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Walking in the forest near Ramgarh’s Jitra Tungri hamlet seems straightforward at first. But soon it turns into a strenuous trudge through knee-high grass and brambles, dodging the occasional snake and avoiding what looks like a gaping crater.
The cavity in the earth is due to coal mine subsidence; locals manage to avoid it and all the other perils and reach the top of the hill without batting an eyelid while I stumble and trip along in their wake.
“How on Earth did a JCB [earthmover] get here?” I wonder about a construction vehicle that dug trenches atop the hill earlier this year. This is where the district forest department has dug up the farms that these villagers were cultivating, planting trees to compensate against a forest cut down somewhere else.
"Everything has been snatched away and we have been pushed towards death. What will we do if there is nothing to eat? If I migrate, who will look after my family here?" asked Binod Rajwar, a resident of the hamlet.
Rajwar, in common with his fellow residents of Jitra Tungri, is one of the victims of afforestation--a national government scheme wherein diversion of forests for a project in one place is compensated for by planting double the area of degraded forest land or equivalent non-forest land elsewhere.
The afforestation in question has affected people’s farming, pastoralism and other forest-dependent activities which fall under individual or community forest rights as enshrined in the landmark Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 commonly known as Forest Rights Act or FRA.
In this instance, afforestation has been done on 22 hectares near the hamlet--an area roughly half the size of Vatican City--to compensate for forests elsewhere that had been cut down for mining. The issue here is that these new forests are coming up in areas that were traditionally used by locals for cultivation, for accessing forest produce, for grazing livestock and even for burying their dead. Therein lies the problem, as the legal rights of the forest dwellers come into conflict with the forest department’s interpretation of the law’s mandate.
Earlier this year, the Jharkhand forest department dug pits and trenches in land under cultivation near this hamlet and planted trees which, locals say, are of no use to them. The trenches prevent bullock carts or tractors from accessing local farmlands, forcing the farmers to stop cultivation and pushing them towards penury and destitution.
The majority of Jitra Tungri’s population belongs to the scheduled tribe category. The jungle is an inseparable part of their tribal identity. Now, the loss of a forest in one part of the district has upended lives in another.
The people of Jitra Tungri tried pointing the forest department officials towards alternative plots that are less suitable for farming. In a bid to save their farms, they even planted saplings in places that would not require large trenches. But, they claim, the department bulldozed through all opposition.
“Simply writing letters doesn’t do anything,” Ramgarh Divisional Forest Officer Nitish Kumar responded to the villagers’ charges. “When we invited them for meetings, they did not engage with us. Even today, if they get titles to the forest land and show us the documents, we will consider it.”
In Bachra village in the neighboring Hazaribagh district, a group of villagers similarly claim to have been robbed of their farmland, and therefore their livelihood, due to another compensatory afforestation project. Those belonging to the scheduled tribe category, who make up a statistical majority of the local population, have been opposing the plantation; another group, made up of those from the "Other Backward Classes" (OBC) category, do not use those farmlands, are a statistical minority in the village and have been supporting the afforestation scheme.
Green and clean?
This is not the first time forest rights in India have come in conflict with controversial plantation schemes, as IndiaSpend reported in 2019. Many policies in India are inherently at odds with the FRA, leaving people’s rights to the subjective interpretation of local administration, experts say.
Officially, India’s forest cover stands at 21.7%, registering an increase of 1,540 sq km in the 2021 forest assessment as compared to the 2019 assessment. The eastern Indian state of Jharkhand (the state’s name literally translates to "land of trees") has 29.8% of its land under forests, higher than the national average.
Between 2008-09 and 2022-23, India approved 305,000 hectares of forest land to be diverted for non-forest use for 17,301 projects. Around one-fifth of these forests--58,282 hectares--were lost to mining alone in this period.
In the same period, Indian states and territories undertook compensatory afforestation (CA) on 934,000 hectares, environment minister Bhupender Yadav told Parliament on August 7, 2023.
