Course:FRST370/2022/The combination of the customary and legal framework in community forestry in the State of Rajasthan, India

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The tribal communities of Rajasthan have been using the ways of community forest management (CFM) since time immemorial. These communities and their forests are vulnerable to the paradigm shift to urbanization. As a result, their forests have been at risk of deforestation for urban development or resource extraction [1]. Due to its colonial history, India has seen many reforms in the context of forest tenure and management over the past century, shifting the rights of local and forest peoples [2]. This wiki page examines the current state of Rajasthan’s legal framework surrounding community forestry and its interactions with the existing systems in place within forest communities. Specifically, it examines Rajasthan’s Joint Forest Management (JFM) program as an attempt to devolve power to local communities that meet both local and state goals. Finally, the current shortcomings of this program are analyzed, and the recommendations listed aim to create a more inclusive and equitable future for community forestry in Rajasthan, India.


Rajasthan, India, Joint Forest Management, Forest Rights Act, Women’s rights.


Geographical data of forest lands in Rajasthan

Location of Rajasthan in Northwestern India

Rajasthan is India’s largest state, with an area of 342,239 km² or 34.2 million ha [3]. The state has a population of 78,230,816 and a population density of 200 people per km² [4]. The geographical region of Rajasthan is categorized as dry land, containing a vast amount of arid or semi-arid land. The region receives marginal amounts of precipitation each year and has difficulty supporting vegetation of all types [1]. Due to this, only 9.54% of its total land area is classified as forested land [1]. Of this 9.54%, 53% of forest lands are classified as protected land owned by the government, 39% are reserved forestlands, and 8% remain unclassified [1]. The forest itself is not evenly distributed throughout Rajasthan. The eastern and southern sections contain the majority of the forested land, while the western section is mostly desert [1].

Historical context of the Joint Forest Management program

With Rajasthan’s vegetation being mostly grasses and shrubbery, the people of Rajasthan have always been dependent on their forested lands [1]. Historically, the people of Rajasthan have always depended on the livestock industry. With the ever-increasing population, the number of livestock has also increased drastically, resulting in overgrazing and environmental degradation [1]. Many of the Oran and Gauchars, places to house and worship local deities, have fallen into misuse and have been dubbed wasteland by the government [5][6]. In 1864, the Rajasthan government began its first steps towards controlling the forested lands and creating government-sanctioned community forestry. The open forest policy stance that the post-colonialism government upheld until 1864 began to change as the Rajasthan Forest Department assembled [1][7]. The Indian Forest Act was implemented the following year, allowing governments to declare certain areas of forested land as government-owned land [1]. In 1878 a new Indian Forest Act was created, classifying forested land into three categories; reserved forests, protected forests, and village forests [1]. This act resulted in massive losses to the rights of tribes and dwellers, with a particular focus on the loss of withdrawal and usage rights, in many cases management and access rights [7]. However, some communities in specific states have formed or continued to practice community-based forest management (CFM) [8]. A shift began when the 1980 Forest Conservation Act (FCA) was implemented. The FCA prohibited the non-forest use of forestland without governmental approval, and it advocated for sustainable forest management via a participatory approach, including the Joint Forest Management program, which was launched on a national scale in 1990 [1][6][7]. As of 2009, JFM was implemented in 21 million hectares of forest lands across India, involving approximately 100,000 communities countrywide [6]. Now both CFM and JFM programs exist in many parts of India [7].

Tenure arrangements

As the princely states joined independent India, all forest lands in Rajasthan came under possession of the national and state governments. Although the most recent developments in Rajasthan’s forest policy acknowledge the rights of tribal and forest communities to their land, this legal jurisdiction persists [9]. Before the new joint forest management (JFM) framework was made, many communities already formed community forest management (CFM) councils. Customary law determined access, extraction, and management rights, however with no legal tenure these rights had no real protection beyond the community’s own internal enforcement of their agreed upon rules.

When JFM began to be implemented, participation was dependent on a community as defined by a revenue boundary. These revenue villages have government recognition as they pay taxes to the central government [3]. In return, they receive support in building infrastructure and amenities such as recognition of their forest rights. However, due to the nature of this participation structure, larger communities reliant on the same area may have one village excluded, or in the case of some forest and tribal peoples, no legal recognition may be gained [9]. When determining what forest lands qualify for JFM systems, both forest lands and local degraded lands may be considered for reclassification as a community forest [9]. This broader definition was chosen to encourage India’s afforestation goals, however this reclassification can impact gauchers and results in a loss of use rights for grazing in some areas.

