Forest Rights Act: Political participation of indigenous communities

  • Blog Post Date 20 September, 2023
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Bharti Nandwani

Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR)

In the first of two articles about the implementation of Forest Rights Act, Bharti Nandwani looks at the implication of increased demand for land title recognition on political participation of Scheduled Tribes in Odisha. She examines possible channels through which the FRA can empower beneficiaries, such as through increased income or accessing grievance redressal, and suggests that recognising the rights of indigenous communities and increasing their access to welfare programmes could aid in conservation and reduce conflict. 

Land is the most important agricultural input whose ownership is closely tied with socioeconomic status in rural societies. It is particularly central to the identity of Scheduled Tribes (STs) – marginalised indigenous communities of India who reside in forest areas and derive their livelihood from it. However, being a common pool resource, land rights over forests have historically been ill-defined and contested. Prior to colonial rule, tribal communities lived around forests, managing and cultivating it sustainably with little government interference. However, in the mid-19th century, the colonial government established control over forests, and forest dwellers were considered encroachers on government land. Government control over forests was maintained after independence, and traditional forest dwellers’ claims to forest land continued to be illegal. 

Implications of Forest Rights Act

The legal ownership of forests dramatically changed with the enactment of a landmark land rights legislation – Forest Rights Act (FRA). Implemented in 2008 as a result of a long-standing demand of forest dwellers and civil society organisations, FRA was introduced to legalise ownership and cultivation rights of STs over forest lands traditionally occupied by them. Since the enactment of this act, there has been a huge demand for land title recognition, as indicated by the number of land title applications. Title applications in Odisha increased from 1500 in 2009 to 20,000 in 2019, and the title distribution rate also increased from 25% in 2009 to 69% in 2019. 

In a recent study (Nandwani, 2023), we examine whether the increased demand for title recognition and distribution under FRA improves political participation of STs. Political participation is one of the most important ways in which marginalised groups can address their grievances and demand their rights in a legitimate way, as has been observed in other developing country contexts (Kopas 2019), thus improving their access to public services. There are multiple reasons why we expect a land rights legislation like FRA to politically mobilise STs. The act is expected to empower the beneficiaries by giving them ownership rights over forests and Minor Forest Produce (MFP). Numerous incidents cited in mainstream media show that distribution of land titles to STs has resulted in significant income gains for them (Chatterjee et al., Sahu 2018, Lopes 2022). This improvement in the socioeconomic status of STs can also increase their political engagement as the beneficiaries become important stakeholders in the society (Einstein et al. 2019, Hall and Yoder 2022). 

The provision of land rights, particularly to marginalised groups, has been shown to be insufficient and extremely challenging in societies with weak state capacity (particularly in South American countries like Peru and Colombia, as Albertus (2020) and Albertus and Kaplan (2013) show, respectively.). Given the history of incomplete and contested land rights over forests in India, the study also examines whether the channel driving the impact of FRA is increased income or grievance redressal. 

Data and methodology

We conducted our study in Odisha – a forest-dense state that lies in the eastern part of India. Odisha has rich district-level information on applications filed for forest land titles as well as the approval of those titles from 2009 to 2019; other states do not make this information publicly available. We use two indicators of FRA implementation: number of title applications filed for recognition, and number of land titles distributed. Electoral data on elections held between 2009 and 2019 in Odisha comes from the Election Commission of India (ECI) shared by the Trivedi Center for Political Data, which has digital records of all state assembly election results in the country. We measure political participation as a percentage of candidates belonging to the ST community who contest for state legislative assembly elections. Our empirical methodology identifies the impact of FRA by controlling for constituency-specific time invariant factors, district-specific time trends and election year fixed effects. 


Our findings indicate that an additional 1,000 land title applications increases the number of political candidates belonging to the ST community by 13% (in unreserved constituencies); after controlling for title demand, no such association is observed for number of titles distributed. This suggests that the increased participation of ST candidates post FRA is driven by demand for title recognition rather than actual title distribution. This increase is largely driven by candidates who do not have any prior political experience and belong to non-mainstream political parties (parties other than BJP, BJD, INC). 

We also document an increase in political competition and a lower difference in vote share between leading candidates as land title applications increase. Additionally, we find that the increase in political mobilisation is the same regardless of existing provisions for political representation for STs in the local/state government, highlighting that the current constitutional provisions for STs have not been very successful in protecting their interests.

The identifying assumption is that, conditional on all the controls, the variation in claims filed and distributed is likely to be quasi-random. However, this assumption would be violated if higher political mobilisation of STs leads to improved claim filing and distribution, instead of the other way round, or if there are confounding factors that affect both the political participation of STs and claim filing/distribution. We conduct a battery of robustness checks, including checking for pre-trends, and a placebo test where we regress political participation of STs on claims demanded in future, to ensure that confounding factors are not driving the results.

