MP: Online or Offline, Accessing Forest Rights an Insurmountable Task for Tribals
A protest underway in Burhanpur by the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (Photo sourced by Sanavver Shafi, 101Reporters)
Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh: Sahdev Bhavedi (55), a Baiga tribal from Dhangaon, lives in a hut that has no power connection. Like most of the Adivasis in the Mohgaon block of Mandla district, his family has been growing a variety of crops, including rice, wheat, Kodo millet, maize, gram, pigeon pea, lentil, ramtil (Niger seed) and mustard, on the forest land for generations. To date, he has not received Individual Forest Rights (IFR) under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also known as Forest Rights Act (FRA).
Tribals and other traditional forest dwellers in 12 villages of Mohgaon block face a similar plight. “No patta (land title) means no benefits under government schemes like PM/CM Kisan Samman Nidhi, no subsidy on fertilisers or seeds, and not even household power connections. Above all, there is this fear of displacement. If the forest department feels like taking action, we are in for big trouble,” he said.
Bhavedi and Siyaram Jharia, another Adivasi whose source of livelihood is eight acres of ancestral property, claimed that they have applied for pattas for years together. They also took the pain to apply on the MP Van Mitra portal twice, though they were not familiar with the online system. Yet, the claims came to nought. There was no intimation from the government regarding the rejection either.
According to Census 2011, Madhya Pradesh has the highest tribal population (1.53 crore) in the country. The FRA recognises individual and community land ownership claims of tribal and forest-dwelling communities if they submit evidence that they have been residing in the forest on or before December 13, 2005, and have been dependent on it for their livelihood. This way, a tribal household can claim ownership of up to 10 acres of forest land. The claims are scrutinised at the gram sabha and at the sub-divisional and district levels.
In Mandla block, women hold up their forest rights documents (Photo sourced by Sanavver Shafi, 101Reporters)
In 2008, Wildlife First, the Wildlife Trust of India, Nature Conservation Society, and Tiger Research and Conservation Trust moved the Supreme Court (SC) to assess the constitutional validity of the FRA, while arguing that it would promote deforestation and encroachment. Hearing the petition, the court, on February 13, 2019, ordered the eviction of all those whose claims were rejected under the FRA. Over one crore tribals across 20 states came close to becoming homeless with this order.
Two weeks later, the court stayed the eviction proceedings on a petition from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and directed all states to re-examine whether due process of law was followed while rejecting the claims. Since then, the court has issued around 240 notices to the chief secretaries of different states, ordering them to submit affidavits on the status of FRA implementation. However, no hearing has taken place between January 22, 2020, and September 13, 2022, due to the COVID-19 issue.
The three-judge constitutional Bench had scheduled its final hearing for November 10 last, but it did not take it up due to the retirement of Justice Indira Banerjee. Right now, the formation of a new constitutional Bench is awaited.
In December 2019, in a first-of-its-kind initiative in the country, the Madhya Pradesh government launched the Van Mitra portal and mobile app to review rejected claims and to simplify the process of claim redressal. According to an affidavit filed by the state in the SC, 3,54,787 (61.2%) of the total 5,79,411 IFR claims received between 2008 and January 2019 were rejected.
Once the Van Mitra portal became active, 6,27,513 claims (5,85,326 individual and 42,187 community) were received till November last. Of them, only 2,94,585 claims (2,66,609 individual and 27,976 community) were approved.
With no solution in sight, over 300 tribals recently launched a campaign for pattas in the Mandla district and submitted a personal memorandum to the district Collector. Sharda Yadav, a Narmada Ghati Navnirman Samiti leader who played a key role in mobilising people for the campaign, informed 101Reporters that tribals and other traditional forest dwellers in 89 tribal development blocks in the state faced problems with claims.
woman from Badwani examines her IFR papers (Photo sourced by Sanavver Shafi, 101Reporters)
“I am sure most of the tribals will get to know about the rejection of their claims if and when the forest staff take action against them. There is a provision in the FRA to inform the claimant in writing so that they can appeal against the rejection. But that is not followed,” Yadav said.
Suraj Saharia, who helped the Saharia tribals of Guna district to get land titles through the social service organisation Ekta Parishad, said several letters had been sent to both the Collector and Chief Minister regarding the claims, but the problem persisted. “As many as 2,822 individual and 4,679 community claims have been rejected in Guna's Bamori tehsil. A March 2022 report of the Van Mitra portal and the mobile app said 6,202 claims have been rejected in Aron, Guna, Chachoda, Bamori and Raghogarh tehsils.”
