Savvy Soumya Misra
Walking in a single file, through wooded paths, they all headed towards the panchayat office in Premnagar block of Chhattisgarh's Sarguja district. They came in large numbers--men and women, old and young. They came from villages far and near. They were mostly Gond tribals. And they all had one question on their mind What was this Forest Rights Act they had been hearing so much about since January this year?
The government in Delhi, they were being told, had passed a new law to grant them legal ownership of their forest dwelling. Their homestead in the forest, where they had been living for generations, was never legally theirs. The new law now said they were to be given land deeds. But that was easier said than done; it involved a long procedure, which they understood little of.
That is why Sarguja's district administration called this meeting on April 2 at Premnagar's panchayat office. The officials were going to explain the state's guidelines on fra, acronym for Forest Rights Act, 2006. A junior-level officer, called the chief executive officer, first read out the guidelines. Not all of those present at the meeting had copies; someone was sent to fetch a few more.
"How will our land be verified?" Pradip Singh could not wait to ask, voicing the concern of all fellow villagers. Ramdev Yadav, another resident, wanted to know what proofs needed to be submitted to claim their land as theirs. The questions kept tumbling. Who would issue scheduled tribe certificates? Could land rights be claimed for both revenue and forestland? How to apply for community rights? The officer, while attempting to answer these questions, realized that some pages were missing from the copy of guidelines he was carrying. Without the guidelines the officer was out of his depths. Though he had undergone training on fra, he was yet to grasp the nitty-gritty of the Act. "We will discuss all that later," he told the crowd.
What about forms? "Will someone help us fill the forms," asked a villager. fra, among other measures, calls for issuing forms to scheduled tribes, other traditional forest dwellers and communities (see box What is fra?). When the villagers wanted to see the forms, yellow for scheduled tribes and pink for other traditional forest dwellers (specific only to Chhattisgarh), photocopied forms, in black and white, were passed around. "Collect the forms after the meeting" the officer told villagers. "But this will not work," explained Mehdi Lal, an activist, "because each form had a serial number, meant for identification."
Hopes were raised when the subdivisional magistrate (sdm) came. He said that patta (land deeds) would be given for both forest and revenue land. Well-informed activists were quick to shout "That's not how it is, Saheb." The sdm quickly directed all other questions to his junior officer.
Restive villagers now demanded to see the forms for community rights. Since there were no such forms with the officer, he gave up midway and the meeting ended abruptly. There were more questions than answers. Like the beneficiaries, the administration too is trying to figure out what this new Act is all about.
Savvy Soumya Misra at Premnagar in Sarguja district, Chhattisgarh, on April 2
The Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs' website talks of states making a lot of progress on implementation of the Act but the ground reality is
quite different. Many states have just about started the process of forming committees. Some have even flouted the Act's provisions
Under the Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA), the gram sabha has the authority to initiate the process of determining the nature and extent of individual and community forest rights (see box High points
The tiers involved in the process are the forest rights committee (FRC), which is a body of the gram sabha, the sub-divisional level committee (SDLC) and the district level committee (DLC). First, the gram sabha selects an FRC, which receives claims from people. It then consolidates, verifies and prepares a map delineating the area of each recommended claim.The FRC then passes a resolution to that effect and forwards a copy to the SDLC. The SDLC hears and adjudicates disputes between gram sabhas on the nature and extent of any forest rights, petitions from persons, including state agencies, aggrieved by resolution of gram sabhas and prepares block- or tehsil
-wise draft record of proposed forest rights after reconciliation of government records. It then sends the resolution to the DLC for further scrutiny, which approves the claims and records of forest rights and ensures that a certified copy of the record of forest rights is given to the claimant and the gram sabha. A state-level monitoring committee with the chief secretary as the chairperson looks into the proceedings at all stages. If an applicant is not satisfied, there is provision for him/her to file a petition in the next higher committee within 60 days. The decision of the DLC is final and binding on the petitioner. The petitioner cannot move the court for such cases.
A forest dweller belonging to the scheduled tribe can apply for land that s/he has occupied before December 13, 2005. For other traditional forest dwellers, patta will be given for land that they have occupied for three generations, or 75 years, before December 13, 2005
Two separate forms, for individual rights and community rights, exist, for which two documents of occupancy proof are required. Documents could range from ration card, voter's identity card, caste certificate to a challan by the forest department prior to December 13, 2005. A statement of an elderly in the village can also be taken as proof
Those who have land and are cultivating it themselves for a livelihood but do not have any document, can also claim land. Those with patta or a government lease, but whose land has been taken illegally by the forest department or is in a dispute between forest and revenue department, can claim such land
Community rights include nistar, traditional grazing grounds, irrigation systems, sources of water for human or livestock use, medicinal plant collection territories, remnants of structures built by the local community, sacred trees, groves and ponds or riverine areas, and burial or cremation grounds
Out of form
SAVVY SOUMYA MISRA
State players in Chhattisgarh
"We didn't know about the gram sabha meeting. We were intimated six hours before the meeting started and have no idea how the forest rights committee (frc
) was formed," Bet Sai, a Pandu tribal from Mrigadand village in Sarguja district, told Down To Earth
). Forming frc
s is the first step to initiate proceedings for villagers to claim their rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, or fra
Many tribals, like Sai, are clueless about the proceedings in a state that claimed it would start giving out patta
to villagers by May 1 (see box Just plans
). Far from it, Chhattisgarh is grappling with teething problems. It is not following its own action plan.Other grey areas include faulty constitution of frc
s, certifying tribal status, distribution of forms, training of officials, land surveys and community claims. Officials, however, say things are under control.
