Quarter of Indian parliament seats could be decided by forest rights

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Dhaka Tribune, April 05, 2019

The ruling BJP has received significant criticism for not protecting the rights of tribesmen, during hearings that led to the Supreme Court ordering the eviction of forest residents whose claims for land had been rejected by the respective state governments

A study by NGO network Community Forest Resource-Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA) has said a quarter of the seats in the Indian parliament (133 out of 543 constituencies) may be decided by whether the Forest Rights Act is implemented properly ahead of the 2019 general election, reports Indiaspend.com.

According to the study, which is based on the results of the Indian general election in 2014, the number of voters eligible for land rights under the Forest Rights Act is higher than the margin of victory in 95% of 133 constituencies that have a large population of tribal residents. As a result, any political party that promises effective implementation of the Forest Rights Act and other laws protecting land rights of tribesmen has the potential to beat the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in these constituencies.

The ruling BJP has received significant criticism for not protecting the rights of tribesmen, during hearings that led to the Supreme Court ordering the eviction of forest residents whose claims for land had been rejected by the respective state governments. The order was later suspended.

To support its argument that the forest rights could be a deciding factor in the 2019 general election, the CFR-LA cited BJP’s defeats in the assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh in 2018.

The Forest Rights Act legalized the land rights of forest dwellers in 2006, and conflicts between the government and tribesmen over 550,000 hectares of forest land have claimed the lives of more than six million people, according to Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers and journalists across India.

Effect on voting patterns

According to CFR-LA, all 133 constituencies have more than 10,000 hectares of forest area eligible for coverage under Forest Rights Act. More than 20% of their respective electorates are affected by the law.

BJP won 59% of the 133 seats in the 2014 general election, while Congress secured 4% and was runner-up in 62%. However, after Congress promised to implement the Forest Rights Act in its manifesto for the 2018 assembly election in Chhattisgarh, it secured 68% more of the 39 seats reserved for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes than the 2013 assembly elections, while BJP secured 75% fewer seats than in the 2013 assembly elections.

“BJP remains extremely vulnerable to a campaign based around Forest Rights,” the CFR-LA study said.

In addition, Congress did not win by large margins in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where the party did not emphasize the land rights issue as it did in Chhattisgarh.

With the exception of Maharashtra and Gujrat, Forest Rights Act implementation in BJP-ruled states such as Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh has been “shoddy and aimed to subvert the intent of the law,” the CFR-LA said.

Voters fear loss of land rights

At least 40 million hectares of forest land are covered by the Forest Rights Act, and at least 170,000 villages are eligible for rights under the act, according to the CFR-LA. The NGO network did not include constituencies in Lakshadweep, Andaman and Nicobar, Jammu and Kashmir, and the northeastern states in its analysis, as data on potential rights holders is not available despite large tribal populations.

Data from the Election Commission of India on the results of parliamentary constituencies that voted in 2014 and Census 2011 data on constituencies eligible for Forest Rights Act were used by the CFR-LA.

The 133 constituencies examined have reported high rates of wrongful rejections of forest land rights, leaving tribesmen vulnerable to mass eviction, said CFR-LA member Tushar Dash.

“Forest communities in these constituencies have already reported poor implementation of Forest Rights Act and rampant violations of forest rights, forcible plantations by forest departments and land grab for the creation of land banks,” he added.

After the Supreme Court order to evict tribesmen whose land claims were rejected by respective state governments, Congress Chief Rahul Gandhi had asked all chief ministers in states ruled by Congress to file a review petition against the mass-eviction of forest dwellers and tribal people.

Two days after Gandhi’s letter to Congress chief ministers, BJP President Amit Shah sent similar instructions to chief ministers in states governed by his party.

Subsequently, the central government sought a temporary stay on the Supreme Court order, claiming that flaws in the process followed by state governments had led to the high rate of rejection of land rights claims. The court stayed its order and gave the states four months to file affidavits on the centre’s allegations.

How election results may be affected

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government enacted the Forest Rights Act in 2006, but the party did not do well in constituencies where the act was a core issue, CFR-LA said.

The Congress was runner-up in 83 out of 133 forest rich constituencies, and won only three seats among 68 where they were in direct contest with BJP.

“One may safely say that these 68 constituencies can be decisive in influencing next government formation,” the CFR-LA study said.

Furthermore, in four of nine states where the BJP and the Congress were in direct contest for these 68 seats, BJP was voted out in the 2018 assembly elections, it added.

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