Forest rights : the micro-politics of decentralisation and forest tenure reform in tribal India

P. Bose

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Forest rights are of utmost importance for the future of forest initiatives, be it for resource use, management, and conservation, or for climate change adaptation and mitigation. The growing trend towards acknowledging the relevance of the sustainable use and conservation of forests is intertwined with the recognition of the forest rights of people who have traditionally depended on the forests for sustenance – especially marginal indigenous and tribal people. Consequently, any decentralisation and forest tenure policy reform must include those who have been marginalised from their traditional forest rights. Forest tenure reform is arguably different from previous agrarian reform, but it has to some extent the same underlying rights-based approach. Given that decentralised forest tenure policy reform is relatively new, there is increasing need to study its implications for the individual and collective rights of forest-dependent people and to analyse concepts such as tenure, property, and access. The implications of forest tenure rights are extremely important, especially in those countries where forest-dependent people’s rights have not been recognised by the state. India’s changing forest tenure reform may have several implications for forest-dependent ethnic minority communities – the Scheduled Tribes – dwelling in and around forest lands.

This thesis takes an analytical as well as an empirical approach to show how decentralisation and forest tenure policy reform have created new forms of forest rights through new institutions and authority that have resulted in contrasting outcomes – individual and collective, including and excluding people, peaceful negotiations and conflicts, etc. – for forest-dependent Bhil tribal people. It encompasses the historical trajectory of the legislative and political mechanisms that contributed to the categorisations of the current day ‘forest land’ and ‘scheduled tribe’ (used interchangeably with ‘tribal people’). This thesis focuses primarily on the emerging – sometimes unintended – consequences of political decentralisation and new forest tenure legislation for marginalised tribal forest people in India. By analysing a variety of past and contemporary legislation on decentralisation and forest tenure reform in tribal India, such as Joint Forest Management, Panchayati Raj, and the Forest Rights Act, it initiates discussion on the consequences of these changes from the perspective of Bhil tribal people at different levels: the gram panchayat, the household, and the individual.

In Chapter 1, I introduce the research topics – decentralisation and forest tenure reform – central to this thesis. I elaborate on the research problem and micro-politics as a conceptual framework to analyse the four key research questions that guide the individual chapters. I discuss the main contributions in the literature around the concepts of the micro-politics framework – governmentality, institutional pluralism, authority, citizenship, and access – to show what the chapters contribute analytically. In addition, I set out the methodology of this research, explaining the background of the forest-dependent Bhil tribal people from semi-arid western India, and the data used for individual chapters, along with the different outputs emanating from this research. Specifically, four key questions guide the research: How has the history of forest legislation shaped the current decentralisation process and forest tenure reform in tribal India (chapter 2)? To what extent does the new formal tenure arrangement add value to, contradict, or dominate existing local authority in collective forest management (chapter 3)? In what way does forest tenure reform influence tribal households’ perspectives on individual forest tenure claims and their idea of citizenship (chapter 4)? How are tribal women’s forest-related rights determined by the new decentralised forest tenure reform (chapter 5)?

History plays a significant role in providing an in-depth understanding of the current state of affairs regarding decentralisation and forest governance. India’s British colonial past continues to linger in post-colonial modern society. Forestry is one such area that cannot be understood without reflecting on why British India established scientific forestry and how it continues to influence the current institutions governing India’s forests. Chapter 2 studies the process of governmentality behind the control over forest rights in tribal India. It analyses the historical influence of both British colonial rule and independent India to categorise scheduled tribes and forests in tribal areas. In doing so, it takes the micro-politics concept of Foucault’s notion of governmentality to argue that the history of the scheduled tribes’ subjectification and the related history of forest demarcation are indispensable for understanding the current politics of decentralised forest management in India. Within this micro-politics notion of ‘forest governmentality,’ the discussion focuses on three dimensions, namely, the history of categorisation, the politics of social identity, and the technologies of forest governance. These three dimensions allow us to show how recent efforts to politicise forest tenure rights have reinforced political control to appropriate and legalise forest and the tribal people through new forms of authority, inclusion, and exclusion. The process of forest governmentality is overt, but I argue that Bhil people internalise their ethnic identity. By internalising their political tribal identity, they are able to create countervailing power and room to manoeuvre within the current forest governance regime.

