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Millions at Risk of Eviction as Modi Govt Shies Away from Coordinating States to Review Forest Rights Claims

In the lack of specific guidelines and a central monitoring mechanism, the process to review forest rights claims has varied across states.
forest land.

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With the Modi government abdicating its responsibility of playing a coordinating role in reviewing settlements of claims on forest land, large number of rejections, in many instances above 50%, are being reported from various states. The Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) is yet to set any specific guidelines more than two years after the Supreme Court asked state governments to review rejected claims on forest land under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

In accordance with an order issued in February 2019 by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Justice Arun Kumar Mishra, state governments are at present conducting reviews of claims over forest land that they had already rejected. These claims had been filed as individual and community rights in accordance with the Forest Rights Act, 2006 which is otherwise known as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

In the absence of a central monitoring mechanism and specific guidelines, there is variance in methods applied by state governments to conduct reviews of rejected claims. Consequently, the risk of legitimate claimants being declared encroachers upon their own land is expected to be quite high – which might be in several millions.

As per the latest data of MoTA, a total number of 20,01,919 claims over forest land – in terms of both individual and community rights – had been rejected across the country by the end of February 2021, as against exactly the same number of claims that have been accepted. This works out to roughly 45% rejections across the country, with another 4.61 lakh claims pending for disposal. These figures will be considered as final when presented in the Supreme Court since it is a review that is being conducted in accordance with its orders.

“Madhya Pradesh is conducting reviews of claims through a web-based application. In Odisha, there have been allegations that in certain instances reviews took place directly at district headquarters bypassing Gram Sabhas. There is lack of uniformity in the approach adopted by different state governments in reviewing claims that had earlier been rejected by them. Numbers of rejections following the reviews have also been quite high in many states,” said Odisha-based forests rights’ researcher Tushar Dash.

Are the reviews, even if they lack uniformity across states, being conducted in line with the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006?

Also read: UP: Tharu Tribals Set to Get Community Forest Rights After Prolonged Struggle

The state of Madhya Pradesh, which has introduced the web-based application for reviewing forest rights claims, has a high rate of rejections. Data shows only about 2.30 lakh claims over individual forest rights have been accepted in Madhya Pradesh from over 5.85 lakh claims that were received. It works out to nearly 61% rejections. Similarly, only about 28,000 titles for community rights over forest land have been distributed as against more than 42,000 claims that were filed.

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed in Jabalpur High Court in the last week of June 2021 by a woman belonging to the Mawasi tribe from Satna district alleging that claims made through the Gram Sabha, in accordance with the rules of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, were rejected because they had not been uploaded on the MP Van Mitra portal. It has been argued in the PIL that the process adopted by Madhya Pradesh government violates the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 which envisages only a transparent three-tier monitoring system for settling claims over forest land.

The three-tier monitoring system comprises a Forest Rights Committee formed at the Gram Sabha level followed by reviews by panels formed at the level of the administrative sub-division and district. The petitioner has alleged the state government to have gone beyond the purview of the Forest Rights Act since usage of web-based applications finds no mention in it.

“The excuse given by the sub-divisional level committee is that individual claims, which have been duly accepted and validated by the Gram Sabha, are unable to be processed further on the ground of failure in uploading them on the Van Mitra portal, which as per law is not even a mandatory procedure provided under the Act. The claims are unable to be uploaded because Van Mitra portal does not accept individual claims post-2012, meaning thereby, no claims after 2012 are accepted on the portal,” Jabalpur-based lawyer Amit Seth told NewsClick.

Also read: Over a Dozen Injured During Eviction Drive by Forest Officials in South Kashmir

He went on to add, “It is extremely unimaginable and highly impractical for state government authorities to devise this system whereby the most marginalised people of the society, who are illiterate, are expected to claim their individual rights by going through a technical process of raising a claim through a portal.”

In Odisha, allegations that Gram Sabhas were allegedly bypassed while settling claims over forest land last year, when public assemblies had been prohibited by the government owing to restrictions put in place to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, were denied by the Scheduled Tribe & Scheduled Caste Development, Minorities & Backward Classes Welfare Department.

“Our process to conduct reviews of rejected applications is as per the rules of the Forest Rights Act. In this case, since the instructions were to conduct suo motu reviews, we have asked all district authorities to not wait for rejected applicants to file their appeals. District authorities are required to take up all rejected applications and review them,” the department’s principal secretary, Ranjana Chopra told NewsClick.

“The review work got disrupted due to COVID-related work but we expect to complete the task in a couple of weeks. Odisha has a very low rate of rejection as compared to other states. Instructions have been issued to district level authorities to look at the cases most empathetically,” she added.

