially against women, with numerous reports of aggressive evictions of the communities. The State has resorted to the ideology of benevolent patriarchy, attempting to appease the tribal women by throwing crumbs in their direction. The system grants women token rights, assuming them to be submissive, unquestioning and pliable.
Moreover, the current need of the global community to conserve carbon is undermining the rights of the tribal communities, hitting tribal women the hardest. Global policies to mitigate the effect of climate change as well as adapting to the change point towards an increased displacement of tribal subjects and destruction of their livelihoods. A Savara woman from Srikakulam adequately articulated:
“I don’t know whether I was (more) free before the act or after the act. Earlier I was a ‘thief’ in the eyes of the law, but learnt to survive. Now I am ‘legal’ and have legally lost my land as the government took all and gave me nothing. We have ‘legally’ been granted ‘two acres’ of community land, whereas all this is ours (pointing to the hills beyond). We reject these titles. We reject these plantations. We will continue to struggle.”
Ramdas, Sagari R, “Women, Forestspaces and the Law: Transgressing the boundaries” (2009) Economic and Political Weekly
Chaturvedi, Medha “Securing Land Rights for India’s Tribes” (2012) The Wall Street Journal
Oxfam, “Land is our life” https://www.oxfamindia.org/featuredstories/land-is-our-life
Ghosh, Biswajit; Choudhuri, Tanima “Gender, Space and Development: Tribal Women in Tripura” (2011) Economic and Political Weekly
Janeesha Singh is a second year law student at Jindal Global Law School.
Featured Image Source: OxfamIndia