Redressing ‘Historical Injustice’ through the Indian Forest Rights Act 2006

The issue of forest rights in India is a major concern by any measure.  It affects forested landscapes that cover over 23% of the country, and the livelihoods of perhaps 200 million citizens, as many as 20% of the population in a democratic polity. Forest landscape dwelling populations, located mainly in a tribal belt across central and eastern areas of the country, are amongst the poorest of the poor. Their poverty reflects a history of institutionalised disenfranchisement; having their customary forest land expropriated, and use rights negated by feudal states, by the colonial state and subsequently by the independent Indian government.  The issue of forest rights has been highly contentious for at least a century and a half, and has intensified in recent years. 

This paper analyses the historical origins of forest rights deprivation and contemporary processes through which local people are seeking to restore their forest rights, taking the case of the Indian Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA hereafter) as an example to illustrate wider issues in historical institutional theory.  The paper explores how the colonial state’s decision to ‘territorialise’ forest landscapes in 1864 through formation of the Imperial Forestry Service represented a critical juncture establishing institutional structures depriving forest people of their customary rights which have shown remarkable persistent ‘path dependency’ despite 50 years of Independence, until the present time.  Although the FRA appears to be a fundamental reform, indeed perhaps a new ‘critical juncture’ in the relationship between forest peoples and the state - the depth and durability of this reform remains uncertain, due primarily to the ‘path dependent’ behaviour of the powerful existing state forest bureaucracies, which remain a major obstacle to realising the pro-poor potentials.