By Maggie Dougherty ’21
Most years, Wooster’s Global Social Entrepreneurship (GSE) program is distinguished from the Local SE program by one crucial word: global. On any other year, Wooster’s GSE students would be in Bangalore, India, working and living in a context totally different from what most of them are used to. Those of us who did not grow up in India would be experiencing new food, hearing new languages, learning new workplace norms; in all, we would be entirely immersed in the Indian context.
Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, our experience looks dramatically different. Most of us are working from our houses, becoming accustomed to the workplace behaviors of our pets (e.g., dogs barking when we unmute our microphones, cats walking across our desks and knocking things over when the executive director is talking) rather than the culture of the Indian workplace.
Many of us are balancing multiple jobs, either fulfilling responsibilities in family restaurants, campus jobs, or totally new roles that we have found needed to be filled at home.
Our project is not happening during “normal times.” We are working in an unprecedented era, and it calls for creative solutions. Social entrepreneurship is about adapting and coming up with new ideas to address social issues, and I think that this experience has highlighted that more than any other imaginable situation could. Not only has our group had to figure out how to communicate and distribute work evenly from a distance, but we are also actively watching our organization — the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) — as they move to adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The RRI Coalition’s mission is no small goal: they hope to achieve the recognition of land and resource use rights for indigenous and traditional village-level communities across the globe as part of a strategy to create a sustainable economy that does not jeopardize the global environment. The core philosophy of RRI is that recognizing traditional ownership rights can both protect and uplift the livelihood opportunities for rural communities, as well as protect the land and natural resources that they rely on for their survival. Within this goal, they particularly emphasize the potential for women’s empowerment as a key component of rural community empowerment. This means that their work inherently seeks to address inequities in a world of imbalanced power dynamics.
These issues all come together to create a situation of great vulnerability for the tribal communities and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) who RRI works to support. This means that, when mechanisms for governmental accountability are not in place, forest communities are at a high risk of having their rights violated. This major structural problem was eloquently summed up by one of our advisors, Dr. Geetanjoy Sahu, who said “India is very good at passing laws, and also very good at bypassing laws.” We see this in our own project when we look at the legislation that officially recognizes the rights of tribal and other traditional forest dwelling communities in India: The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006, commonly known as the FRA.
The FRA explicitly guarantees a number of rights, allowing Tribal communities and OTFDs to claim both Individual Forest Rights (IFR) and Community Forest Rights (CFR). CFR are especially important, as they provide the legal framework for Gram Sabhas — the village-level organization — to create and implement a forest management plan to sustainably collect a variety of minor forest produce for sale in order to create jobs for members of their community. Despite the major potential of the FRA as a tool for empowerment and livelihood security, the lack of governmental follow-through has led to serious barriers in the fulfillment of rights. For example, the claims process itself is very bureaucratic and often confusing to rural communities, resulting in a high number of rejected claims. Many communities report having to file claims multiple times, having to wait for long delays in processing, or even having to go on strike to have their claims processed.
Often when claims are recognized, they are for smaller tracts of land than what was originally claimed, or with fewer rights than what the community filed for. Moreover, without government regulations, communities are often at the mercy of large contractors who can set low prices for the product collected and processed by tribal people and OTFDs. To counter this, the government has set some Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) that are meant to protect vulnerable communities from these market conditions. However, like with the FRA, the impact of legislature itself without any accountability measures is easily eroded. In the case of MSPs, the prices are sometimes actually set below what communities could normally sell them for on the market, rendering them useless. Other times, MSPs were abruptly removed or rescued with little or no warning. In some cases, it was even written into the legislation that states could simply choose not to implement the MSP scheme.
In other words, it was written into the law itself that the law could be undermined. What is the point, then, of even making the legislation in the first place? Anecdotally, we have heard that this type of legislation only gets passed around election times; so, then, the point is only to briefly gain public support, not to help those that the legislation ostensibly protects. Instead, communities frequently resort to forming large Gram Sabha federations so that they can set their own prices and demand certain insurances from contractors. In the absence of measures to hold the government accountable to its own legislation, vulnerable communities have to find other ways to remain resilient in the face of shocks or negative economic conditions.