When the Forest Rights Act (2006) was legislated in India, there was euphoria over the intent of the State to correct the wrongs done to forest dwelling communities in various forms. In addition to various assessments of the extent of implementation of the Act over the past decade, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) has caught the attention of designers and planners as well.
The FRA is known as one of the most progressive pieces of legislation in India, designed to correct ‘historical injustices’ and offers previously marginalized forest communities opportunity to assert their rights to remain in the forest, a ‘place’ they are culturally tied to; a place they call ‘home.’
I was quite intrigued during my recent visit to Wayanad in Kerala when me along with my students visited Pulpally. The visit made me re-think the impacts of implementation of the FRA from a very different perspective – it seems to be creating a city within the forests of India using the provisions of the FRA!
I will not pass any judgment on how local communities have used the provisions to set up their lives and lifestyles but will bring you a perspective of how communities living in forests perceive their ‘rights’.
We arrived at the colony of Paniyas and Kattunayakars, most of whom had already claimed their rights and had received ‘pattas’ or grants to reside here. Both tribes are indigenous to the Southwestern Ghats. These tribes are known to be ‘forest-dwellers’ or ‘forest-dependent’ communities, implying that they live off the terrain they inhabit, find their basic needs of food, water and shelter here, and are ‘free’ to live in their ‘traditional’ way while simultaneously taking on the responsibility of ecological stewardship, guarding the forest against poachers and trespassers and misusers.
I imagined these communities to be practicing their traditional practical knowledge, living lightly on this land, and was excited to see their current homes built of natural materials that are climate-friendly; of them gathering seasonal fruits, berries, herbs and tubers. I was wondering how and where we would encounter them.
We entered the forest, a teak plantation created by the British foresters in the mid-1800’s, and followed a long winding road of cement pavers. We parked the car near an old building, where the cement blocks turned into a regular tarred road, and walked down towards the forest colony. I quickly discovered my imagination and expectations were a bit far-fetched and naïve, too utopic.
The forest-dwellers are living in ‘normal’ houses – each is single-storied, 3-5 bedrooms, a kitchen with a modern counter-top and sink, and a hall/living room that spilled out onto a small porch. The bathroom is separate from the main house. These new structures, still sitting beside the older local bamboo structures and coconut palm thatch roofs, are made of either laterite blocks or clay bricks with flat RCC roofs. The government refers to the National Building Code to recommend ‘pukka’ (permanent) materials and methods and provide a contractor to build the structure.
The forest-dwellers inhabit both homes as they transition. The one of bamboo and coconut thatch is simple, adequate and lends itself to multiple practices and dynamics. There is no distinction of uses, but a practical arrangement that can accommodate almost anything that needs sheltering. The bamboo home looks well-lived in, while the new structure is still sparse, perhaps as they do not know how to work with differentiated ‘spaces’, having been appropriating space over time in the past.
Along the road, on one side, are stunningly tall Indian Coral trees, dotting the overcast atmosphere with a deep red in mid-afternoon. On the other side of the road is a line of electric poles, carrying electricity to the colony; and there is provision for water supply as well, but water isn’t being supplied yet. This is a city in the making, with the forest-dwellers having become mere protectors of the forest by simply not engaging with it.
They have 1-2 acres of land that they now have ‘pattas’ for (non-transferrable grants to the property), and on this land sits not just their living space, but also some small areas for cultivation. They grow banana, ginger, coffee, pepper, and other items that help them sustain their families. They barely roam the forest for food. They also are able to receive ration supplies, including rice, oil, wheat and manure, that all gets delivered to their doorstep. During the day, most of them work as seasonal labourers for the Forest Department, clearing dry leaves, making fire-lines.
The hope and intent of the FRA was to leave the tribals alone and to let them continue to do what they did and how they did it. Unfortunately, with all the documentation that is required of them, the law forces them to settle first, before availing of any of the rights or responsibilities. ‘Settling’ means not moving, not searching, not wandering, and being distanced from their environment. It means permanence, having an address and property… and is subject to revenue collections (Permanent Settlement Act, 1793). It means having everything come to them – electricity, water, food, shelter. It means asserting boundaries, introducing notions of property and privacy, nature as aesthetic. It means they have lost their ability to be independent, self-reliant and autonomous in this dynamic landscape. They have become tied to the colonial mindset that comes with the law. They have lost their ability to adapt, to be resilient.
Is there a tragedy of the FRA waiting to happen in Pulpally? Only time will tell.
Deepta Sateesh is a Faculty and Researcher at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, India