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 (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 FRA is more than the margin of victory in more than 95 percent of the seats.
This implies that any political party that promises effective implementation of the FRA 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.
FRA, 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 percent) are tribespeople. Ever since its enactment, FRA 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 6 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 FRA and more than 20 percent of their respective electorates affected by the law.
In the 2014 general elections, the ruling BJP had won about 59 percent of these 133 seats; the Congress had secured 4 percent, though it was the runner-up in 62 percent of seats.
In its manifesto for the 2018 assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, the Congress promised to implement the FRA. It won 68 percent 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 percent seats, as per the CFR-LA’s assembly election analysis.
“BJP remains extremely vulnerable to a campaign based around Forest Rights,” the analysis says.
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, FRA 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 percent of India’s forest area, and bigger than the area of Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh combined–are covered by FRA 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 FRA, 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.