However, the national forest numbers have been controversial for years, with experts insisting that the assessment does not paint the correct picture and pointing to four crucial issues that undermine the data.
The first problem lies in the definition of "forest." The Forest Survey of India (FSI) uses satellite imagery and algorithmic interpretation to classify vegetated areas into "very dense," "moderately dense" and "open" forest. The issue is that FSI classifies all patches of trees with a canopy density of 10% or more as forests, which in practice means that the FSI includes monoculture plantations such as coconut, rubber, coffee and timber in its calculation of "forested areas."
Such classification, experts have repeatedly argued, is classic "greenwashing," with the FSI--whose report says that the forest-rich northeastern states of India have cumulatively lost 1,020 sq km of forests--making up for this loss by categorizing monoculture plantations as "forests."
A related issue, experts say, is that the FSI does not put its forest cover data in the public domain but merely provides topline numbers--thus, there is no independent oversight and verification of the FSI’s claims. Researcher M.D, Madhusudan pointed out that this leads to glaring discrepancies, which were further underlined in a report in The Hindu dating back to March 2023.
Experts therefore argue that India’s actual forest cover might be less than official numbers, even though India’s stated aim is to increase total forest cover to 33% of its land area, and it has committed to maintain an additional carbon sink equivalent to 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.
The money trail
The national government undertakes afforestation through various schemes such as Green India Mission, Namami Gange, and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. States, too, have their own schemes. The Jharkhand government had announced its target of planting 25 million saplings in the 2023 monsoon season. This is in addition to the afforestation already undertaken in Jitra Tungri, Bachra and other hamlets in the region.
Of all these schemes, the most lucrative is the cash-rich Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF). When a public or private entity makes an application to cut down a forest for a project, the permission given to them comes with the caveat that they have to pay for compensating it. Over the years, it was observed that there was under-utilization of the money collected towards compensatory afforestation by states, and so, the Supreme Court in 2001 ordered the establishment of a CAF and a Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA).
In 2006, separate bank accounts were opened in which the compensatory levies (money paid by companies or agencies towards the forests they diverted) were deposited, and an ad hoc authority was established for the management of this fund. In 2016, the government enacted the CAF Act and, after its rules were formalized in 2018, an amount equivalent to US$6.5 billion from this ad-hoc authority was brought under government control. Now, CAMPA is tasked with managing and utilizing the fund.
The management of CAF was controversial even before the act took effect. In 2013, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the government’s auditor, released its report on India’s track record of compensatory afforestation, wherein it flagged “serious shortcomings in regulatory issues related to diversion of forest land, the abject failure to promote compensatory afforestation, the unauthorized diversion of forest land in the case of mining and the attendant violation of the environmental regime.”
An expert, speaking to IndiaSpend on condition of anonymity, said, “CAF funds are blood money, because we have already lost those forests and this money is supposed to help compensate for them. No plantation can truly make up for lost forests, and even those plantations are not happening in earnest.”
Other experts have flagged the CAF Act saying that “it goes further than any other law in the past in denying tribals’ [Indigenous people's] rights in the forests, grabbing their village forests, pastures and commons, and intensifying their forcible relocation from protected forests,” something clearly visible noticed first-hand during field trips to Jharkhand.
Coal, forests, forest rights
Jharkhand, one of India’s coomiest states, has diverted 15,691 hectares of forest land for coal mining and other non-forest use between 2008-09 and 2022-23. Mining is one of the largest causes of forest diversion in India, and a 2019 study across more than 300 Indian districts had found that districts that produced coal, iron or limestone saw on average 450 sq km higher forest loss compared to those that did not produce the same minerals.
Notably, Jharkhand has also done better in compensating for deforestation. It tops the list for forests compensated from 2022 to 2023, standing at 17,600 hectares. For 2023-24, Jharkhand has received the equivalent of US$33.86 million for carrying out CA.