Forest tenure recognition may originate from the top down or from the bottom up, each shaping different forms of collective rights. Chapter 3 examines the current forest tenure reform from the micro level of village-level committees. I use two relevant concepts for micro-politics analysis, namely, institutional pluralism and authority. Institutional pluralism has become a characteristic of local-level forest management in India’s twenty-first century tribal villages. Historically, the traditional forest rights of tribal people were denied. Recent attempts at decentralisation and forest tenure reforms to formalise and transfer traditional rights to forest people have created new institutions and new forms of authority. However, uncertainty about local institutions’ recognition, accountability, and representativeness, and the legitimisation of authority among multiple institutions, may hinder formalisation of forest rights. In this chapter, I show some unintended consequences of institutional pluralism and authority relations on tribal people’s struggle for forest rights. For example, multiple authority fragments the local forest management institutions and collective forest rights. Empirical evidence further indicates that institutional pluralism restricts Bhil people’s collective forest rights and democratic decentralisation, and in turn gives the elite and line ministries more discretionary authority to control forests.

The forest tenure policy reform in tribal India provides a great opportunity to unravel the nature of individual tenure rights. Chapter 4 explains how the Forest Rights Act shapes tribal households’ claims to forest land rights. I analyse the micro-politics of this forest tenure reform using three dimensions, namely, individual tenure rights, citizenship, and conflict, to discuss the contested nature of household-level tenure rights to forest land. I illustrate how forest tenure reform has promoted the individualisation of forest right claims, which has had a direct influence on Bhil tribal inter-household conflicts. Negative consequences of the conflicts are explained, but I also explore how claiming individual tenure rights is justified by the Bhil primarily in terms of seeking formal recognition of their citizenship rights. The analytical debate in relation to citizenship in this chapter focuses on ‘belonging’ from both the customary and the current legal perspective. I argue that different forms of belonging to forest land create complexities in understanding rights and entitlements. I specifically examine why and how choices about specific forest tenure rights are made by tribal households. In what ways do tribal households’ notions of forest rights relate to citizenship? How do conflicts prompt and/or suppress households’ forest tenure and citizenship claims? I demonstrate that knowledge about the tribal people’s perceptions can help us understand individual households’ socio-political struggle for individual forest land tenure.

Forestry is considered to be male biased, and this hinders the access rights of tribal women. The identity of a tribal woman is invisible within a community and within a household, mainly because she is dependent on her male relative or colleague to enact her rights, including forest rights. Chapter 5 focuses on the struggles of individual Bhil tribal women for their rights to access forest land and forest resources. The micro-political dynamics of women’s access rights as a consequence of changing individual and collective forest rights are illustrated. I argue that the identity-based categories promoted by the forest tenure reform have negative consequences for the marginal tribal women because their identity as tribal women is used to exclude them from forest committees. The current trend in forest tenure reform promotes identity-based categories on the assumption that this provides better access to forest resources for marginalised groups. This chapter shows that there is an interaction between the politics of individual and collective access to forest land and the political representation of Bhil tribal women. A rights-based access approach was used to analyse outcomes of forest tenure reform on tribal women’s access to forest land, and inclusion in, and/or exclusion from, collective decision making about forest land management. With empirical evidence, I demonstrate that the new identity-based forest tenure reform is mere tokenism and hinders rather than promotes tribal women’s political empowerment and access to forest-based resources.

Finally, chapter 6 provides a synthesis and general discussion based on the findings discussed in the preceding chapters. The first part of the chapter discusses the four key research questions proposed at the start of this book, with emphasis on the key findings as well as their mutual relationships in the preceding chapters. Also, the central argument of this research as conducted from the micro-politics analytical perspective is presented. The final part makes an overall argument based on the chapters as well as on experiences from other outputs of this research: an international conference, a documentary film, and an infobrief. Taking into account lessons learnt, I propose the way forward towards decentralised forest tenure reform. Also, I highlight a number of research areas that were beyond the scope of this current research and discuss how they might be addressed.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Arts, Bas, Promotor
  • van Dijk, Han, Promotor
Award date25 May 2012
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789461732736
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • forests
  • tenure systems
  • property rights
  • forestry law
  • tribes
  • indigenous people
  • participative management
  • decentralization
  • governance
  • india


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