Trial and Error
Several members of the Bhil, Bhilala, Barela, Gond and Korku communities in the Burhanpur district have not received land rights even years after they made FRA claims. A Bhilala tribal from Sunod in Burhanpur, Tulsia Bai (75), made individual claims on the forest land thrice, but all of them were rejected without any explanation. The first two were offline applications, made in 2010 and 2013. In 2020, she tried her luck again through the Van Mitra portal, but nothing changed for her.
Likewise, Tukaram (90) applied for forest rights on an eight-acre plot 10 years ago but was rejected three years later by the Sub-Divisional Level Committee (SDLC). The portal raised some hope, so he applied again in 2020. That, too, was a failure. “If my 20-member family is evicted, where will we go,” he asked.
As per the rules, the panchayat should convene a gram sabha meeting to constitute a Forest Rights Committee (FRC) and elect a chairperson and secretary for it. The FRC does the first level of physical verification of claims.
Antram Awase, the FRC secretary for Siwal village in Nepanagar tehsil of Burhanpur, told 101Reporters that the panchayat secretary (an FRC member elected by gram sabha) should visit the plot for physical verification of a claim, along with the talukdar and beat guide of the forest department. “This procedure is mostly ignored. Not only that, the officials are adept at rejecting claims. They even upload fake proposals and old photos by logging into the portal,” he alleged.
Denying the allegations, Siwal Panchayat Secretary Sunil Patel told 101Reporters that the plots were duly visited and the gram sabha concerned was informed about it. Any information would be uploaded into the portal only after taking those two steps.
“The FRA gives a tribal family the right to claim up to 10 acres. However, families here occupy 20 to 25 acres each. Only when tribals make the claims that they learn about the 10-acre rule. As they do not want to leave the rest of the land, another claim is filed in the name of a family member, which results in the rejection of both applications,” Patel said.
To make FRA claims through Van Mitra, the applicant should create a user login ID and set a password. Once the application is submitted, the FRC officials can review the uploaded documents by logging in with their personal IDs and commenting against each submitted document.
It is then forwarded to the SDLC and later to the District Level Committee (DLC) with the required recommendations. The DLC takes a decision on the recommendation only after consulting with the gram sabha. If the claim is allowed, the approved claim certificate is uploaded by affixing the necessary signature and seal. The claimant can download the certificate from the portal. If the claim is rejected, the reason for the same should be mentioned in the portal.
By now, it is clear that the system does not work properly. What's more, the portal is functional only in the Anuppur, Alirajpur, Umaria, Chhatarpur, Ratlam, Rewa, Sidhi and Narmadapuram districts of the state.
Explaining further, Lakhan Agarwal, Assistant Commissioner, Tribal Welfare Department, Burhanpur, told 101Reporters that the SC had ordered a re-examination of 5,944 rejected offline claims. “As fresh claims were also getting filed during this period, the number of claims in the Van Mitra portal increased to 10,173. This created confusion, so the portal was closed in the district in June 2020.”
Usha Pathak, the Divisional Deputy Commissioner of the Gwalior-Chambal Division of the Tribal Welfare Department, agreed that the portal was not operational in many districts. “A review process is on in the department headquarters in Bhopal. Reports have been sought from the districts, and a decision is expected soon,” Pathak told 101Reporters.
Nitin Varghese, an activist working in Burhanpur district under the Jagat Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, said the Van Mitra portal has taken away the option of applying offline. Tribals have to contact the government-approved online kiosks to get it done. The state government has fixed a fee of Rs 60 for kiosk operators, but the latter charge Rs 200 to 500. The claimants do not have to pay if they apply on their own, but it is a near-impossible thing for the less educated tribals.
“The kiosk operators upload documents without reading them properly and often end up attaching documents of another person to a given application. The portal was launched for easy review of rejected claims, but what is happening is the exact opposite,” Varghese said bluntly.
(Sanavver Shafi is a Bhopal-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)
Get the latest reports & analysis with people's perspective on Protests, movements & deep analytical videos, discussions of the current affairs in your Telegram app. Subscribe to NewsClick's Telegram channel & get Real-Time updates on stories, as they get published on our website.