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Gujarat Elections: No new Claims for Settlement of Forest Rights in the State Since 2017

During the poll campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi blamed governments other than BJP for failing tribal communities.
Gujarat Elections: No new Claims for Settlement of Forest Rights in the State Since 2017

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons 

New Delhi: Even though the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fared miserably in the tribal-dominated constituencies of Gujarat in the Assembly elections of 2017, the party has failed to learn its lessons in the past five years in so far as the settlement of the rights of adivasis or tribal communities is concerned. As per data compiled by the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs, no new claim for rights settlement under the Forest Rights Act 2006 was received during BJP’s rule in Gujarat between 2017-2022.

The total number of claims that the Gujarat government had received for settlement of both individual and community rights from the date of enactment of the Act till June 2017 stood at 1,90,056. The latest report available till June 2022 shows that the figure still stands at 1,90,056! More than 2.75 lakh new applications were received in all other states put together during this particular period.

Similarly, the total number of titles distributed by the Gujarat government, in terms of both individual and community forest rights, during the period spanning 2017-2022 was 11,624. In contrast, more than 4.30 lakh titles were distributed across all other states during this period. Nearly 34,500 claims (or 18% of claims received) are pending settlement in Gujarat at various levels of the state government, as per data available till July 2022. A whopping 31% of the claims received in Gujarat have been rejected.

The high rate of rejection and pendency of claims has multifaceted effects on communities dependent on forests and forest resources for their livelihoods. It includes adverse impacts on collection and marketing of minor forest produce, loss of grazing lands and criminalisation of activities by the forest department, among other issues,” said Azam Danish, a Delhi-based independent researcher.

Various courts of the country, including the Supreme Court of India, have expressed displeasure over the Gujarat government’s lack of initiative and drive to protect the interests of tribal communities. There is a lack of transparency in the manner in which the Gujarat government is implementing directives of the judiciary to undertake a review of claims rejected in the past,” added Danish, who, along with a group of researchers, has recently compiled a study on the status of implementation of Forest Rights Act, 2006 in Gujarat.

The Act – better known as Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition Of Forest Rights) Act – was enacted by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance central government in 2006 to recognise the rights of adivasis and other traditional communities that live over forest land and are dependent upon its resources for their livelihoods.

In May 2013, the Gujarat High Court directed the state government to review rejected forest rights claims from as many as 13 districts of the state. These claims had been trashed despite being sanctioned for approval by the concerned Gram Sabhas. This direction was issued by the high court based on a couple of PILs which alleged that the Gujarat government was tardy in its implementation of the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 even though Scheduled Tribes comprised nearly 14.75% of the total population of the state.

As per the petitioners, the Gujarat government had rejected a whopping 1.13 lakh claims out of the 1.82 lakh claims it had received thus far. Out of these, nearly 45,000 claims were rejected because a minimum of two evidences, as is required under the law in Gujarat, were not produced by the claimants. The Gujarat government, however, justified that these claims were not supported by satellite imagery.

The satellite imagery study was obtained by the Gujarat government from the Gandhinagar-based Bhaskaracharya Institute for Space Applications and Geo-Informatics (BISAG), a state-level agency that provides services and solutions in geospatial technology. The high court had, among other directions, asked the state government to examine rejected claims based on maps and images obtained from sources other than the BISAG.

However, in November 2020, a Gujarat-based NGO, Action Research in Community Health and Development, filed a PIL alleging that as many as 1.28 lakh claims for forest rights were awaiting settlement nearly seven years after the high court had issued its order upon the state government.

Similarly, a three-judge division bench of the Supreme Court headed by Justice Arun Kumar Mishra (now retired) issued an order in February 2019 directing all state governments to undertake reviews of forest rights claims that had been rejected on various grounds.

Despite the aforementioned orders, the Gujarat government has not been totally transparent in the status of the implementation of the provisions of the Forest Rights Act 2006 in the state. The lack of transparency in the review of rejected claims has also affected pastoral communities, even as Gujarat has witnessed large-scale diversion of government land to private corporate entities for industrial use.

The pastoral communities have experienced privatisation of their common grazing lands and loss of avenues for their livelihood activities. Gujarat is home to Banni, one of Asia’s largest tropical grasslands, and it is traditionally nurtured and preserved by its pastoralist communities. The CFR [community forest rights] rights for communities in Banni have been evasive, as titles have not been given on the CFR claims. This has adverse long-term effects on the preservation of significant grassland ecosystems,” states the study report.

Local activists in the Kutch and Saurashtra regions of Gujarat claim that the state government has yet to award titles to as many as 47 claims filed since 2014 by communities living in the Banni area. In response to a question tabled in the Parliament by Lok Sabha MP Asaduddin Owaisi, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs informed the following through a written response on July 25, 2022:

“ … the State Government of Gujarat has informed that in 55 villages of Banni area of Bhuj Taluka of Kutch District, village level Forest Right Committee have been formed under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (in short FRA). In these villages, no FRA community claims have been vested so far. The 47 community claims have been sanctioned at the level of Sub-Divisional Level Committee and lie with District Level Committee for further sanction.”

Activists and social organisations in Gujarat allege that the state government's track record is far more dismal when settling claims of traditional forest-dwelling communities other than those belonging to Scheduled Tribes. A mere 1,081 community rights titles were distributed between 2017-2022.

There are a large number of pastoral communities in the Saurashtra region, too, including the Rabbari, Charan and Bharwar communities. There are pastoral communities in the Kutch region that have traditionally depended upon the herding of Kharai camels in the coastal mangroves as the source of their livelihoods. A number of these communities have applied for claims over forest land, but these are pending at different levels,” said Ramesh Bhatti of Bhuj-based NGO Sahjeevan, which works in the fields of environment, ecology and tribal rights.

Even as communities traditionally dependent on natural resources along the coast of Gujarat are awaiting settlement of their claims under the Forest Rights Act, large tracts of land, particularly along the Gulf of Kutch and the Gulf of Cambay, have been diverted for industrial development over the past few decades of BJP rule in Gujarat.

Nevertheless, in a recent election campaigning tour to the poll-bound state, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in Jambughoda in the Panchmahal district that previous governments, including the Congress, had neglected the “all-round development” of tribal areas. He said that a ministry dedicated exclusively to the welfare of tribal communities was first formed when the late BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the country's prime minister. During his campaign, Modi enlisted several development projects undertaken to benefit the tribal communities in the state.

A set of queries were emailed to the Tribal Development Department of Gujarat, asking, amongst other questions, to provide information on why no new claims for settlement of forest rights have been filed in Gujarat since June 2017. No response had been received to these queries when this news article was published. This article will be updated as and when we receive the replies.

The BJP will contest the upcoming Gujarat Assembly polls, which will be held in two phases in early December, to defend its 23 years of unbroken rule in the state. It had won 99 seats in all in the Assembly elections of 2017 but had managed to bag only 9 out of the 27 seats reserved in the state for members of Scheduled Tribe communities. Its tally of seats went down by 16 compared to the previous polls held in 2012. However, the Congress increased its seat share, from 61 in the polls of 2012 to 77 in the 2017 polls, primarily because of its strong showing in the tribal-dominated constituencies in which it won 15 of the 27 seats.

The writer is an independent journalist.

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