Narayanpur Tatwara in Rajasthan, India. A village community on the edge of forested lands

To summarize, almost all land is exclusively owned by the state government, resulting in them having the greatest level of legal authority on the land. However, in practice, many areas are already self-organized to develop community forestry systems using customary law to regulate extraction levels and manage forest lands [7]. In recent years, the government of Rajasthan has worked to create a system that attempts to give legal recognition to these community forests, although it fails to significantly confer additional strands of the bundle of rights [10].

Bundle of rights conferred by the Joint Forest Management program as compared to other National Forest lands[3][7][11]
Rights by state and national law National forest (Forest Rights Act) Joint forestry management program
Access No Yes
Withdrawal/Use Forest reclassification resulted in severe losses of withdrawal and use rights across India Withdrawal of specific NTFPs such as mahua flowers are managed by government laws, other NTFPs fall under purview of the local committee.
Exclusion All exclusion now controlled by the national and State governments. The JFM program automatically excludes those outside of the revenue boundary. However, internally the committee may exclude members of the community who do not abide by the rules placed
Management All legal management power given to the State government, no community consultation required for any actions taken by state actors. Management decisions are made by the executive committee elected by the adults of all households within the community
Alienation N/A Unclear
Duration N/A Unclear
Bequeathment N/A No
Extinguishability N/A No

Institutional/Administrative arrangements

After the initial forest reforms by the national government, catastrophic failure of the national forest system to improve degraded lands or alleviate local economic crises resulted in both local and international communities placing pressure upon the Indian government to seek an alternative system [9]. Decentralization began by the placing of forest classification under state control. Thus Rajasthan’s state government is now the key implementer of forest policy in the region. The initial reforms were largely linked to the Scheduled Tribe and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, and sought to improve the recognition of traditional and ancestral land rights in Rajasthan [9]. To this end, recognized groups were offered citizenship [9]. Those registered through their citizenship were then allowed to elect their own local authorities to help govern their adjacent forest lands and better control their own local decision making processes.

Prior to JFM implementation, most CFM arrangements involved a general council of all village adults, as well as an executive council selected through election, inheritance, or village consensus [7]. In contrast, Rajasthan’s JFM program functions on an arrangement with a general committee represented by all adult members of the community, a significant deviation from the most common CFM model [7]. Although regional names differ, these JFM committees take on the name of the Village Forest Protection and Management Committee (VFPMC) [3]. These committees gradually gain more control on their enforcement policy, but are initially overseen by a government appointed warden to discourage corruption or forest decisions that might go against the program’s ecological preserving intentions. The warden also helps with the enforcement of the community laws surrounding forest access and withdrawal. During the initial 3 years of implementation, the warden and forest department are intended to play a more present role during an acclimatization period to support new JFM management [7]. The executive committee is also reformed to include at least three women (one-third of the committee), and must be elected by the general committee [12]. Even when this JFM council replaces the previous selection system for an executive committee many women are unable to play an active role in the decision making process [7].

Joint and conflicting goals under the JFM program

Gauchers and Grazing lands

Gauchers are the result of a strong interest in having some areas of forest land designated for cattle grazing. This form of land use has been associated with land degradation, but grazing lands have been a historical practice that only became a concern due to agricultural intensification and post colonial person land degradation [13]. Some CFM models, such as that seen in Bada Bhilwara were made in line with governmental goals to reduce degradation [7].


Madhuca longifolia, also known as the mahua flower. An important NTFP for both economic and medicinal use to tribal peoples across India[14].

Many communities desire the right to designate sites of religious importance. These areas have limited access rights for the entire community, but can greatly contribute to local biodiversity and conservation efforts while supplying important cultural and medicinal plants [5][13]. Many traditional religious sites have existed for time immemorial in India, and are significant sites of ecological and societal importance. The value of religious beliefs as a way to conserve forest lands has previously been recognized by the government in the efforts of the Bishnoi religious identity in protests against logging [15]. However, large scale land classifications have historically overlooked many orans as cultivable wastelands by the state government and distributed to different stakeholders without consideration of their local religious importance [13].

