The political agenda of implementing Forest Rights Act 2006: evidences from Indian Sundarban


The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 (FRA) is a landmark statutory law which aims to grant ownership rights and forest management powers to the marginalized forest-dependent communities in India. Our study, conducted in Sundarban Biosphere Reserve (SBR) region of West Bengal, reveals that at particular locations where the act suffers from implementation deficits or lack of coverage, it is imperative to investigate the role of local politics in facilitating or impeding access to forest rights. The study identifies the political drivers which influence the (non) implementation of the act in the SBR. It argues that despite being a rights-based law, the implementation of FRA is deeply implicated within vested political interests at specific geographical locations. The study concludes that a critique of the political economy of forest conservation is inadequate to explain the limitations of FRA implementation.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    An English daily published in Kolkata.

  2. 2.

    Instead of ‘fishermen’ or ‘fisherwomen’, we prefer to use the term ‘fishers’ in this paper, to refer to those practicing fishing in the SBR.

  3. 3.

    In the four tier caste system of India, the scheduled castes occupy the lowest tiers of the hierarchy and were historically regarded as untouchables and profane by the upper castes. Due to their social disadvantage, they are now entitled to certain provisions by the government, the most important of which being the reservation of seats in education and employment opportunities.

  4. 4.

    Left Front government represents coalesce of the left wing parties. In West Bengal, the coalesce includes the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) which forms the largest part, followed by Communist Party of India (CPI), Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and All India Forward Bloc. They came to power in 1977 and had a historic rule for 34 years in West Bengal till 2011. All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) is the opposition party and presently the ruling party in the state. They came to power since 2011, winning 190 out of 294 seats in West Bengal Legislative Assembly.

  5. 5.

    TMC is a regional political party in West Bengal, formed in the year 1998. They won the assembly election of 2011 and are the present ruling party in the state.

  6. 6.

    A nonprofit organization dealing with the rights of the forest-dependent people in Sundarban.

  7. 7.

    Refer to the link:

  8. 8.

    According to Article 366 of the Constitution of India, ‘the STs are such tribes or tribal communities, or parts of or groups within such tribes or tribal communities as are deemed under Article 342 to be scheduled tribes for the purpose of this constitution’. The criteria which specifies a community as ST includes primitive traits, distinct culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact and backwardness (Ministry of Tribal Affairs/MoTA, Government of India).

  9. 9.

    Under the section 2(o), FRA mentions that OTFD means any member or community who has for at least three generations prior to the 13th day of December, 2005, primarily resided in forests and who depend on the forest or forest land for bonafide livelihood needs (MoTA 2006).

  10. 10.

    According to FRA, a gram sabha consists of every adult members of a village, whose population does not exit a total number of 1500. Villagers elect the representatives to form members of the village self-government or the gram panchayat.

  11. 11.

    Refer to FRA, Chapter II, section 3(1).

  12. 12.

    In the given context that we have studied, all of the mentioned categories inhabit the same physical space and depend directly or indirectly on forest-based livelihoods, although the extent of dependence largely varies.

  13. 13.

    A range of other studies also engage with similar observations on JFM as an exemplar of failed decentralization efforts. See Jeffery and Sundar (1999) and Ghate (2009).

  14. 14.

    There are differences between a CTH and a CWH. CWHs are introduced by the FRA, while CTHs have been introduced by the Wildlife Protection Act 2006. While both mandates the introduction of inviolate zones for conservation, with active consent of the stakeholders and the village assembly, there are subtle differences between the two. For details, see Broome et al. (2014:193, 194).

  15. 15.

    This notification clarifies that ‘the implication of the phrase “primarily reside in and who depend on the forest or forest lands for bonafide livelihood needs” appearing in section 2(c) and section 2 (o) of the Act should be seen in reference to the term “bonafide livelihood needs” under section 2(1) (a) of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Rules 2008. In light of this definition, the implication of this phrase is to include those Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers, who have been mainly living in or depending upon the forest land for meeting the needs of their self and family, irrespective of whether their dwelling houses are outside the forest or forest land’.

  16. 16.

    UPA government refers to the United Progressive Alliance coalition of Centre and Left parties, led by Congress.

  17. 17.

