Forests, Forest Lands & Displacement in Tribal Districts of Orissa

Kundan Kumar

    Forty-six percent of the land in tribal districts is categorized as forests. Declaration of customary tribal lands as forest has been an important factor in loss of land for tribals. According to official data, Orissa has 58135 sq. km of its area under forests. Only 48,838 sq. km. of forestland has forest cover of 10% or more (FSI, 1999). Thus almost 10000 sq. km. has a crown cover of less than 10% i.e. either they are scrub forests or have no forests at all.

    Prima facie, the forest laws provide protection for settlement of rights of the local people and communities before declaration of forestland. However, this presumption often doesn't hold true on the ground because of a number of factors. These include:

  • Declaration of deemed Reserved Forests and Protected Forests
  • Non-recognition of rights on land used for shifting cultivation
  • Lack of settlement of rights and faulty settlement of rights

    These factors have ensured that large areas of land which have customarily belonged to tribal communities have been categorized as forest lands without recognizing their rights on these lands. The situation has become aggravated with the passage of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. The Forest Conservation Act 1980 states that no forestland may be diverted for non-forestry purpose without permission of the Government of India. Forestland is defined as land recorded as forestland in any government records. This implies that once a land is classified as forest of any sort, it can't be used for cultivation or any other purpose without MOEF's permission and ownership rights can't be given without Supreme Court's permission.

    All the forests in Princely states and in Madras Presidency areas were declared as "Deemed Reserved or Deemed protected Forests" where no proper settlement of rights has taken place. Much of the area that were used as forest fallows for shifting cultivation by the tribal communities have also been declared as Reserve Forests, thereby disallowing any access to these lands for cultivation. The renowned anthropologist Verrier Elwin pointed out that that in 1930s-40s, Kondh Villagers were approached by Forest Guards who had orders to demarcate "Reserve Forests", and how in almost every case the Forest Guards demanded bribes, and if the villagers refused to pay, he designated forest fallow which the Konds habitually used for shifting cultivation as Reserves (Padel, 1995).

    Large areas of forestland are under permanent cultivation by tribals. There was a decision by the Government in 1972 to settle the rights of cultivators on forestland, wherein the encroached forest areas by tribals, harijans and landless persons would be released for settlement. The statistics concerning 11 districts (out of the total 13) showed that a total area of 0.276 million acres of forestland was under cultivation. However, this was never carried out effectively, and after 1980, the FCA, 1980 made such settlement extremely difficult. In 2000, the GOO has submitted a proposal to the MOEF, GOI, for regularizing 4429 ha of forest area for cultivation. The figure of 4429 ha. is a complete underestimation of the ground situation. Tragically, in Orissa, since 1980, only 29 ha. of forest land has been settled for cultivation, compared to more than one lakh ha. in Madhya Pradesh. Interestingly, in only last five years, 1224 ha. of forest land broken up illegally for mining has been regularized by the Government of Orissa and MOEF, GOI.

    The issue of tribal rights on forest land was included in the Common Minimum Program of the current Government at Centre, and a draft bill called "The Scheduled Tribes (Recognition Of Forest Rights) Act, 2005" is proposed to be introduced in the Parliament in the current Monsoon session. The Bill legislates the provisions contained in the MOEF's guidelines of 1990, and allows pre-1980s cultivation on forestland to be regularized only for Scheduled tribes. The Bill is facing strong opposition from conservationists and Forest bureaucracy.

    Displacement through Irrigation, mining, industrial and conservation projects in tribal areas

    Orissa is extremely rich in minerals, most of which lies in the tribal districts. The hilly terrain and availability of water also makes them suitable for reservoirs and dams. The major dams taken up in Scheduled areas are the Machkund, Salandi, Balimela, Upper Kolab, Indrawati, Mandira etc. The major industrial projects taken up in scheduled areas have been the Raurkela Steel Plant, NALCO's Alumina refinery at Damanjodi, HAL, Sunabeda. Large number of future industrial projects is under implementation or proposed in scheduled areas including the alumina refineries of UAIL in Kashipur and Vedanta at Lanjigarh.

    The richness of forests and wildlife has also led to increasing number of protected areas (wildlife sanctuaries and National parks) in the scheduled areas of Orissa. Such protected areas have created a major problem as the rights of all inhabitants in and around these areas in the forest and forestland is being extinguished, affecting their livelihoods and sometimes leading to displacements.

    An estimate of displacement by development projects is that of 1.5 million people being displaced by development projects between 1951 and 1995, of which 42% were tribals. As per this estimate, less than 25% of the displaced tribals were ever resettled even partially. The casualness with which displacements of tribals have been treated is evident by the fact that out of 13 major dam projects before 1990, no data seems to be available on ST families displaced in 7 projects. Similarly out of 10 major industrial projects, no data on proportion of STs displaced is available for seven projects.