Grievance redressal as a channel for increased political participation

We first provide suggestive evidence that income gains for STs post FRA is unlikely to drive the observed impact on political participation. While theoretically income gains post FRA can drive the increase in political participation, our findings show that claims that end up getting distributed and consequently result in economic gain are not the cause of an increase in political participation. We also provide suggestive evidence against the income channel by showing that our main results remain unchanged when we control for value of forest produce as well as wealth level of STs – both indicators of income gains.

To find a channel for this increasing political participation, we dig deeper into the approval process of land titles. Once claims for titles are filed, they are evaluated by a committee formed by the Gram Sabha. Once approved they are further sent to the ub-district Level Committee (SDLC) and District Level Committee (DLC) for final approval before the final title is signed by the District Collector. The process of title distribution is long and requires approval at three stages. Additionally, SDLC and DLC are run by officials, particularly forest officials, who might resist FRA as it curtails their authority over forest land. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there have been many instances of arbitrary rejection of title applications by forest officials without providing any clear reason for the rejection. 

This inefficient implementation is a mechanism worth exploring, as earlier research shows in the context of Peru and Columbia. Incomplete property rights can create grievances between losers and winners of the land reform programme, heightening conflict. We examine an alternative and legitimate form of grievance redressal in response to incomplete land tenure legislation by testing how title approval at all three levels increases participation in politics. 

Our findings show that a one standard deviation1 increase in claims rejected by the DLC leads to a 15% and 135% increase in ST election candidates in reserved and unreserved constituencies respectively. We also find positive impact of rejections at the SDLC stage on participation of ST candidates in elections, though the size of the effect is smaller. On the other hand, we find no association between rejections at the Gram Sabha level and political participation of ST candidates. These results suggest that greater political participation of STs is primarily driven by an increase in claims that are approved by the Gram Sabha but rejected by higher officials (members of DLC or SDLC) who are known to be opposed to FRA. The increase in political participation thus seems to be a means for STs to address the lack of recognition of their rights at the district and sub-district levels. This seems plausible, as MLAs have been shown to yield significant influence over bureaucrats at district and sub-district level (Iyer and Mani 2012). 

Policy implications

A reform like FRA is unprecedented in promising secure land tenure for the forest dwelling indigenous communities of India, and therefore evaluating it empirically can add to our understanding of the effectiveness of such policies in other contexts as well. Our research documents an increase in political participation of STs as demand for land claims recognition increases. This is an encouraging finding as political participation has the potential to increase their access to welfare programmes, improve overall economic conditions, aid in forest conservation and even reduce violent conflicts (Gulzar et al. 2020, 2021, Milliff and Stones 2020). 

While the study focuses on Odisha, these findings have relevance for other states, as well as countries which have not recognised the traditional land claims of indigenous communities. The results point to the powerful role that land titling and ownership legislations have in giving a voice to the marginalised indigenous groups. Recognition of traditional land rights can encourage beneficiaries to choose the legitimate route of political participation rather than resorting to civil conflict to address their grievances. 

Land conflicts and disputes increased after the introduction of FRA, due to contradictory legislation and afforestation practices that encroach upon land cultivated by forest dwellers. The second article (‘Forest Rights Act: An account of contradictory conservation laws’) discusses this issue further and can be read here.


  1. Standard deviation is a measure that is used to quantify the amount of variation or dispersion of a set of values from the mean value of that set.

Further Reading

  • Albertus, Michael (2020), “Land Reform and Civil Conflict: Theory and Evidence from Peru”, American Journal of Political Science,64(2): 256-274.
  • Albertus, Michael and Oliver Kaplan (2013), "Land Reform as a Counterinsurgency Policy: Evidence from Colombia", Journal of Conflict Resolution,57(2): 198-231.
  • Einstein, Katherine Levine, Maxwell Palmer and David M Glick (2019), "Who Participates in Local Government? Evidence from Meeting Minutes", Perspectives on Politics, 17(1): 28-46.
  • Gulzar, Saad, Nicholas Haas and Benjamin Pasquale (2020), "Does Political Affirmative Action Work, and for Whom? Theory and Evidence on India’s Scheduled Areas", American Political Science Review,114(4): 1230-1246.
  • Gulzar, S, A Lal and B Pasquale (2021), ‘Representation and Forest Conservation: Evidence from India’s Scheduled Areas’, Working Paper.
  • Hall, Andrew B and Jesse Yoder (2022), "Does Homeownership Influence Political Behavior? Evidence from Administrative Data", The Journal of Politics,84(1): 351-366.
  • Iyer, Lakshmi and Anandi Mani (2012), "Traveling Agents: Political Change and Bureaucratic Turnover in India", Review of Economics and Statistics,94(3): 723-739. Available here.
  • Kopas, J (2019), Legitimizing the State of a Grievance?: Property Rights and Political Engagement, Doctoral Thesis, Columbia University.
  • Milliff, Aidan and Drew Stommes (2010), "Descriptive representation and conflict reduction: Evidence from India's Maoist rebellion”, Journal of Peace Research, 60(5). 
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