Six months post the abrogation of Article 370, which led to land reorganisation in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, tribals in the region are now fighting a battle for the recognition and the implementation of Forest Rights Act, now applicable to the territory.
According to the 2011 census, the Gujjars and Bakkarwals constitute 11.9% of the state’s population – 1.5 million out of a total population of 12.5 million. Most of the one million Gujjars live in mountainous areas where they depend heavily upon livestock rearing and small-scale agriculture. Over the years, many pastures have remained out of bounds for nomads because of armed conflict in Kashmir.
Before the special status of the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir was abolished by the Union Government on August 5, 2019, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (also known as the Forest Rights Act) was not applicable in the state. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Jammu unit had cited the erstwhile semi-autonomous status of J&K as the main reason for non-implementation.
Also read: J&K: Tribal Claims in Forest Areas to Resurface After Abrogation of Art 370
Speaking to NewsClick, Javed Rahi of the Tribal Research and Cultural Development, said, "With the reorganisation, the FRA along with many other acts such as the Conservation Act of 1980 were to come into force in the region. We have been writing to the LG, by submitting a memorandum to implement these acts. Gujjar-Bakarwals, the nomads and the pastoralists are suffering enormously, but the process of the implementation of these acts have not even taken off.”
The activists state that the onus is now on the tribal ministry to implement the act.
As the Union Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda is on a visit to newly formed union territory for an outreach programme, the tribal groups are now gearing up to build pressure on him to consider their demands.
Speaking to NewsClick, Masud, an activist from the region, said, "There is nothing but status quo being maintained on this issue, there is no talk around it."
Under the Forest Rights Act, traditional forest dwellers are protected against forced displacements and have other rights as well, which include grazing rights, access to water resources and access to forest products (except timber). With the implementation of the central Forest Rights Act, the tribal communities and forest dwellers have been empowered to reclaim their rights over forests. So far, the state forest laws, according to tribal activists, only gave grazing rights to forest dwellers.
The lack of initiative from the Centre to implement the act comes in the background of enormous interest in the land of the state. Over a hundred projects on forests lands have been cleared recently with illegal construction picking up pace in the region.
On August 5, 2019, the Union Government passed the Jammu & Kashmir Reorganisation Act in Parliament. As per this Act, 153 acts of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir have been repealed, 166 acts have been retained from the former state and 106 new laws have been applied.
Earlier, due to the special provisions under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, the mountainous erstwhile state was empowered to constitute its own laws and had the discretion of implementing or not implementing central laws in the state.
Also read: Forest Rights Act vs Indian Forest Act: Conservation or Conservatism