Indian tribal women working in the forests. Courtesy IFAD Image Bank.

India has seventy million hectares of forests, which is more than twice the entire geographical area of Finland. Besides the diverse array of animals and vegetation that call the Indian forests home, 250 million people depend upon the forests for their livelihoods. Many of these people are members of native tribes whose rights are protected under international and national laws. While India’s sizeable indigenous forest-dwelling population is receiving the benefit of the country’s environmental conservation efforts, more targeted efforts could be undertaken to fulfill the nation’s international promises toward indigenous peoples. Efforts to increase the quality and quantity of ten million hectares of forest include the Indian government’s creation of the Green India Mission and the Forest Rights Act (FRA). These policies have been commended for their progressive goals in environmental conservation and promotion of indigenous peoples’ rights, but have also faced some criticism for weak implementation.

In 2008, India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) established the Green India Mission to increase forest coverage in order to decrease carbon levels, develop ecosystems, and protect forest-dependent communities. In December 2010 at the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexico, India’s Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh affirmed his country’s commitment to conservation. He said,

We are pursuing aggressive strategies on forestry and coastal management. . . . India . . . (will) be amongst the most responsible in ensuring a high rate of growth of the real GDP — Green Domestic Product. That is my solemn assurance to the world community today on behalf of the Government of India.

By setting ambitious conservation goals, India is also meeting its international commitments to indigenous “forest dwellers.” India supported the non-binding UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Declaration), which aims to acknowledge and protect indigenous land rights. The Declaration forbids forcibly displacing indigenous peoples and upholds their right to possess and use their land. It further recognizes indigenous peoples’ spiritual relationship with land, plants, and animals, as well as communities’ dependence on the environs for food, medicinal purposes, and other daily needs. However, the Declaration does not create legally binding obligations.

Despite India’s lack of international legal obligations towards indigenous people, the Green India Mission does recognize and include language in support of forest dwellers’ rights. Besides the protection of individual rights, the mission seeks to provide “Community Forest Rights, including the right to protect, regenerate, and manage Community Forest Resources,” according to the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ mission plan.

India’s direct endorsement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was an extension of prior domestic commitments. In 2006, the Indian Parliament passed the FRA, which recognizes, vests, and establishes a framework of forest dwellers’ rights. The key aspects of the FRA include private or communal land ownership rights or restitution and community rights, including resource allocation. This and other national policies have helped India increase its forest acreage by three million hectares over the past decade and have set India apart as one of the few developing countries to do so.

The implementation of FRA, which went into effect two years ago, has received a fair dose of criticism. In April 2010, the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs created a joint committee to review the FRA. After visiting seventeen states, the committee issued a lengthy report that generally found weak implementation of the FRA. Apart from a few notable exceptions, the report stated that forest conservation and tribal livelihood security had not been achieved. Specifically, the committee discovered problems with large-scale mapping efforts and the documentation process, including issuing land title deeds. Furthermore, people were reportedly displaced from wildlife areas in violation of the law and some forest dwellers’ claims for land in mineral-rich areas have been rejected with no explanation.

Because India’s forests contain valuable minerals like iron ore and bauxite, mining corporations — many of which are aligned with the government — are eager to develop these areas. Nevertheless, civil society has praised the Environmental Ministry for carefully vetting development proposals. In August 2010, the British firm Vedanta Resources plc proposed a $1.7 billion project with the East Indian state of Orissa to mine bauxite. The Environmental Ministry rejected it based on the potential harm to the ecosystem and the five thousand primitive tribal members who live in the region. Vedanta has previously been sued for mining projects, which have interfered with the rights of tribes in Orissa. In 2008, Survival International, a tribal rights organization, sued Vedanta for damage related to aluminum manufacturing and planned bauxite mining.

India could further show its support for indigenous peoples by ratifying the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. However, while the convention deals directly with the rights of native peoples and becomes legally binding one year after ratification, there have been problems with implementation in other countries.

India’s lofty conservation goals have had a positive ripple effect on the nation’s indigenous groups. The FRA and Green India Mission have been commended for considering forest dwellers’ rights, but not without some criticism for imperfect implementation. As its environmental efforts progress, the nation should improve upon past mistakes under the FRA and continue to properly vet development proposals in the region.