Harvesting rights

Harvesting Rights are the key focus of forest livelihoods. This portion of the bundle of rights has several levels of administrative arrangements involved. From government control of Tendu leaf and mahua flower harvesting guidelines, to the religious limitations on harvesting green plants in Bishnoi communities [11][15][16]. Finally, in JFM and CFM arrangements the community will agree on harvesting limits for the community members. To help compensate for limited harvesting rights, efforts to set minimum prices have been taken by both the government of Rajasthan in the form of the regulated market [11][16]. In addition, there is a collective of NTFP harvesters within the JFM programs in the region known as the Large Sized Aadivasi Multipurpose Co-operative Society (LAMPS) [11]. LAMPS and the regulated market both function to help protect harvesters from exploitation as well as to collect NTFP products in large enough quantities to be sold on national and international markets for wholesale purposes [11].

Affected Stakeholders

Bishnoi Community

A memorial site for the 363 Bishnoi people that died in a historic protest against logging in Khejarli Village, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India.

The Bishnoi community are an eco-religious group who present a unique intersection between political, environmental, and religious values. Within the community, the idea of harming a ‘green tree’ or living plant life is ideologically unjust within their philosophy of nonviolence. Ecologically this idea serves to protect both vulnerable plant life and wildlife habitat, a cause which the Bishnoi have supported, with records of protest events going back as far as 1730. Protests have functioned on a basis of sacrifice, and have been recognized by the Indian government for their contribution to national forest conservation [15].

Tribal peoples and Indigenous Adivasi

Rajasthan’s tribal peoples and Indigenous Adivasi can be described as the historical communities and forest-dependent peoples, often associated with terms such as marginalized [10]. In the FRA, tribal peoples has been used interchangeably with scheduled tribes [17]. The tribes depend on the forests and gauchars for their livelihoods including agriculture, horticulture, livestock raising, and NTFPs [1][18]. They hold full citizenship rights to vote and contest elections [19].

Other traditional forest dwellers

Forest dwellers are “any member of [a] community who has for at least three generations [one generation = 25 year period] prior to the 13th of December, 2005 primarily resided in and who depend on the forest or forests land for bona fide livelihood needs” [17]. This includes those who were forced to relocate their dwelling due to state development interventions [1].

Forest villagers

Forest villagers are those who inhabit settlements which have been “established inside forests by the FD of any State Government for forestry operations or which were converted into forest villages through the forest reservation process” [17].

Women in tribal and small communities

Women form their own category of affected stakeholders due to their vulnerability from the gender and power dynamics in Rajasthan. Women are mainly involved in non-timber forest collection and actively as forest caretakers by patrolling and gathering seed [3]. They are highly dependent on forest resources for subsistence use and their livelihoods [2].

Community or Village traders

Village traders remain one of the primary intermediates between NTFP harvesters and marketplaces in Rajasthan [11]. These traders are the most consistent source of income for many minor forest product harvesters due to immediate returns for their harvest and their travel from the village to the regulated market. They ultimately rely on the government to control prices at the regulated market. Thus, both the traders and the harvesters are price takers rather than price makers [11].

Interested Stakeholders

Indian federal government

India’s highest level of government is the federal (union) government [20]. The government was responsible for the enactment of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 [17]. The departments involved in passing this legislation was the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Ministry of Law and Justice [17].

The state government

The Rajasthan Legislative Assembly in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Rajasthan’s state government is the most critical governing stakeholder in regards to CFM and JFM. The state is in charge of forest management and operations. In particular, the forest department oversees village committees through the JFM partnership and is heavily involved in afforestation, timber marketing, and plantation forestry [11]. The federal department’s main objectives are to retain power and control forest resources [3].

Non-governmental organizations

There are a variety of non-governmental organizations involved in community forestry at various levels. The role of these organizations are largely undocumented, not investigated, and out of this research scope. It is crucial to recognize that they all have different positionalities on JFM. Some may align with the forest department and donor agencies and think that JFM is pivotal for improving forest cover, others may disagree and think that JFM is an outdated regime [3]. NGOs have been a major contributor to forest devolution from 1990-2010 by pressuring the government’s stance [9]. In other cases, organizations such as the Foundation for Ecological Security has worked with VFPMCs on community-use memberships in Udaipur to support inclusive representation of hamlets in executive positions [3].

