Granting Habitat Rights a positive step towards recognising Tribal ownership of natural resources

By Raqib Hameed Naik and Amit Kumar,

The Baiga tribe in Madhya Pradesh have had good reason to look at any action from the administration with an eye of suspicion: most of the times, the civil authorities were only too keen to get them evicted from the state’s forests despite the Baigas having lived there for centuries. Last year in January, the eviction of Baigas from Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, which was also the home of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’, in the name of forest conservation, grabbed media attention in both India and abroad.

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But over the past month, the authorities at Dindori, Madhya Pradesh have, for the first time, recognised the habitat rights of seven villages in the district mostly inhabited by the Baigas.
Under Habitat Rights, these seven villages have been given an area of about 23,000 acres which is non-transferable and non-alienable, essentially meaning that the Baigas will not be evicted for any purpose from this area and allowed to use the forests and rivers.

The district administration of Dindori district held a meeting in one of the villages, Rajni Sarai, on Wednesday, January 13 and told the villagers that they are free to access all their ancestral rights over land and forests besides assuring them that the government will not be able to transfer any land for non-community uses.


The Habitat Rights documents signed on January 13

The move also gains importance because Baigas are considered as one of the 75 particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTG) in the Indian Constitution.

Ekta Parishad, the NGO which helped the locals mobilise for claiming their rights, believes this to be the first step in recognising the rights of Tribals across the country. “The seven villages have received habitat rights only 50% of the land, indentified as Baiga Chak (land of Baigas) they are entitled to, but nevertheless, it is a start and a positive step,” Ramesh Sharma, convener, Ekta Parishad, told He added that until now, even under Community Forest Rights, the land given to Tribals have consisted of a few acres or a couple of villages at the max. This, however, is a welcome change in the matter of allocating rights to forests. “The focus is to map the entire area that belongs to the Baigas, which is a lot more than the current 23,000 acres and allot them Habitat Rights for all of it,” he adds.

He added that even now, there are almost 50 Baiga villages which haven’t received these rights in the district, apart from about 30-odd Baiga villages in the districts of Mandla and Balaghat. A similar movement will be carried in other villages too, Sharma said. “The Forest Rights Act mandates that the claim for tribal land must come from the people themselves and since Habitat Rights come under Section 3 (1) d of Forest Rights Act, 2006, the organisation will encourage all other villages to push for the same. “Once the claim is made by the Gram Panchayat in front of the district collector, even if the process of granting Habitat Rights takes time, the people cannot be evicted during that period. So, we will ask all other villages to push for the same, so that any scope of evictions do not exist and the Tribals can claim what is rightfully theirs,” said Sharma.

And there are good reasons for the villages to push for the same. The Madhya Pradesh government, along with various other national and international conservation agencies, has been considering a wildlife corridor which connects Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh with the Achanakmar Wildlife Sanctuary in Chattisgarh. As has often been the case, such plans almost always lead to forcible evictions of the tribal population. According to Sharma, about 20% of the Baiga land falls in the proposed corridor, which is about 600 kms by 80 kms in size.

However, District Collector Chhavi Bhardwaj believes that no such thing will happen. “Evictions happen mostly when human population is found to be living in the core areas of protected forests and there are no such issues with the Baigas, as their area is mostly in the buffer zones,” she told Twocircles,net.

She added, “The administration used a gazette notification passed by the colonial British government which recognised these areas as Baiga Chak (meaning area of Baiga).” Bhardwaj added that there is a lot of ambiguity in defining what ‘habitat’ consists of, and instead the official terminology focuses mainly on what does not come under ‘habitat’. “Through this allocation under Habitat Rights, we are also trying to study how it impacts the Tribals, so that we can work on extending the rights to other villages in the area too,” she added. While the move has of course, drawn criticism from industries, Bhardwaj says that the administration will help other villages claim their rights too and that the state government is actively working towards this.