Orissa is one of the poorest states in India, with an estimated 47% of its population living below the poverty line. A regional and social group-wise analysis of poverty in Orissa highlights the fact that the tribal and forest dwelling population in tribal areas is comparatively much poorer than the population in plain areas, and that Scheduled Tribes are the poorest groups. The main reason for perpetuation of such poverty among tribal groups is attributed to their lack of control over the land that is the major source of their livelihood. Further, the situation in the tribal areas is critical as is evident by the fact that nearly two thirds of the land in these areas is held by the State, even though more than 60% of the households are either landless or marginal farmers.
There are a large number of processes through which tribals have lost access to land and forests essential for their survival and livelihoods. These processes not only include alienation of land which is legally owned by the tribals through debt mortgaging and sale, but also loss of access to land through reservation of forests, loss of traditional shifting cultivation land through survey and settlement, displacement, unsuitable and unimplemented land reform laws, etc. Over a period of time, all these processes have led to a loss of control and access to livelihood support systems, marginalization, and destitution of tribal communities.
The objective of the Land Rights, Access and Tenure team is to help landless tribal and other poor forest dwellers claim legal rights over long-occupied forest land and revenue wastelands. These rights ensure that these forest-dependent people have democratic control over the resources and over their lives and livelihoods.
The intricacies of land tenure issues and a lack of adequate information on various aspects of this issue shaped Vasundhara’s approach when we ventured into this area. We put much more emphasis on increasing our understanding and building a genuine information base through gaining insights into historical processes of land alienation through action research. Keeping the legal and institutional framework in view, we set our course of action on tracing the historical process of land alienation of tribals under various forms of governance. Our view was that unless the historical perspective was properly researched and subsequently analysed in the context of prevailing revenue and forest laws, the intervention for policy advocacy could not be strengthened. Hence, research on the issue has been undertaken through sample case studies in tribal areas supported by secondary information. The views of academicians, retired government officials, and experts are being sought to strengthen the basis and perspective of the studies. For policy advocacy, our studies are also shared with a large number of civil society organisations including grassroots organisations, policy makers, and government officers. We also facilitate the process of sharing information and networking with other civil society groups, and build their capacity on policy issues.