One of the coal mines in question in Ramgarh, where Jitra Tungri falls, is the Giddi A mine leased to Central Coalfields Limited, a Government of India undertaking. The old mine had diverted 1.44 hectares of forests and compensated for it by authorizing the forest department to establish tree plantations on twice the amount of degraded forest land on its behalf.
Similarly, forest diverted for the Jharkhand Open Cast Mine and for an arch bridge led to a total forest diversion of 10.87 hectares, or area equivalent to around 20 football fields, within Ramgarh, forest department officials said. Taken together, they compensated for these three diversions by planting trees on 22 hectares near Jitra Tungri, or an area equivalent to around 41 football fields. They planted 36,652 saplings at a cost of about US$35,000 in total, per officials.
Before undertaking afforestation, the department approached the village Mukhiya (headman), Ramesh Ram, and asked him to hold a gram sabha (village council) meeting. A gram sabha needs 10% of its total members to be present, failing which it is adjourned. However, the sabha was held with just 16 people, and it gave permission to the forest department to undertake tree plantations.
“The forest department came here several times, but had to turn around because of our opposition,” said Dhaneshwar Rajwar, a resident of the hamlet. “Then they brought the full force of the system and turned this place into a war zone. When we opposed again, they showed us a handwritten paper (the one that was signed by the gram sabha at the end of its meeting) which had very general words about plantation to be undertaken in the village, without any more details. This village has a population of around 500, but only 16 people were called for gram sabha which is against the rule.”
Ram now claims that he did not know where the plantation was going to be undertaken, its scale, and how it would affect people. He has joined the villagers in opposing the plantation. The question of how he held a gram sabha despite the absence of a quorum remains unanswered.
"But with the trees will come their law"
Basanti Devi is part of a family of ten. Her family used to farm a piece of forest land, growing rice and a local millet called Kulthi, among other crops.
“Now we can neither take bullocks nor tractors there,” Basanti Devi said. “The way they have dug a trench, the land is of no use to us. We are now worried about how we will get by, since I have small children. My in-laws have been living here and cultivating this land for generations.”
Diglal Rajwar had already sown Kulthi seeds when the afforestation process began. “We lost a lot of seeds and money, only the land where rice was planted was left for us,” he said. “That’s why we will have to fight. That land is everything. We have to fight now, it will be too late later.”
Local villagers pointed out that the species of trees planted on the land are useless to them. “Those are the kind of trees where even birds won’t sit or nest, even grass won’t grow beneath them,” said Basanti Devi.
The afforestation program, which appears to focus on quantity over quality and environmental sense, has been criticized by experts for introducing non-native saplings into various forested landscapes. This, experts have pointed out, is a double blow: Not only are the non-native trees of no economic use to local Indigenous people, these trees also quickly overwhelm the environment at the expense of native trees and shrubs.
Given their understanding of the nearby habitat, residents of Jitra Tungri hamlet decided to take matters into their own hands and undertake their own plantation. “At least that way our land would have been saved,” said village council member Chhaya Rajwar. “We were trying to spare our useful land and use the rest for plantation.”
The villagers tried to assert their agency in the kind of species taken up for plantation, but it was not recognized. They claim to have planted around 30,000 saplings, most of them mahua, or butter tree, and other fruit-bearing trees, on the forest land themselves. These were allegedly discarded by the forest department which prefers to plant its handpicked varieties, oblivious to the part native trees play in the traditions and culture of the tribal people.
Resident Sheela Marandi said that in her Santhali community, there is a tradition wherein the woman marries the mahua tree first before marrying the groom. She is disappointed that the saplings prepared by villagers in the nursery, including mahua, Sakhua and other fruit-bearing trees, were discarded by the forest department.
