How Property and Civil Rights Help Forest Tribes Modernize and Prosper

12 Pages Posted: 30 Sep 2020

See all articles by Swaminathan Aiyar

Swaminathan Aiyar

Cato Institute

Neeraj Kaushal

Columbia University - School of Social Work; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Date Written: July 30, 2020


Do historically isolated forest tribes need protection from modernization? Critics claim that modernization, especially through dams and mining, is disastrous for tribes and that tribes-people cannot handle commercial life, are easily duped, and end up destitute. Some modernization projects have fueled Maoist insurrections. However, other examples show that tribes can join mainstream society and prosper if empowered with property rights and civil rights.

We researched the displacement of tribes-people by the Sardar Sarovar Dam in India in the 1980s and early 1990s and found that forced displacement using eminent domain should only be implemented where the public interest is exceptionally strong, as it was in this case. The Sardar Sarovar Dam project had a good rehabilitation package for the tribes-people: those who were displaced are much better off than their former forest neighbors in land ownership, consumer durables, and access to schools and hospitals. However, 54 percent of displaced people wished to return to their old habitat, showing that nostalgia for ancestral land can matter more than material goods. By contrast, a majority (56 percent) of displaced people under age 40 did not want to return. Nearby forest dwellers were asked if they would like to be “forcibly” resettled with the full compensation package. In two forest groups, 31 percent and 52 percent said yes. Clearly many, though not all, tribes-people yearn to leave the jungle.

Land in reserved forests is legally considered government property, and laws treat forest tribes in their ancestral lands as encroachers. The Indian Forest Rights Act of 2006 provided legal title to forest dwellers for land they had been cultivating as of December 2005. With nongovernmental organization assistance, tribes in Gujarat state used global positioning system devices to map their boundaries, superimposed these on Google maps from 2005, and thus claimed title. After getting title, tribes started using tractors. Many grow genetically modified cotton. They have quickly modernized.

The 2006 act also gave tribes property rights over bamboo in forests; other trees belong to state forest departments. Some tribes in Gujarat now supply bamboo to a paper mill and have earned $4.5 million in five years. With property rights, once penniless tribes have become prosperous plantation owners.

Keywords: Civil Rights, Civil Liberties, Forest Tribes, Tribalism, Property Rights, India, Tribes, Maoism, Maoist Insurrection, Tribal Land, Traditional Cultures, Indigenous People

JEL Classification: D5, D50, D51, D52, D6, D60, D63, D64, D8, D81, D86, F00, F01, F02

Suggested Citation

Aiyar, Swaminathan and Kaushal, Neeraj, How Property and Civil Rights Help Forest Tribes Modernize and Prosper (July 30, 2020). Cato Institute, Policy Analysis No. 898, 2020, Available at SSRN:

Swaminathan Aiyar (Contact Author)

Cato Institute ( email )

1000 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20001-5403
United States

Neeraj Kaushal

Columbia University - School of Social Work ( email )

622 W. 113th Street
New York, NY 10025
United States

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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