But there have been several incidents where claimants have flagged the Odisha state government for not sticking to norms while settling claims. Nearly 2,000 members of certain adivasi communities had staged a protest demonstration in January 2020 alleging that nearly 50% of all claims rejected by the Odisha government until then belonged to Ganjam district alone. The protesters were backed by at least four organisations – the All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha, Adivasi Bharat Mahasabha, Ganjam Zilla Adivasi Manch and Ganjam Zilla Gramsabha Samukhya.

Also read: MP: ‘Over 37,000 Kilometres of Tribal Land to be Handed Over to Corporates’

The state government on its part had claimed that the 6,613 applications that were rejected were from Other Traditional Forest Dwellers where claimants had failed to produce proof of having lived on the forest land for at least three preceding generations. But these rejections were opposed on the ground that committees higher than the Gram Sabhas had no power to cancel claims of Other Traditional Forest Dwellers as per the provisions of the Forest Rights Act.

Similarly, individual forest rights claims filed by nearly 52 families living inside the Chandaka Wildlife Sanctuary on the southern fringe of Cuttack in Odisha were rejected by the state government allegedly without any written communication to the claimants. The claimants were reportedly provided with “oral” information only, in contrary to the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, that their applications were rejected since the land had been leased to someone else. The claimants alleged they could not go for higher appeals because there was no written communication.

The Odisha government has also developed a web-based application – notwithstanding questions raised over the one in use in Madhya Pradesh – in order to streamline settlement of cases pertaining to claims over forest land. Officials informed the application has already been piloted in a few districts and will soon be scaled up for use in the rest of the state. The state government is also in discussions with Odisha Space Applications Centre for developing satellite imagery to aid in the review of claims.

Less than 7,000 titles of community rights over forest land have been distributed by Odisha government out of over 15,000 claims which works out to a rejection rate of nearly 46%. Odisha’s record with individual forest rights is much better though – nearly 4.45 lakh titles have been distributed from over 6.23 lakh claims received – with a rejection rate of 28.57% only.

High numbers of rejections have been reported from many other states. As per a recent report, nearly 80% of applications seeking claims over forest land in Lakhimpur district of Assam have been rejected by the state government. Of the 3,390 applications that had been received by Lakhimpur district administration claiming rights over forest land, more than 2,700 of have been rejected. As per the forest department of Assam, nearly 2,436 hectares of land had been encroached upon by a neighbouring state while 4,440 hectares land had been encroached by local people.

Also read: Adivasi Activists Allege They Were Brutally Thrashed in Forest Department’s Custody in MP

There have been reports of large scale rejection of forest rights claims in the state of Karnataka too. In Mysuru district, numerous applications were summarily rejected last November on the grounds that individual claims over forest land fell within the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve.

The Sub-Divisional Level Committee, it has been alleged, not only failed to recognise land rights of the tribals and subsequently rehabilitate them but also allegedly did not take cognisance of a three-member Karnataka High Court panel’s report which said that tribals displaced from the tiger reserve need to be rehabilitated.

Till February 2020, approximately one year after review directions were issued by the apex court bench, nearly 5.5 lakh applications claiming rights over forest land had been rejected by 14 state governments. The numbers of rejection of claims was highest (92%) for West Bengal as of February 2020.

Again, though the Forest Rights Act states that no eviction should take place till the process of recognition and vesting of forest rights is complete, reports of forced eviction of forest dwellers has been reported from several states.

In Uttarakhand, members of the Van Gujjar tribal community had alleged of assault by Forest Department officials when they refused to vacate their camps in the Rajaji National Park on the grounds that their claims for rights on forest land had been pending with the administration.

There had been scuffles between Forest Department officials and forest dwellers in the buffer zone of the Tadoba Andheri Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra in July last year over the latter’s refusal to vacate land occupied by them.

In another incident, tribals in Burhanpur district of Madhya Pradesh had alleged that Forest Department officials had torched their huts even as their claims were pending for disposal. In Dang district of Gujarat, huts belonging to Scheduled Tribe Forest Dwellers were allegedly torched by Forest Department officials during the nationwide lockdown last year even though claims were pending for disposal. The administration of Dang district displaced the tribal families after comparing satellite imageries of the forest land over previous years even though implementation of this technology is nowhere mentioned in the three-step monitoring process of the Forest Rights Act.

Also read: Forest Fires in North India: A Man-Made Disaster

A query has been emailed to the MoTA asking details of guidelines, if any, that have been issued by it upon state governments for reviewing rejected applications for claims on forest land. No response to the query had been received at the time that this article was being published. The article will be updated as and when the ministry provides its responses.

The three-judge apex court bench, which had earlier ordered largescale eviction of forest dwellers whose claims over forest land had been rejected by state governments on February 13, 2019, only to issue a stay upon it 15 days later, had not spelt out any procedure to be adopted for reviewing the rejections. In consecutive hearings running up to the date on which the bench had issued the eviction order, that is, on February 13, the MoTA as well as the central government had not presented their lawyers in court to defend the Act.

The writer is an independent journalist.

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