“There is genthi, tena, barjariya, jamun, kend, ghalwa, bel, mahua, khokhdi, putka. There is karel --these are all forest produce that are beneficial to us, we forage them from the jungle,” said Sumitra Devi, an elderly villager. “We eat some of it and also sell it. Mahua’s flowers are dried, its oil is used as a medicine for treating stomach ache, headache. In weddings also, these trees have a lot of importance. Even for snakebites, we know which herbs to use. That is how much the jungle matters to us.“
While the locals have not been explicitly prohibited from accessing forest produce, they want the department to plant more of these trees, particularly mahua, that are important to them.
The district forest department confirmed that villagers are no longer permitted to cultivate that land or take animals there for grazing.
“It is not a bad thing to plant trees, but with the trees will come their law,” said village councilmember Chhaya Rajwar, who claims to have been kept in the dark about the gram sabha in question.
She is worried that their cattle will venture into the land out of habit and the department will file cases against villagers. Cattle trespass in a reserved forest or protected forest is an offense according to the Indian Forest Act, 1927. Hay for cattle, firewood for burial and access to the farmed land were subjects that came up repeatedly in interaction with residents of this hamlet.
The law versus the land
Ramgarh’s District Forest Officer Nitish Kumar has countered the villagers’ denouncements: “What happened in Jitra Tungri was that people did not want to give up their farm lands. We are supposed to only consult the gram sabha; we do not require consent, especially when they want to do things unilaterally.”
According to Kumar, the department held several meetings to take people into confidence, even invited them to his office, and told them that genuine forest rights claims will be settled.
“I said I will come to the village, give me a date. They didn’t. I contacted local public representatives but people didn’t want to listen. If you just claim rights without engaging with the law…. Nobody was ready, they have an encroachment agenda.”
On the subject of species to be planted, Kumar’s response unwittingly underlined the point the villagers were making about the forest department preferring quick-growing varieties to trees endemic to the area. The official told IndiaSpend that planting trees like mahua “is very tough.” Such fruit-bearing trees take 15-20 years to reach maturity, he said, and there is often theft of saplings before that occurs. He said the department tries to maintain a 60/40 ratio of hardy trees and fruit-bearing trees.
Kumar stated that not all of the people who claim eligibility for forest rights are entitled to it as per the FRA: “I have not denied burial rights or access to medicinal plants--they always have access to that. Now if you want to do farming, it is allowed up to the extent as was happening before 2005 [as per FRA], not more. If you had two acres before 2005 but have 20 acres now, I can’t give 20 acres, I can only give two.”
“Even today, we are ready to consider genuine claims,” said Kumar, referring to individual forest rights which are acknowledged by title.
The FRA covers the rights of forest-dwelling scheduled tribes “who primarily reside in and who depend on the forests or forest lands for bona fide livelihood needs” and of other traditional forest dwellers, meaning any member or community that has for at least three generations prior to December 13, 2005 primarily resided in and depended on the forest or forest land for bona fide livelihood needs.
The residents of Jitra Tungri and Bachra claim that they are covered under these definitions. Experts and activists point out that the government has not done anything to secure forest rights in cases like these. In neighboring Chhattisgarh, where nearly every third person is Indigenous, people routinely receive ownership or titles to less forest land under FRA than they claim, as IndiaSpend reported in October.
“The issues in fact are getting more and more complicated at the ground level,” said Tushar Dash, an independent researcher working on forest rights. “There is no compliance of the Forest Rights Act at all. In fact, when the CAMPA Act was proposed in Parliament, MPs [members of Parliament] had proposed to include compliance of FRA and consent of the gram sabha in it. That proposal was not considered then, and an assurance was given that it will be included in the rules, which also did not happen.”
Dash pointed out that the ministry and the state forest departments are putting certain conditions while approving the new annual plans of operations, the states’ CAMPA plans. “They have started mentioning that wherever CAMPA projects are getting implemented, prior to implementation the state authorities have to ensure compliance of FRA procedures and also consultation of gram sabha. That is on paper, but we have found that on the ground, for example in Odisha, there is no mechanism in place to safeguard and protect rights, to see that FRA is not violated.”
