Widow Phulkuwar Bai, a Gond Adivasi woman who lives in Banskund village of Kanker district, received individual land title in 2008 on three acres under the Forest Rights Act. Today, she cultivates paddy, black gram, horse gram and ragi to support her family comprising three children and mother in-law.

Historically, tribal communities and traditional forest dwellers have been dependent on forest resources for habitation, cultivation and livelihood for centuries. In recognition of this, the Forest Rights Act was passed in 2006. But in Chhattisgarh, a state with 45 percent forest cover and a vast tribal population, several issues have come to light.

As land is mostly owned by men in India, women have been left out. But handing over land titles can bring several advantages to single women.

Hemlal Kunjam presides over a meeting to prepare a management plan for the protection of the forest.

At her home in Banskund, Bai recounted that she received a house under the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awas Yojna, previously the Indira Awas Yojana, a housing scheme for the rural poor. Land levelling work was also carried out on her plot under MGNREGA that guarantees right to work. “Women generally skip gram sabha meetings. But I used to visit the panchayat where I got vital information,” Bai said.

Besides her, five other single women have also received land titles in Banskund. A few others across different villages of Kanker, a district in the Bastar sub-division of Chhattisgarh, are also beneficiaries under the Forest Rights Act.

Residents of Badegudra village in Dantewada during a meeting.

In Astra village Sarita Bai, a widow in her 40s, received land rights on 1.97 acres. Chargaon resident Anusuya Kawre got five acres. Like Bai, she too is a widow. In Barwi village, Ramotin Hichami received less than an acre and elderly Sukhbati Potai from Barbaspur got 1.5 acres.

Single women, which include widows, never married women, abandoned ones and even the destitute, are vulnerable in a patriarchal society like India without land ownership. Many are left at the mercy of their families. Thus individual land titles can ensure them a life of dignity.

In Chhattisgarh, which faces Assembly elections later this year, there is at present more focus on the distribution of community forest resource rights which ensures collective ownership to communities over forest. But single women will benefit more from individual land titles in their names, said Bijay, the national convener of Bharat Jan Andolan.

Residents of Badegudra village in Dantewada during a meeting.

Lack of knowledge about the Forest Rights Act often hampers women from filing claims. Pawara Kunjam, who works for non-profit Pradan in Kanker, initially faced problems. “It was difficult to make women understand about the Act in a male-dominated gram sabha. Women’s self-help groups helped in dissemination of knowledge,” she said.

Struggle is not unknown to Kunjam, who is also a single woman. She fought a long-drawn battle over the custody of her daughter after being abandoned. A resident of Astra village, the feisty woman explained that either many women are unable to fill up claim forms or don’t want to be involved in the process. They think men should bear the responsibility of being considered heads of households in traditional societies.

Phulkuwar Bai (left) with Pawara Kunjam

According to workers involved in explaining the importance of the Forest Rights Act at the grassroots level, individual land titles are important. Harish Chhatri, who works with the community in Mohla-Manpur-Chowki district recently carved out of Rajnandgaon, said individual titles for single women can help them eke out a living.

But as individual rights have been put on the backburner many people are in difficulty and single women the most. “If people can’t have lands why will they protect the forest? Communities cannot survive only on minor forest produce. They need lands for cultivation too,” said activist Gangaram Paikra.

According to workers involved in explaining the importance of the Forest Rights Act at the grassroots level, individual land titles are important.

The preference for community forest resource rights can be an election strategy to gain tribal support in view of the polls. A senior forest official posted in the Bastar region, who refused to be quoted, admitted that the government is promoting community rights over individual ones. He explained that it has its own advantage as ownership of forests lies with the community and in such cases they can help the department in tackling hunting and encroachment.

Social worker Yogendra Pratap Singh, who runs the Jankalyan Samajik Sansthan in Rajnandgaon district, said there is a feeling that collective ownership would benefit the entire community whereas individual land titles serve a few.

Undoubtedly community rights provide easy access to forests for the collection of minor forest produce, the lifeline of tribals, in Chhattisgarh. Masauri village in Dantewada received its right in 2021 on 814 hectares of forest. In the village, collection of mahua flowers, tendu leaves and tamarind is happening through women’s self-help groups but there is still a certain degree of forest department’s control.

To tide over this crisis, in Badegudra village, about 40 km from Masauri, people are willing to take direct control of tendu leaf collection and sale to be aided by the gram sabha. Badegudra received community forest resource rights on 1956.442 hectares in 2022.

Be it individual or community rights, Chhattisgarh has seen almost 50 percent rejection of claims under the Forest Rights Act. It impacts communities who depend on farming and minor forest produce.

Resident Hemlal Kunjam is busy holding gram sabha meetings to prepare a management plan and help women sell tendu directly by placing them in the forefront. “Women feel shy as they aren’t much educated. Many of them should act as leaders but they backtrack.”

Across Chhattisgarh, many organisations are helping communities file claims under the community forest resource rights by initiating GPS mapping inside forests. Many are taking elderly people during the exercise as they know the boundary of villages.

Be it individual or community rights, Chhattisgarh has seen almost 50 percent rejection of claims which impacts marginalised communities and single women headed households. Government data shows as on November 2022, 4,02,292 claims were rejected out of 9,22,346 received in Chhattisgarh. This was in response to a question asked in the Rajya Sabha in February this year.

The feeling that in the name of land titles encroachment in forest areas is increasing has taken a strong hold among many. “When the Act was launched, many people filed for claims and those were recognised. Now in every six months more claims are being raised. Though a team is there to ascertain their validity, sometimes the forest department is forced to give in,” a source said on the condition of anonymity to this reporter when she visited Bijapur.

In Kesla village which comes under the Kakaipar gram panchayat of Mohla-Manpur-Chowki district, 45 claimants have received individual land titles so far. But many got less than what was originally claimed.

Chhattisgarh has 45 percent forest cover and a vast tribal population.

Puranikram Netam from Kesla’s Netampara hamlet had demanded three acres but got only an acre about 10 years back. Chanpuran Amela got two acres and had demanded 2.5 acres in his original claim. “I again claimed it in the name of my wife but nothing happened. A few claimants still haven’t got land titles in the village,” Netam said. Kesla is a Gond-dominated village and many grow millets and paddy.

Bhubaneshwar-based independent researcher Tushar Dash pointed out that often claims are rejected in an arbitrary manner. “In most cases, it is a wrongful rejection. In some cases, claimants do not get what they claimed for in the document.”

DEEPANWITA GITA NIYOGI is an independent journalist. Views expressed are the writer’s own. The story was reported with the help of the Howard G. Buffett grant offered by the International Women’s Media Foundation. All photos taken by the writer.

Cover Photograph ; In Kesla village under the Kakaipar gram panchayat of Mohla-Manpur-Chowki district, many claimants have received land less than what was originally claimed for.