Will they, or won’t they? Making a case for Adivasi (tribal) rights during the 2024 Indian elections

In the run up to the elections, the case for Adivasi (tribal) rights is seldom centre stage though political players make out a case to woo tribals often. Sabrang India looks at the build-up to the elections with respect to Adivasis and forest rights, with a closer look at Manipur and Jharkhand. 
Image: Scroll.in

On April 4, Chhattisgarh Adivasi leader Sarju Tekam was arrested by security forces from his home in Bastar. The arrest was described as one that violated all set procedures and due processes. Just two months before that, the sitting chief minister of Jharkhand, Hemant Soren from the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha was arrested by the enforcement directorate as well. He is currently still in prison. A stalwart leader belonging to a revered family of leaders which includes Shibu Soren, who were part of the movement that fought for Jharkhand as an independent state, the move was seen by many as one that sought to stifle the opposition.

The recent moves by the BJP-led government such as the dilution of the Forest Rights Act 2006 by the amendments and incursions through the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act of 2023, the clampdown on Adivasi leaders, have led to a growing feeling that Adivasi rights are not being trampled.

As nine states go to polling on April 26, just 20 days away, in the second phase of the Lok Sabha 2024 elections, one crucial issue that determines the lives of about 8.61% of India’s population remains often ignored and undermined.

One of the main issues that the tribal communities in India suffer from is the taking away of land by corporate powers. However, their historical right and relationship with the forest has been recognised by the legal system as well – a legal provision that is at threat today.

Diluting existing provisions

The Forest Rights Act of 2006, also known as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, was created to acknowledge the historical right of India’s Adivasis to forest land that they have inhabited over centuries but whose rights were never officially recorded.

It is estimated that around 100 million Scheduled Tribes continue to reside on or around forest land areas, facing significant economic challenges, particularly exploitation.  The Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) seeks to protect the rights of indigenous forest dwellers including Adivasi’s rights over the forest land.  The Act specifies that Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers have the “right to hold and live in the forest land under the individual or common occupation for habitation or for self-cultivation for livelihood.” It grants them the right to use minor forest produce for their livelihood purposes, as well as the right to conserve, regenerate, or protect forest resources.  Furthermore, it strengthens decentralisation and local governments by empowering the Gram Sabhas with the authority to decide on community and individual claims to forest land.

Thus, the Act addressed the historical injustice faced by forest dwellers whose rights to ancestral lands and habitats were overlooked and furthermore, it recognised that these communities are essential for the survival and sustainability of forest ecosystems. However, these provisions by the FRA were consequently diluted by the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act 2023. The act has been criticised and protested against because it is noted for placing the objectives of developmental projects over the lives of India’ citizens. As elections arrive, it is crucial to examine the recent developments for or against tribal rights – and also whether political parties have paid attention to concerns of India’s indigenous.

A 2023 report by The Hindu stated it was disclosed by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in the Lok Sabha that over 38% of all land claims made under the Act until November 30, 2022, were rejected. According to ministry data, titles were distributed for just over 50% of the total claims submitted. This has been an overriding concern. Many claims to land by Adivasi have been rejected over the years, thus, the provisions of the law do not reach the concerned people.

Furthermore, there seems to be a recent effort by the current central government to shift control to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Issues, such as that of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, that were generally handled by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs are now taken by the environment ministry.

According to the report by The Hindu, when the FRA was enacted in 2006, the government designated the tribal ministry as the primary agency for forest rights matters.

However, the report has claimed that recent advisories issued by the secretaries of both the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and MoEFCC highlight a pattern where the MoEFCC is seen to be assuming a more prominent role in FRA implementation. This shift in decision-making has raised red flags as it appears to undermine the official mandate that designates the tribal ministry as the agency responsible for FRA implementation.

Contesting parties on forest rights

Amidst these rising issues, the Congress party released its manifesto on April 5. It follows up several of the promises that Rahul Gandhi and other Congress leaders made in their electoral campaigns, one of which was to notify Scheduled Area status to areas where Scheduled Tribes are the largest social group. Its manifesto notes, “Congress is committed to notify as ‘Scheduled Area’ all habitations or groups of habitations where ST are the largest social group outside the present Scheduled Areas in all States and Union Territories.” The party has also promised that it would implement the Forest Rights Act effectively with a national mission that has a separate plan and budget for the task. However, despite this inclusion, there is no mention of implementing the FRA, 2006.

The BJP seems to have a tough act to follow. After the arrest of Hemant Soren, former Jharkhand CM, all is not well in Jharkhand. A report by The Hindu has stated that a group of tribals in Jharkhand’s Khunti are not happy with the government and will vote for the INDIA bloc, the current opposition alliance. While the BJP has yet to release its own manifesto, it has called the Congress’ manifesto a ‘bundle of lies.’

However, according to a report by Caravan Magazine, both the Congress and the BJP ‘sidestepped’ Adivasi rights to land in their campaigns. PM Modi cited the example of Draupadi Murmu as being a president from the Adivasi community in his speech, while the Congress party reiterated how they brought out the PESA Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996 The PESA strengthened local self-government and gave powers to the Gram Sabha in Scheduled Areas for natural resources. However, despite it being passed almost 30 years ago, the report asserts that not many states have implemented the act.

What has been the impact of these developments in electoral results in the past?

In 2019, it was reported that while the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance won 12 seats in the Lok Sabha elections, with 11 going to BJP in Jharkhand, however in the following election in 2019, the party only mustered 2 seats. Hemant Soren’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha meanwhile gained 7 more seats and won 20 of the total 28 reserved seats in regions with tribal populations.  Furthermore, 8 of the 11 seats the BJP lost in 2019 were from forest sensitive regions, as per an analysis by Indiaspend.

As Northeast India’s Assam, Manipur, Tripura go to polls in the second phase, the fate of the parties remains to be seen. The region has been fraught with tensions and conflicts. For instance, the northeast is also going to reportedly  bear the brunt  of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023. The new amendments to the Forest Conservation Act, 2023, in the Bill will disproportionately impact the North-eastern states, particularly Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, and Manipur, and reportedly remove their protective cover. The changes could potentially weaken regulations that safeguard these areas from commercial exploitation, and have the potential to increase misuse of land resources.

Furthermore, as Outer Manipur goes to polls, Manipur which has seen ongoing conflict since May 2023 also has a significant population that may express its dissatisfaction with the government. The state has two parliamentary seats with Inner Manipur Parliamentary Constituency and Outer Manipur Parliamentary Constituency, which is a seat reserved for Scheduled Tribes. While BJP and its ally had won one seat in 2014, 2019 saw parties within the NDA alliance contesting and winning. Currently, the Outer Manipur seat is held by Lorho S. Pfoze, of the Naga People’s Front, a party which has been in alliance with the National Democratic Alliance, and will reportedly continue to ally with the BJP in the upcoming elections. In fact, Manipur, may also influence other states. Moreover, as per a 2023 report by the Indian Express, the ethnic conflict in Manipur is said by many to affect BJP’s votes in tribal belts of Maharashtra.


With less than two weeks for polling, how concerned are national parties on land and forest rights for Adivasis?

The case for forest rights in the republic of India: why should the BJP be worried?

SabrangIndia Special Report: Adivasi v/s Vanvasi, an identity imposition on India’s indigenous

Assembly elections 2023: Semifinals for 2024?

How Not To Remember Birsa Mund



Related Articles