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How to Steal a Forest: Mining, Bureaucratic Sabotage and India’s Forest Rights Act

May 11, 2018

This talk by journalist Chitrangada Choudhury traced how substantive decision-making power over extractive projects is denied to India’s indigenous and forest-dwelling communities, even as they have clinched rights to ownership and consent, under the landmark Forest Rights Act, 2006.

Examining the ‘free, prior, informed consent’ mechanism provided under the act, Chitrangada argued that the possibilities and limits of such mechanisms are shaped by the larger state-bureaucratic architecture and practices that govern the process of corporate/state takeover of forests from rural communities – ‘forest diversion’ in officialese. Analyzing a case of a forest diversion proposal for an iron ore mine in eastern India’s resource-rich state of Odisha, Chitrangada demonstrated how consent provisions are derailed by ‘bureaucratic sabotage’ i.e. the power of corporations and state officials to control and manipulate the circulation of documents across different tiers of government. Prior to the Forest Rights Act, forest diversion processes cast forest-dwelling communities as absent subjects. Following its enactment, such processes include forest-dwelling communities, but as pliant subjects, free only to award consent.

Read one of Chitrangada’s recent articles on forest rights in The Hindu: Anti-forest, anti-forest dweller.

Chitrangada Choudhury is an independent journalist, based in Odisha, and was a 2017-18 Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. She has been a reporter with The Indian Express and The Hindustan Times, and written for outlets including The Caravan, The Economic & Political Weekly, Columbia Journalism Review, Himal Southasian, The Guardian and The Hindu. Her reportage has probed power and marginality in a country in flux, and been named for  multiple national and international reporting awards including the Press Council of India’s National Excellence in Journalism Award and the Lorenzo Natali Journalism Prize. She has been a part of the founding group of The People’s Archive of Rural India, a multi-lingual website launched in 2014, and devoted to covering rural citizens, systematically overlooked by India’s mainstream media. As an Open Society Fellow, she chronicled the impact of resource conflicts on the lives of indigenous and rural communities in India’s forested mineral belt.