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The Practice of Custom in India’s Recognition of Forest Right’s Act: Case Studies from Kalahandi, Odisha

Matthew B. Shutzer


The Indian Recognition of Forest Right’s Act defines a category of land tenure that is premised upon the recognition of customary entitlements to forest resources entitled to forest dwelling groups. In this paper I examine how the concept of custom is defined by livelihood practices and proprietary rights. I argue that ‘custom’ presents an understanding of agrarian practices that is both a claim to political rights and a normative description of livelihood practices. I analyze the implementation of the Forest Rights Act in the Lanjigarh block of Kalahandi, Odisha, in order to understand what this concept of custom signifies within the political economic setting it is meant to describe.

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  • 1 For the purposes of this study, all FRA claims analyzed here concern individual rather than communi (...)

1This article investigates the category ‘custom’ as it is defined in the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, 2006, also known as the Indian Forest Rights Act (hereafter FRA) and the manner in which this particular concept of custom is used as a mode of developmental argumentation in Kalahandi, Odisha. By custom the FRA refers to a legal notification of customary entitlements to forest land claimed by members of Scheduled Tribe (ST), Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Caste (OBC) communities, though ST petitioners pred a> n of livrAct,nkntenndnotes"> anaotion_isao unde

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1 For the purposes of this study, all FRA claims analyzed here concern individual rather than community claims. Although the FRA calls for the recognition of both types of claims, in Lanjigarh, as in most other Scheduled Areas of India where the Act has been implemented, local government has largely only been willing to settle with individual claimants.

2 India. Preamble of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act. 2007.

3 Agrawal & Sivaramakrishnan (2000), particularly the introduction and the article by Vinay Gidwani.

4 See Herring (1983) and Iqbal (2010), particularly Chapter 8.

5 My use of the word ‘indigenous’ in this essay does not proceed unaware of its problematic applications. I do think, however, that the term ‘indigenous’ does reflect the global discursive categories of indigeneity used by advocacy organizations to promote a particular historical vision of indigenous rights, which I see reflected in the FRA. In practice, that is in the regional politics of Kalahandi in which Khond adivasis are engaged, the terms indigenous and adivasi both intersect and diverge from one another, depending on the types of political articulations and developmental claims individuals and groups strive to make. These words and their identitarian implications articulate with particular logics and goals and therefore should not be simplistically conflated with one another. If I have collapsed these terms into one another for the purposes of this introduction, it is not that I am unaware of these dynamics, but that I am attempting to think about the FRA as a document that mobilizes discourses of ‘indigeneity’ in local, national and global contexts.

6 Conspicuously absent from this paper is any attention paid to thinking through problems of social differentiation and resource access in relation to gender. Because the FRA requires both husbands and wives (where applicable) for granting FRA patta, an analysis of women’s experiences is fundamental to any critical reading of the FRA. This shortcoming is rendered in an expanded version of this article that is currently under revision.

7 The classic outline of this history can be found in the outline to Hardiman (1987). See also Shah (2012).

8 I do not have the space here to map the history of CSD and its influence within adivasi advocacy circles, however many of the sources I cite here have been written by individuals closely connected to the group. Suffice it to note that although the FRA as passed in 2006 does not reflect the entirety of CSD’s concerns over adivasi forest settlement, the group can be credited with steering many of the chief concerns promoted by the FRA. See the important article by CSD convener Pradip Prabhu (2010).

9 It is important to add here that these developments have been actively noted and contested by advocacy groups. During the National Forum for Forest People and Forest Workers national conference in November 2011 these were a few of the chief concerns raised to the Minister of Tribal Affairs. These concerns are also found in Prabhu (2010).

10 Village Forest is a settlement term determining the rights, boundaries and vested control over the resources of the forest. Reserve Forest denotes a similar set of privileges vested with the Forest Department, typically manifesting as large area of conservation land where agriculture and home construction cannot occur. These denominations are frequently contested and difficult to map, particularly in areas with large village settlements. In the Taliguda and Carnomunda watershed, as in many other parts of Lanjigarh, the Forest Department tolerates a certain degree of forest encroachment, though most often for home construction rather than dongar. It is important to note that the actual village boundaries of both Taliguda and Carnomunda are recognized as encroachments on Reserve Forest. Therefore, FRA pattas for these villages would include homestead pattas in addition to agricultural plot pattas, thereby giving the villages legal recognition in the block.

11 See The Times of India News Service 1985.

12 The story of Indian railway sleepers is perhaps the best known. For an important review of these tensions in eastern India, please see Sivaramakrishnan (2012).

13 For an example see Dash & Sahu (2011).

14 For a sustained study of this subject see Engerman & Metzger (2004).

15 Without over simplifying the significant interventions of these two authors, I am specifically thinking of Elinor Ostrom (2000a), and Arun Agrawal’s and Ostrom’s (2001b) co-authored work on new institutional theory. The co-authored paper effectively details the pitfalls of decentralization from an administrative perspective, making the case (one which I think applies for FRA implementation) that complex and multi-interested bureaucratic systems often prevent decentralization from occurring by working against the social institutions which will replace external administration. My critique here of decentralization as outlined by the FRA questions the modularity of social institutions across diverse ecological and social fields, and also the centrality of property in theorizing subsistence agriculture in Kalahandi. Mitchell (2005) for instance presents a case-study of the neoliberal presuppositions that underlie new institutional theory, particularly in the work of Douglas North. As found in Mitchell, my research also suggests that prior economic relationships are unduly bracketed out of studies concerned with the functioning of community based institutions when surveying for the suitability of FRA implementation.

16 Skinner (1991) offers an historical analysis of this point.

17 For discourses of indigeneity in the Indian context see Bannerjee (2006), Skaria (1999), and Ghose (1999).

18 There is variation through Lanjigarh regarding when land is re-bunded and the materials used to do so. Higher elevation areas typically correspond to less fortified bunding structures, though there are exceptions. The time period of ‘two harvest cycles’ is calculated from field interviews.

19 Madheswaran et al. (2009) present an econometric analysis of this trend focusing on monopsonic grain markets and credit rationing. Hariss-White and Shah (2011) have presented an historic overview of these transitions at the national level.

20 For a block level comparison, Madheswaran et al. (2009: 225-229).

21 His reference here is the Niyamgiri mining project by Vedanta.

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Electronic reference

Matthew B. Shutzer, « The Practice of Custom in India’s Recognition of Forest Right’s Act: Case Studies from Kalahandi, Odisha », South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 7 | 2013, Online since 15 October 2013, connection on 13 December 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/samaj.3623

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About the author

Matthew B. Shutzer

PhD Candidate, New York University, Department of History

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