Jangal Jameen Andolan

The Jangal Jameen Andolan are a major organization voicing the injustices of the government against the native people of Rajasthan [1]. They perform data collection on encroacher villages and families that should have been regularized and submit information on excluded encroacher groups to the tribal commissioner of Rajasthan to get their claims accepted [1].

Assessment of Rajasthan's forest governance and power analysis

The power dynamic between social actors is contingent on the rights and regulations enacted by the FRA and the state’s JFM program. The Indian judicial system follows the common law inherited from the British colonial period, based on recorded judicial precedent [21]. Given that the FRA is statutory law enacted by Parliament, the recognized tribes and forest dwellers have secured legal rights [17]. They can pursue the FRA over government and industrial land disputes, thus shifting the power dynamic and authority to forest dwellers. However, not all states are governed by the same rules. For instance, Jammu and Kashmir are excluded from the FRA [17]. The Niyamgiri Movement in Odisha State is an example of the solidification of the power of the FRA [22]. The “Supreme Court cited FRA to uphold the right of local Gram Sabhas,” which led to the rejection of the State’s mining site proposal [18][22]. A turning point for case law that set precedent and put forth the power of the FRA.

Local communities and the forest department

Forest governance is structured to ensure the states’ ownership and control of forest lands through JFM. The decentralization of state supervision to VFPMCs is a deception to “satisfy donors and co-opt activists while retaining primary control over resources” [3]. The federal department would collaborate with VFPMCs which are run by local elites to secure forest protection in exchange for legal aid [10]. The state’s goals conflict with the needs of tribes and dwellers who are dependent on the forests for their livelihoods [18]. Thus, the alignment with the elite enables the exclusion, marginalization, and eviction of tribes from claimed forest lands. In practice, the federal department may nominate members of the committee as a formality, but the institution is not accountable to community members and can dissolve committees [10][18].

Women in JFM communities

JFM has changed the power dynamics of women in their local communities, often associated with worsening their conditions, despite the policies to increase their participation. One requires the VFPMC executive committee to include three women members [23]. However, the committee would select inexperienced tribal women instead of electing them, resulting in an unjust process and representation of women [2]. Secondly, women face exclusion by community members due to the tenure reform, which has eliminated their access to forest resources for their subsistence needs due to the shift to private property from common pool resources [2]. Women have had to become dependent on their male relatives or access forest resources through illegal means [2]. There are mixed opinions because women in some communities have had decision-making powers when men are not present. Or women are recognized as equal members of society to men, rooted in the philosophy of Jambhoji in the Bishnoi community [15]. However, men continue to have power through ownership rights at the household level and capitalist patriarchy [2]. The Bhil tribal women are an example of the inequities and inequalities faced by women. The FRA committee would undermine their ability to be involved in decision-making and manage the forest collectively [2].

Importance and influence of stakeholders in JFM[1][3][10][18]
High Importance Low importance
High influence
  • Local VFMPC members
  • Government appointed Warden
  • Rajasthan State government
  • Peripheral or non-local VFMPC members
  • Jangal Jameen Andolan
Low influence
  • Tribal peoples and Indigenous Adivasi
  • Forest villagers
  • Village traders
  • Non-governmental organizations


Upon initial review, the JFM program of Rajasthan seems to function well to legitimize existing customary management structures. The JFM program helps establish VFPMCs by allowing them to use some government owned forestlands. Also, by assisting the new VFPMCs for three years through the Forest Department as they adapt to the JFM way of life [7]. These 3 years of support also allows JFM to create new VFPMCs in deforested areas through the process of afforestation, whereas a village on its own would not be able to support such a project [7]. JFM’s VFPMCs receive a lot of support from the Forest Department, donor agencies, and NGOs. Part of this support is shown in their executive committee. Three to four of each VFPMC’s executive members are from outside agencies to help provide unbiased opinions and add more experienced viewpoints [3]. Finally, VFPMCs are initiated by the government, and each operates with the same rules, so they are easy to replicate and do not have to worry about which rules work and which do not [7].