Sharachchandra Lele, distinguished fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment who researches forest governance, said that this is a story that keeps on repeating itself, and he has seen the forest department proceed with plantation on land where individual forest rights claims were still pending. Once the cultivated land gets planted over, as has happened in the case of Bachra and Jitra Tungri, the recognition of cultivation rights becomes almost impossible, said Lele.
“Moreover, if it is forest land inside the revenue boundary of a village, it is almost a given that it falls within the customary boundary of the village and hence it is their Community Forest Resource (CFR) area. Even if the CAMPA process does not explicitly talk about gram sabha consent, if CFR rights were recognized on that land, then the gram sabha would be the final authority. It is because forest rights are not recognised that the forest department treats all forest land as theirs,” said Lele, while also pointing out that sub-divisional and district-level committees that are supposed to adjudicate IFR and CFR claims don’t meet regularly and therefore it is the forest department which takes de facto decisions about titles.
Caste and forest rights
Chhaya Rajwar’s fears of the forest department filing cases against villagers for cattle grazing on plantations found echoes around 60 km away, in Hazaribagh’s Bachra village.
Hazaribagh district is around 2.5 hours away by road from the state capital Ranchi. If one starts from Hazaribagh’s Katkamsandi block, the winding road to Bachra village takes almost as long, with not a soul in sight. No buses or other vehicles can be seen, other than the occasional motorbike, as the road traverses the moderately dense jungles of Katkamsandi. After dusk, the only lights to be seen are the single yellow bulbs inside houses.
The region is desolate, and rumors of left-wing extremism contribute to the desolation. A number of outfits have been operating or were operating in the past in certain remote and poorly connected pockets of the country, and parts of Jharkhand used to be considered plagued by extremism.
When IndiaSpend visited the area, it was a little after noon, and some locals had gathered at an under-construction house to talk about their plight.
In December 2022, the forest department officers and staff, along with heavy machinery, descended on the area in force, backed by a police escort. What followed was a months-long protest to prevent the department from undertaking plantations here.
“We had around one bigha (0.610 acre) of land that we were cultivating for generations,” said local resident Devanti Devi. “Since losing the only farmland we had, my husband’s wage earnings of Rs 200 [roughly US$2.40] a day is all the income we have, and it is not sufficient. We are a family of six, including two children. We are protesting, but they are not listening.”
Caste introduces a further complexity into the mix. In Bachra, there are natives from the Bhogta and Oraon ethnic groups that fall into India's "scheduled tribes" category. The village is also home to Mehtas and Ranas, who fall into the OBC category.
In this region, farming in forested land is being done by "tribal" peoples, whereas the Mehtas and Ranas own their own farmlands. Thus, while the Bhogta and Oraon populations protest the afforestation program, the Mehtas and Ranas, by and large, feel little need since they are not directly impacted by the schemes. The schism within the village makes it impossible for the residents to put up a united front.
Sohan Singh Bhogta, an elderly man with a scraggy white beard who is opposed to the plantation, said, “At first we were eating this much, now we are eating this much,” gesticulating a shrinking motion with his hands.
“On the day they first came for plantation, all of us gathered here,” said Sunil Singh Bhogta, 32. “Things got so heated that many of us got injured in the protests. Every time they came, they brought a big force."
“This went on for four months. My plot is around one acre, where a big trench has now been dug. On one side, they planted trees while on the other, they left a small parcel for me. The same has happened with my brothers,” he added.
In search of work, Sunil migrated around 1,800 km west to the town of Uran, Mumbai soon after he was interviewed by IndiaSpend. He has a US$240 loan to repay and mouths to feed.
Basanti Devi, who was part of the village forest rights committee, said that the committee was not notified about the plantation. “What if they take away our houses next?” she asks. “They had threatened to demolish our houses [built on forest land] in the past. My rights have been snatched, something I had never thought was possible.”