Areas acquired and villages affected by development and conservation projects in Orissa



Area acquired or affected (ha.)*

No. of villages affected


Irrigation – Dam projects (Major) Completed.




Irrigation – Dam projects (Medium) Completed.




Irrigation – Dam projects (Major) Ongoing.




Irrigation – Dam projects (Major) Proposed.




Industries (All Types of Industries)




Mines (All types of mine leases given out)




Wild life Sanctuaries and National Park






    *The data about land acquired, villages affected and the number of people displaced or affected by various development projects hasn't been compiled properly till date. The data as provided might be taken as the lowest estimate and it doesn't include people affected by minor irrigation projects, infrastructure projects such as roads etc.

    Irrigation and Hydroelectric projects

    This have been the most important reasons of displacement in schedule areas. Undivided Koraput district has been the worst affected of all. List of a few major irrigation projects in Koraput districts areas of Orissa is given as below:

Irrigation and Industrial Projects in Undivided Koraput Districts


Area (ha)

No. of hhs affected

Tribals hhs as % of total HHs affected






Fernandes et al, 1992





Diwakar, 1982

Upper Kolab




GOI, 1993






    Except for a few irrigation projects, development projects have not provided land as compensation. Even where the principle of land for land compensation was accepted, often cash compensation was given, as suitable land was not available. A study of seven development projects with a sample of 301 hhs (with 43.8% tribal households within the sample) showed that legal landlessness increased from 15.6% of the households to 58.8%, after displacement (Pandey, 1998). More important, since large areas of land cultivated by scheduled tribes are not legally settled in their names, they receive no compensation when such land is taken up for development projects. Ota, in his study of displacement in upper Indravati Project 6 found that on an average, each displaced family had been cultivating 1.50 acres of state owned and 2.34 acres of private land before displacement and that 49% of the sampled family were landless. After displacement, landlessness increased to 85.25%, the average legal landholding declined to 0.62 acres and the average government land cultivated came down to only 0.2 acres. (Ota, 2001).

    Mining in Scheduled areas

    Another important cause of displacement in schedule V areas is large-scale mining and industrial projects. As much as 1019.47-sq. km. of land has been leased out for mining in Orissa, with most of these being in the Scheduled areas. The most important mining zones within scheduled areas are iron ore and manganese mining in Sundargarh and Keonjhar districts, coal in Sundergarh district, bauxite in Kalahandi, Koraput and Rayagada districts. Apart from displacement, mining and industries lead to large-scale influx of non-tribals, which often leads to social and political marginalization of the tribals. The environmental impacts arc drastic and affect much larger number of people than directly displaced.

    Given the liberalization of mining and industrial policies which allows for direct foreign investments, large number of mining and industrial projects is in the pipeline, mostly to be located in scheduled areas. Some of these propose to carry out mining in areas inhabited by Primitive Tribal Groups, such as Dongaria Kondhs in Lanjigarh, Kalahandi and Juangs and Paudi Bhuiyans in Keonjhar and Sundergarh districts.

    Iron Ore: Almost all the iron ore mines and deposits in Orissa are located in the scheduled areas of Keonjhar and Sundargarh districts. The situation in these scheduled areas are already extremely disturbing, with massive mining leading to displacement of tribals, destruction of their livelihood support system including forests and water sources, large scale air and water pollution, and cultural genocide through massive influx of outsiders. This is at the current level of mining, whereas the amount of mining in this area was proposed to be increased multifold with influx of such giant factories as POSCO, Jindals, Tata Steels etc. The effect of such proposed mining, almost all in Scheduled areas of Keonjhar and Sundergarh, on the local tribal inhabitants, their habitats and their livelihoods can only be imagined.

    A satellite picture of mining areas in schedule V areas of Keonjhar district shows the massive impact of mining on forests and environment. It is important to understand that these mining areas in the satellite maps were originally inhabited by scheduled tribes, specially PTGs like Paudi Bhuiyas and Juangs, who are now totally marginalized and whose livelihoods has been destroyed completely.