    GPs are the lowest tier of the three tier local self-governance organizations (panchayati raj system) in rural India. Their functionaries are elected by the adult members of the village, for a period of 5 years. In West Bengal, gram sansads are the electoral constituencies of each GP.

  18. 18.

    There is a difference between ‘active delta’ and ‘stable delta’ in the Indian Sundarban. By stable delta we mean the islands which are situated upstream, and are less exposed to the tidal currents of the rivers. They are therefore much developed, are near to the cities and have low risks of river erosion. Active deltas on the other hand are the islands located downstream, more near the forests and the mouth of the river. Tidal currents are always inundating them and they are under the constant risk of building and rebuilding by the tidal waves (Jalais 2010: 6).

  19. 19.

    The forest-based livelihoods which are commonly practised by the forest workers include forest fishing for fish and crab collection, honey and bee-wax collection.

  20. 20.

    “Notify Forest Act immediately”, 12 September 2007 Press release, available at

  21. 21.

    According to the notification issued by MoTA (2008), claims for habitation and self-cultivation can only be made in the ‘forest land’, as defined under the act. No revenue lands would be considered for determining the claims.

  22. 22.

    The land acquisition controversies in Singoor and Nandigram of West Bengal centered on the efforts of the CPI-M government to expropriate forcefully, agricultural land from poor farmers, for the pursuit of industrial development. It was one of the major instances of political turmoil which faltered the roots of the 34-year-long ruling government in the state of West Bengal.

  23. 23.

    According to the West Bengal Panchayati Raj Act 1973, a gram unnayan samiti is constituted by a gram sansad, for ensuring active participation of people in implementation, maintenance and equitable distribution of benefits within the members of the particular sansad.

  24. 24.

    Village or ‘gram’ in West Bengal represents an entire area under a gram panchayat, with a constellation of hamlets, not a single one. According to the West Bengal Panchayati Raj Act of 1973 (p. 3), gram sansads are recognized as the electoral constituencies of gram panchayats, while gram sabha refers to a body consisting of persons registered in the electoral rolls of the entire ‘gram’ which falls under a gram panchayat. Such gram sabhas are essentially large, with a constitution of people from several hamlets which forms a particular gram panchayat. Legally, the gram sansads instead of the gram sabha represent hamlets in West Bengal.

  25. 25.

    Record of Rights, also known as khatian, is a document testifying the amount of landholding possessed by a person. It also notes the revenue payable against the land, use of land and other interests on the land like barga, easement etc.

  26. 26.

    For details on the public hearing, see the following website:

  27. 27.

    Boat licence certificate implies a registration certificate to be issued to all registered fishers by the government to carry out fishing within the permitted areas of inland water bodies.

  28. 28.

    For a detailed study on JFM in Sundarban, see Sen and Pattanaik (2017b).

  29. 29.

    Under Satjelia GP, there are 18 gram sansads with 15 functionaries or elected representatives of the panchayat. Each sansad oversees one or two village hamlet and is headed by a functionary.

  30. 30.

    According to FRA, ‘forest villages’ mean settlements established inside the forest area by the forest department for forestry operations, or those converted into forest villages through the forest reservation process (Chapter I, section 2(f)).

  31. 31.

    Prawn seed collectors are usually not included within the group of forest workers, since prawn seed collection can be accomplished by pulling nets along the riverbank of one’s own village and does not necessitate entry inside the forest.

  32. 32.

    The allocation for Project Tiger during the year 2013–2014 was Rs 1245 crore (US$193,322,981.3). STR is a recipient of the financial allocation.


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A preliminary version of this manuscript was presented at the national seminar on ‘Governance, Resource and Livelihoods of Adivasis in India: Implementation of PESA and FRA’, organized by the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (NIRD&PR), Hyderabad, in November 2016. The authors extend their deepest gratitude to Prof. Ajit Menon for his detailed and insightful comments in revising the manuscript. The authors also gratefully acknowledge the anonymous reviewers for their very helpful suggestions and thoughtful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Amrita Sen.

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Sen, A., Pattanaik, S. The political agenda of implementing Forest Rights Act 2006: evidences from Indian Sundarban. Environ Dev Sustain 21, 2355–2376 (2019).

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  • FRA
  • Conservation
  • Forest workers
  • Forest department
  • Politics
  • Sundarban