The village Mukhiya, Prakash Kesri, said the locals are now surviving on government rations. “This area has very few labor opportunities, which means migration, just like the way Sunil has to migrate,” Kesri said. “The tree plantation has forced people to the brink of starvation. I am afraid people will be forced to die by suicide.”
The afforestation in Bachra is to offset forests that were diverted elsewhere, the district forest office has confirmed, but the officials did not share details of the project, including which deforested areas are sought to be compensated by this afforestation, how many saplings were planted and at what cost.
Saba Alam, divisional forest officer of Hazaribagh West division, said that 50% of plantation activities in the division right now are CA, and confirmed that the plantation in Bachra was also undertaken under the CAF Act.
“They have some houses there and they claim they have given an FRA application for a title, but we have no knowledge of that application,” Alam said, referring to the protestors. “From what I gather, there were only five to six houses there before 2005, now there are 18-19 houses. We have not touched the houses."
"I don’t think there were permanent farms either, but I'm not sure about that. After the FRA enactment there may be some kind of encroachment,” he added.
He claimed that the villagers were consulted about the tree plantation, but IndiaSpend asked to share supporting documents, Alam did not respond to calls or messages.
Birender Rana, a representative of the minority OBC faction of the village, reached out to IndiaSpend and claimed that the people who claim to be suffering are actually encroaching and have no forest rights.
“They have been living here only for eight to 10 years,” said Rana. “They have applied for titles several times. If their claims were genuine, they would have been given titles. They have a lot of land other than this forest land.”
Rana claimed that the forest department had received due permission from the gram sabha before undertaking the plantation work. He, too, did not share any documents to support this claims.
Consent versus consultation
Jharkhand Jungle Bachao Andolan’s Sanjay Basu Malik said he has been observing the kinds of violations currently on display in Bachra and Jitra Tungri for decades now.
“Often it happens that the forest department selects such land for plantation that is claimable, where people can apply for individual or community forest rights in the future [as allowed by FRA],” Malik said. “In many instances, people have uprooted those saplings, court cases were filed. Now the department digs trenches to alienate people from the forests.”
Malik argued that it should be the gram sabha that leads the afforestation drive, and that it should have a right over the CA funds, whereas in practice it is barely even consulted as mandated by the CAF Act.
A key issue that fuels the existing confusion is that there are various laws surrounding forest lands, and these laws typically are not congruent. “The biggest challenge with the FRA,” says environmental lawyer Arpitha Kodiveri, “is that we've not created harmonizing legal principles in other forest laws."
“So essentially, the FRA is like a standalone Act, whereas the Indian Forest Act, the Forest Conservation Act and even the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act very seldom mention how forest rights will be protected under those legislations. And so you have a situation where it's almost like the laws are already in conflict,” Kodiveri noted.
IndiaSpend visited Jitra Tungri on September 17, which is the last day of the month of Bhadrapada in the Hindu calendar. On this day, pujas and rituals are held in honor of Vishwakarma, who, according tor Hindu mythology, was the architect of the gods.
People pray to Vishwakarma and perform rituals to honor their workplace and the tools of their trade, such as tractors, plows and other farming implements. Binod Rajwar’s family had decorated its tractor in colorful streamers for the occasion, with everyone dressed in festive finery.
Despite the celebratory atmosphere, Binod is worried. His family has lost half the land it was cultivating due to the forest department’s trenches. Its income has reduced by over 50%, and Binod and his brothers will have to seek out manual labor to support the household.
“We fought as much as we could, now I cannot see a way out,” said Rajwar, as he watched his toddler son playing nearby.
This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network for the "It's a Wash" special report and was lightly edited for clarity. The original story can be found here.
Banner photo: In Jitra Tungri, Jharkhand, trees planted on forest land near the village have directly reduced people's incomes / Credit: Tanvi Deshpande/IndiaSpend.