Will forest rights issues trim the BJP’s Lok Sabha tally in tribal areas?

In 2019, the party won most of the forest rights-sensitive, tribal-dominated seats. Experts say forest laws and policies have been weakened.

WrittenBy:Tanvi Deshpande& IndiaSpend
Tribal women in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. It was among the seats that were not won by the BJP in 2019.

Reflections from 2019

As forests stand threatened, what about the lives and livelihoods of those who depend on them? How have they traditionally voted? What do election data from 2019 show?

Independent forest researcher Soz, who only uses her first name and who worked on the research report mentioned above, said, “It’s been 17 years this Act has been around (FRA), we don’t even see its 20-30 percent potential been reached. The attempt [in this research] is to use election, census data to understand what is the potential of forest rights that can be mapped and how significantly can they be an issue in each constituency.”

This group found that of India’s 545 parliamentary constituencies, FRA is an issue ‘at all’ in 270. But if those seats where it has marginal value are removed, seats where FRA can be a key subject come down to 153.

Of these 153, the BJP won a majority of seats in 2019 at 103 and was a runner-up in 18. The Congress won only 11 seats and was a runner-up in 79. The remaining seats were won by regional parties such as in Andhra Pradesh (5), Maharashtra (10), Odisha (11), Telangana (5) and others.

Breaking this down further, of the 153, 45 constituencies are of critical value, with the highest number of forest rights-eligible electors (people eligible to vote and eligible for forest rights).

Data show that in the Scheduled Tribe-reserved constituency of Bastar, 72 percent electors are eligible for FRA rights and Congress won this seat in 2019. Jharkhand’s Khunti and Chatra had 68 percent and 67 percent eligible, and were both won by BJP. The numbers were similar in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandla and Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli-Chimur constituencies which were won by the BJP. Odisha’s Keonjhar, with 72 percent electors eligible for forest rights, voted for the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) whereas Mayurbhanj with 74 percent eligible voters voted for the BJP. Nabarangpur with 84 percent eligible voted for the BJD.

“Forest rights issues have always been a political issue,” said Tushar Dash, one of the forest researchers who worked on the report. “If you look at the assembly elections in various states last year, for example in Chhattisgarh, Congress spoke about forest rights but also did not deliver on saving Hasdeo forest. It lost [partially because of that]. It won in Telangana partially because it campaigned on subjects such as rights of Podu (forest) land cultivators or the issue of plantation on community land. Forest rights are also economic issues for people in India.”

Dash believes that FRA implementation has been seriously undermined so far, citing mass rejection of forest title claims, a large number of villages deprived of community titles, issue of ownership of minor forest produce and communities’ access to it.

Poll promises

So far, the Congress party has promised six resolutions “to protect the Jal Jungle Zameen of our Adivasis”. These include a national mission for the effective implementation of FRA through a dedicated FRA division, separate budget and action plans.

“We will ensure settlement of all pending FRA claims within 1 year, and establish a process for the review of all rejected claims within 6 months,” Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge posted on platform X (previously Twitter) on March 12.

The resolutions also include promises on notifying scheduled areas, establishing 'village government’ and 'autonomous district government’ as envisaged in PESA, minor forest produce to be covered in MSP among others.

So far there is no election promise from BJP’s national leadership on FRA/PESA strengthening.

Father George Monapilly, a forest rights activist from Jharkhand, said that any party promising to protect forest rights needs to strengthen the gram sabha first.

“The entire system does not recognise the authority of the gram sabha, which has court-like powers as per FRA. The sabha can even reject the recommendations of the forest department. But all over India, no state is upholding its authority. Government needs to strengthen the sabha first if it is serious about improving FRA implementation,” said Monapilly.

This report is republished with permission from IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit. It has been lightly edited for style and clarity.


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