Bauxite: The major bauxite deposits are also located in scheduled areas in Kalahandi, Rayagada and Koraput districts with the major mining being done by NALCO on Panchapatamali of Koraput district. These have been a major source of controversy, with the local tribals opposing proposed mining projects tooth and nail, and the State Government using all possible strategies, including coercion and repression to make these deposits available to mining multinationals. The resistance of Kashipur tribal against UAL’s mining project and alumina refinery has been going on for over 10 years now. Similarly, flashpoints are building up near proposed bauxite mining on Niyamgiri by Vedanta, Sunger by L&T, Kodingamali by Aditya Aluminum and Maliparbat by Hindalco. The bauxite deposits are all located on top of the highest mountains in South Orissa which are called Malis, and are sacred to tribals as they are source of large number of perennial streams. These streams are vital to local tribals, as they are often the only source of water for drinking and irrigation of fields in summer season, and sustain the local agricultural economy. This realization has created massive resistance against bauxite mining amongst tribals. The major bauxite deposits of Orissa are given as below:

    Kashipur and Lanjigarh have become the byword for tribal resistance against displacement from mining and the environmental impacts of mining. In Kashipur, the local tribals have been resisting the bauxite mining and alumina refinery project of Utkal Alumina India Ltd (UAIL) and till date hasn't allowed the project to come up, even though the administration has tried its best to push the project through, using both coercion and money. In 2000, the matters came to a head when three tribal protestors were shot dead by the police. Similarly in Lanjigarh, there have been strong protests by the local tribals against the establishment of an Alumina Refinery and proposed mining of Niyamgiri Hills for bauxite. In spite of continuous repression by the administration, the tribals are continuing to resist these projects. Similar situation is now emerging in all tribal areas where industrial projects are being planned.

    Part of the reason for the strong resistance is the bitter experience of the tribals of Koraput and Rayagada with the earlier projects such as Upper Kolab, Indrawati, HAL, NALCO etc. which has led to destitution of a large number of tribals and destruction of their livelihoods base and their culture. Another important reason is that in spite of most of the land in the area proposed to be acquired being categorized as Government, most of the land is under cultivation by the tribals. Thus in Lanjigarh, while acquiring land from Vedanta, the local tribals cultivating government land were simply evicted without any compensation, destroying their livelihoods. An example in the Vedanta case illustrates the processes, which dispossess tribals of their land through development projects.

    Eviction of landless tribals from Land acquired for Vedanta Alumina Ltd.,Lanjigarh Block, Kalahandi district: Almost 64 landless Kondh households (Scheduled Tribes) of the Jaganathpur Village had been cultivating Khesara no 186 categorized as Revenue land for the last 30-40 years. The Revenue Department against many of these people had filed encroachment cases for the cultivation. The encroachment notices show that these Scheduled tribe persons have been in physical possession of these lands for at least last seven to eight years. However, the tribals claim that even their forefathers were cultivating the land. Both as per the principal of adverse possession and as per the section 7(a) of Orissa prevention of Land Encroachment Act, 1972, such land should have been settled with the landless persons to the extent of one standard acre (equivalent to 4.5 acres of uplands). The last revisional Survey and Settlement of Lanjigarh block took place in the late eighties, and the tribals claim that when they tried to get the land regularized in their names, they were asked to pay bribes up to Rs. 5000/- per acre, which they couldn't afford. Even after the settlement, they have been trying to get the land regularized through revenue department, but have been asked for bribes by the Revenue department personnel.

    In 2003, instead of settling this land with the tribal cultivators cultivating these lands, the district administration summarily evicted these 64 families by force without any compensation, thereby taking away their main source of livelihoods. The land has been handed over by the district administration to Vedanta Alumina Ltd. for the construction of their rehabilitation colony. In law, this action violates not only the rule of adverse possession and section 7(a) of OPLE, 1972 but it also it violates the protection provided to the Scheduled tribes in Schedule V of the Constitution and the section 3 (iii) of the OSATIP Regulations (1956) by turning scheduled tribes "effectively" landless. The section 3(iii) of OSATIP regulation (1956) provides a minimum benchmark of 2 acres of irrigated or five acres of unirrigated land for ownership by scheduled tribes before any land is their possession can be transferred. By not recognizing their cultivation rights and by evicting landless scheduled tribe persons from the land cultivated by them for generations, the provision is violated.

    Non-settlement of government land cultivated by them is one of the most common complaints by tribals. Regularization of encroachments invariably requires speed money, and those who can't pay, don't get their land regularized either during the settlements or through the revenue administration.

    Forests plantations and wild life sanctuaries: Insensitive and bureaucratic conservation programs have emerged as another major threat to tribals in scheduled V areas. Almost 46% of the land in scheduled areas has been categorized as forests without proper survey and settlements, and thousands of square kilometers of shifting cultivation areas as well as permanent cultivation areas have been included as under forest category (Kumar et al, 2005). Plantations were the preferred tactics of the Forest Department and Revenue Department to evict cultivators from these lands since the 1960s, leading to continuous conflicts with tribals. The trend continues even now. For example, in last five years, Forest Department has taken up an incredible 52,800 ha of plantations in the undivided Koraput district only. Much of this plantation is taken up on land already being cultivated or under shifting cultivation by tribals. The lack of legal title of tribals on most of the land cultivated by them aggravates this situation. An example of the processes involved and resultant injustices on tribals is give as below.