In practice, it becomes clear that JFM is not providing as many benefits as CFM for the majority of its intended goals [7]. JFM, while it does help establish new villages, often excludes the villages that are residing beside the JFM forest if they are not associated with the VFPMC in charge. This causes friction over the tenure rights of traditional lands [3]. When asked for their opinion on the JFM program and the potential for those not included to lose their traditional rights, a local resident of Kyara ka Khet declared that  “[The] Forest Department and NGOs came now; but we have protected this forest for years. … Now if the Forest Department or people of Chitravas decide to keep us out of it, do you think we will listen to them?” [3].

JFM programs related to afforestation also become extremely costly if they are not implemented properly. In many scenarios, the Forest Department retracts its support after the 3-year term ends, which causes the collapse of the VFPMCs. The committees have not learned how to support themselves yet [7]. In comparison, CFM have been working for countless generations and are still providing more forest-based benefits than JFM [7]. JFM’s mixed committee, including non-community members, leads to power imbalances based on state policy and solutions that fail to be site specific. While CFM’s executive committee is made up of their own community members who hold a wealth of knowledge for the specific area that they manage [7]. This specificity is one of the greatest benefits of CFM as it allows it to be adaptable and react to scenarios in situ rather than JFMs rigid rules that are a ‘one size fits all’ approach [7]. JFM VFPMCs also gain very little from their NTFP as the intermediaries gain the majority of their value. It has been challenging to prove that the NTFP came from within their own JFM land, not the surrounding land.  CFMs do not worry about this because their land is not legally defined [3].

The only areas JFM exceeds CFM are job provision and household income, but this is because CFMs have more houses than JFM [7]. CFMs are better at maintaining sustainability, biodiversity of tree species, basal area of the trees, fuelwood extraction, and overall income than JFM [7]. So, while JFM is not a negative program as it is helping Rajasthan with its ever-decreasing forests, CFM appears to produce better results for both sustainability and livelihood despite being outside of the government's control.

Assessment and Recommendations

Integration of successful CFM managements into legal systems

The implementation of JFM in Rajasthan must become a more flexible system in response to existing local CFM frameworks. While this may have been an initial intended goal of the system, the surrounding legal frameworks and innate power imbalances identified in this case study prevent all community members from being able to capitalize on this program and thrive. Revenue villages and exclusion rights must be reconsidered and included in the framework. Also, there needs to be allowance for JFM boundaries to be redesigned based on community management plans and redefine the local community to include all existing users of forest land. It is crucial to truly ensure that all voices are heard in a given region. Presently, many JFM boundaries and VFPMCs are defined by their nearest revenue village rather than the communities historically using the area [9].

Improved Tenure and rights

To improve upon this, community forest models must move away from the revenue village and citizenship based identification systems in order to expand upon who is considered a stakeholder for a given area of forest land. This may slow implementation speeds due to the necessity to tailor each system. However resolving issues of JFM tenure and boundaries may assist in clarifying issues surrounding NTFP harvests and create an opportunity for harvesters to maintain the village trader system within their community [11]. Clarification of land classification may also be both ecologically and culturally beneficial in the case of reclassifying Orans as protected areas customarily and legally. While JFM forests are already identified as areas of increased biodiversity, Orans provide an additional protected area with their own specific harvesting laws and historically high degree of species richness [8][13]. Thus their inclusion in legal land classification would both reaffirm cultural values of local communities and meet governmental conservation goals.

Empowering minorities

Unlike CFM models, the implementation of JFM was intended to help improve the rights and representation of female members of associated forest communities. As seen with women's rights in VFPMCs, the current system of ensuring they are represented in the executive councils does not remove existing power structures. An extended period of supervision by government representatives may be necessary to reduce conflict or danger to vulnerable community members participating in VFPMCs. The relative power dynamic continues to leave the state government with the greatest power despite the formation of smaller local governance systems. A greater discussion with the populace along with an awareness of their goals and needs must be undertaken for true devolution of power to occur. For this to transpire equitably, the voices of all stakeholders must be taken into account, not just those viewed as citizens or heads of their households.


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Theme: Joint Forest Management
Country: India
Province/Prefecture: Rajasthan
City: N/A

This conservation resource was created by Karman Phuong, Tanner Wick, Grace Williams.
It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0.