08, Sep 2019 | CJP Team
In this story we explore various elements required, the boxes that need to be ticked, before forest dwelling people can file claims for the rightful ownership of land under FRA, 2006. What exactly does it take to claim their lands? Is it just a question of completing a bunch of paperwork? What does the process entail? We explored some of these questions on our visit to Sonbhadra.
On a rainy night in 1995, Ram Khelavan Prajapati’s mud house in Sonbhadra’s Basauli was felled by the forest department. His agricultural tools, utensils, clothes, blankets, everything was thrown into a well nearby. His family had no shelter that night. He lost two of his family members, his wife and his granddaughter immediately afterwards, both of them had caught a cold, and fallen seriously ill after getting drenched in rains. Ram Khelavan is in his eighties now and wears black goggles because he can’t see. All this while he points towards the area where his house used to exist as many as 35 years back. He filed individual forest rights claims, which were rejected as he was asked for documents dating back 75 years. Thereafter, he filed community forest rights in March 2018 claims along with others. They collectively await a “decision”.
Among its four pillars of action, the land and livelihood rights of Adivasis and traditional forest dwellers, is one. CJP, with its expertise in navigating cases of human rights violations in the courts and beyond has been active on the issue; partnering with the All India Union of Forest Working Peoples (AIUFWP) since 2017 to battle any setback to these rights in the courts. This includes legally fighting back against malicious prosecution of leaders of the community and defending the Forest Rights Act, 2006 in the Supreme Court. We stand with the millions of Forest Dwellers and Adivasis whose lives and livelihoods are threatened. Please support our efforts by donating here
India’s forests are home to 104 million Adivasis and other forest dwelling tribes, who have shared a co-dependent relationship with forests. However, the othering of the forest dwelling communities was slowly undertaken and consolidated in public discourse over decades. Terms such as “encroachers” mainly propagated by the urban-centric, English media influenced by the discourse let loose by large corporations and development projects –all with a vested interest in the resources under question — namely the forests and lands rich in minerals.
In 2006, after decades of fierce struggles, many of which turned violent with the might of the state being used against forest dwellers and Adivasis, in which thousands of people lost lives, forest dwellers finally stood vindicated with the passage of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. The Act is a recognition of rights law and 56 years after the enactment of the Constitution, acknowledged the “historical injustice” done to forest dwelling communities especially Adivasis, over decades. The Act gave the communities the power over what was rightfully theirs- the land.
The law, FRA 2006, prohibited any activity, even by the government, on the land claimed by the forest dwellers without prior consent from the village council concerned.
While individual rights legally enable landholders to own, cultivate and invest resources on their land, community forest titles enable all the villagers, including landless people, to access, use and sell minor forest produce and use other forest resources within the traditional boundaries of the land under their cultivation.
As per data collected by Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), about 1.8 million land titles have been given over 5.7 million hectares of forest land in eleven years of the law’s existence, that is, until October 2017. This is merely 14 percent of the forest land on which forest dwellers could potentially claim rights.
The same report says that in the last decade alone, tribal communities across the country have filed 4.21 million claims to acquire forest land under FRA. Only 40 percent or 1.74 million of them have been approved. As many as 79 percent claims were rejected in the state of Uttar Pradesh, highest for any state in India. This was followed by 67 percent rejections in West Bengal, 63 percent in Maharashtra and 59 percent in Madhya Pradesh.
The performance, willingness and rigour of MoTA in implementing FRA has been criticised by experts across the country. Giri Rao of Vasundhara, a Bhubaneswar based non-profit working with tribal communities says, “Only 7,504.32 sq. km of forest land has been recognised, while total forest land under occupation prior to 2005 was 1.12 lakh sq km. Only 6.67 per cent forest land has been recognised till the end of August this year against the countrywide potential of land rights recognition under FRA. MoTA has failed in executing its own responsibility for effective implementation of the Act, except issuance of the letters.”
Roma Malik, the deputy secretary of AIUFWP, in a recent interview to CJP, alleges, “So, since the matter in question is claims over land that is why this law is not being implemented. When it’s the question of money, the government gets good publicity by handling [or giving away] money, in which the contractors benefit. But this is the matter of handing over the land and as per community rights, you have to give the management of land that belongs to the Gram Sabhas to that Gram Sabha itself. And that is why it’s such a big problem.”
But what exactly does it take to claim their lands? Is it just a question of completing a bunch of paperwork? What does the process entail? We explored some of these questions on our field trip to Sonbhadra.
This is a brief and evolving story highlighting the qualitative aspects of the ‘claiming land’ process.
Appendix indicating the documents attached in order to claim land
Form submitted by Forest Rights Committee (FRC) to the Gram Sabha
The nature of community forest rights (materials used in constructing houses, materials used for cooking, common natural resources such as reservoirs)
The villagers make a detailed survey of the land they have inhabited, cultivated, the nearby rivers they are surrounded with, mountains or hills surrounding their village etc. and come up with a detailed map. They actually map their surroundings. A group of villagers take it upon themselves to come up with a map. As can be understood, this is a tedious process. It takes months for the villagers to come up with a map like this:
Map of Village Dhuma
Map of Village Jorukhad
The villagers fill out registers with a family tree dating back 75 years with pictures and thumb signatures of all the members.
Complete list of all forest produce found in each season
(Read our detailed story on forest produce here)
Working plan prepared by the Forest Division between 1973-74 and 1982-83 indicating marketable goods and forest produce
A copy of the Gazetteer (from the colonial era). This has to be collected centrally and involves logistical issues and expense.
Relevant sections of the book, Tribal Administration in India by Amir Hasan which talks about, tribal people, “their region”, administration, pre-independence scene, constitutional provisions for tribal development and administration, land revenue administration, forest administration versus tribals, administration of non-scheduled tribes and administration of scheduled tribes
Roma has highlighted how it has been difficult for forest dwelling people to get these documents, moreover that they are expected to know about these. She further notes:
“No, there is no support from the government. It’s left on the people that they should file the claims. And that they should know [the process, on how to file these claims]. That, they should know the process, their history. They need records. And to collect it [these records] properly they need support. For instance, the forest departments own working plans, management plans from the colonial times, which have documented, the kinds of herbs, flora, fauna, and the rights of people. What were the rights of people? What were the rights of animals, rights of people on farms and agricultural lands etc. at the time?
That time, the British had cadastral maps. It’s important to attach these documents. Then comes the gazetteer, so the law has a provision where you have to give documents for three generations. In Gram Sabhas, the population is mixed, at many places Adivasis are listed as STs [Scheduled Tribes] and at some places they aren’t. So then they are counted as OTFDs [Other Forest Dwellers]. There is another kind of misconception that has been spread about this. That one needs documents dating back to 75 years even though it’s not been mentioned in the Act. In fact the number 75 itself isn’t mentioned. It talks about three generations and three generations could even be counted as 25-30 years. So some claims have been rejected on the basis of the [supposed] 75 years. That’s why it’s important to attach the gazetteer. That’s why we have collected the gazetteer and attached it.”