    Compensatory afforestation in Kadalibadi, Juangpirh, Keonjhar:

In Kadalibadi, a Juang village in Keonjhar, compensatory afforestation has led to displacement ofJuang tribals, a PTG, from their customary swidden land not recorded in their names. In this village, only 25 ha out of total a 283 ha in the village is legally available to the village residents. 37 out of 44 families hold 25 ha with an average holding size of only 0.66 ha. The access to agricultural land is seen to worsen further when the types of holdings are analyzed. It shows an abysmally low holding of 0.09 ha of paddy land per household, 0.21 ha of other land including homestead and 0.36 ha of orchard land (bagayat). The households have only usufructory rights on the orchard lands (43% of total holdings).

    During 1993-1999, 77.186 ha7 (27% of the village area) was leased to Forest Department to carry out plantations. This area of 77.186 ha has been diverted from uncultivable wasteland of the Village lying under the control of Revenue Department. Plantations have already been carried out in these lands. In 2005, another 43 ha. (12 % of village area) in the village have been leased out to Forest Department for compensatory afforestation for Ingani Jharan Mining Company. Compensatory afforestation is taken up under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 in case of diversion of forestland to non-forest use such as mining, reservoirs etc. The land, which is afforested, has to be recategorised as forestland.

    The series of plantations on their customary have been a double tragedy for the hapless Juangs. Even though they didn't get legal rights on their communal land, they continued to treat it as such and were cultivating these lands. Conversion of major part of their communal lands into plantations by Forest Department deprived them of the access to these swidden lands and has pushed them to starvation levels. The tragedy has been aggravated because the patch selected for the plantation in 2005 is the largest and the most important shifting cultivation patch called Bagiatal. The Juangs were also planning to create permanent paddy land in part of this patch through diverting a local stream. With the compensatory afforestation, this land has effectively become forestland, closing all possibilities of Juangs ever being able to reclaim it. No swidden paddy cultivation has been taken up this year by the Juangs, and starvation looms in their faces.

    The above process has violated many laws, apart from its ethical and social justice implications. The most important violation is that of the Schedule V of the constitution which enjoins the State to protect the Scheduled tribe's rights in land. The section 3(iii) of the OSATIP Regulations (1956) is also violated by turning scheduled tribes "effectively" landless. This section provides a minimum benchmark of 2 acres of irrigated or five acres of unirrigated land for ownership by scheduled tribes before any land is their possession can be transferred. By not recognizing their cultivation rights and by evicting scheduled tribe persons from the land possessed and cultivated by them for generations, this provision is violated. Both as per the principal of adverse possession in Orissa Land Reforms Act, 1960 and as per the section 7(a) of Orissa prevention of Land Encroachment Act, 1972, such land should have been settled with the landless persons to the extent of one standard acre (equivalent to 4.5 acres of uplands).

    Similar situation is found in many other tribal villages where plantations have been carried out. Recently eleven tribal women from Nandupalla village of Balangir district were arrested because they opposed Forest department attempts to carry out plantations on land being cultivated by them for last five decades.

    Protected areas (Wildlife sanctuaries and National parks): Almost 8111.55 sq. km.

(5%) of Orissa have been declared as protected areas (Sanctuaries and National Parks). Most of these protected areas are in the Scheduled V areas or in areas where tribal population is high8. Apparently another 18 protected areas are in the pipeline. The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 is a strong regulatory statute which restricts almost all activities inside Protected Areas. These include restrictions on entry to sanctuary (Section 27), removal of forest products including NTFPs (except for bonafide self-consumption), regulation or prohibition of grazing or movement of livestock etc. This effectively exiles people living inside the protected area from civilization, with restrictions on movement of goods and services.

    More than 700 villages are still inside the existing sanctuaries. Apart from these, a large number of un-surveyed villages and settlements exist inside these sanctuaries, mostly of tribal communities, which are treated as encroachments. However, these villages have existed inside the sanctuaries for generations.

    As per the WPA, 1972, many of the villages are supposed to be evicted from the sanctuary areas. Even where they are not being evicted, collection of NTFPs and other forest products are totally restricted, making livelihoods extremely difficult. This has been the cause of regular conflict and has led to impoverishment of people living inside these areas. The powers granted to the Forest department under the WPA, 1972, also helps them in harassing and exploiting the tribals and other marginalized sections.

    Conclusions: The poverty and marginalization of tribals has been a historical process aided by the State formation and extension, and has led to marginalization and impoverishment of a large section of society. Structural factors constraining access to land and forests have played an important and fundamental role in the marginalization process. Larger political factors frame these structural constraints which need to be addressed through political processes.