|DTE correspondents fan out to the states to bring updates on how the authorities and communities are grappling with the Forest Rights Act
Since villagers are not informed of gram sabha meetings in advance, the quorum of two-thirds of all members of a gram sabha is not met. But for this, says Sai, the administration has ready solutions. "The quorum has not been followed in any of the villages. frc
s in most places comprise sarpanch's favourites who are not even present in meetings. In a few places, a double count of hands is done to complete the quorum," he added. Agrees Arun Kumar, an Ekta Parishad activist "The village headman does it to keep all the powers in his hand."
Glaring violations in electing the president of the frc
are also common. The state's guidelines say that the president of an frc
should be chosen from among the committee members, but in a village in Dantewada district, the sarpanch was chosen as the president of the committee. In fact, he was chosen as president even before the committee was formed, say villagers.
is flexible when it comes to the application tool--forms. It provides for two separate forms, one for individual claims and the second for communities. Chhattisgarh has provided for two separate forms, just for individual claims--yellow forms for tribal forest dwellers and pink for other traditional forest dwellers. Each form has a serial number--purportedly to avoid fake forms. But the move has created a lot of confusion throughout the state.
First, there aren't enough forms. After two months of guidelines being issued, three villages in Borla block had only 10 forms each. Far-flung areas, such as the Daldali bauxite mines in Kawardha have been ignored. "We have not yet received the coloured forms, nor has any official come to us to explain how the forms will be filled," said Narayan Yadav, president of Mukam village's frc
. The village is near the Daldali mines.
Also, under the act, three copies of a form are to be given to villagers one for themselves, one for the frc
and the third for the sub divisional level committee. But those who have the forms, have been given just one copy.
Villagers also told dte
that forms were being sold in some villages with the price ranging between Rs 50 and Rs 500. When the district magistrate learned of an incident in Salhi village in Sarguja where forms were being sold for Rs 50 at a general store, he got the store sealed and a few block-level officers were suspended.
"The state is supposed to issue forms and the numbers on the forms were meant to prevent people from making money by printing and distributing it. But that is not happening. Forms are being sold at very high rates," says forest rights activist Madhu Sarin.
Since the fra
says that applications can be sent in any manner, voluntary groups and ngo
s have started distributing forms themselves. But frc
s in many places would not accept them because these did not have a serial number. In blocks such as Mainpur in Raipur district, officials unknowingly distributed photocopied forms to villagers.
The trend, however, is changing in "very few places". "We have pressured block level officers and the sub divisional officers to accept forms on plain paper," says Rajat Choudhury of the ngo,
Church's Auxilliary for Social Action.
The other major issue is that the state has not issued forms for community claims. Basic issues such as the nature of applicants are unclear. M K Rout, secretary tribal affairs, Chhattisgarh, said that only those residing on forestland would get deeds and those residing on revenue land and dependent on the forest for livelihood would be excluded. But in the meeting in Premnagar, the sub divisional magistrate said that deeds would be given to both.
According to the fra
, the term 'forest dwelling scheduled tribes' means the members or community of scheduled tribes who primarily reside in and who depend on the forests or forestland for bona fide livelihood needs, and includes the scheduled tribes pastoralists. Bonafide livelihood needs, the fra
says, means fulfilment of sustenance needs of self and family through production or sale of produce resulting from self-cultivation of forestland. Other traditional forest dwellers are any members or community (other than members of the scheduled tribes) who have for at least three generations, or 75 years, prior to December 13, 2005, resided in, and are dependent on, the forests or forestland for bonafide livelihood needs.
But this definition is leading to many interpretations, most erring on the strict side. Forest officials told dte
that as most tribals lived off agriculture and not forest produce they did not qualify under these provisions. It is difficult to qualify what 'dependence' on forests actually means. Several states, which have begun implementing the Act, have written to the Centre on clarification on this count but it still remains a point of contention.
Sharda Verma, deputy commissioner, ministry of tribal affairs, Chhattisgarh, told dte
that the forms were supplied in ample numbers and that she was not aware of applications on plain paper. On the May 1 deadline, she says, "We did not anticipate the time survey of land would take. We are hopeful of distributing the deeds before monsoon."
Even when monsoons were round the corner, about 400 villages in southern Chhattisgarh had made little progress in claiming rights. "Villagers in these districts had no idea about the Act and those who had, didn't know what to do," says Himanshu Kumar of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram at Kawalnar village in Dantewada. Kumar adds that the collector was not sure of what was to be done in Abujmar, a Naxal-infested area with no land records or maps.
On survey in other areas, officials at the ministry of tribal affairs say land will be distributed after the frc
s complete the survey, but the forest department claims distribution will depend on its survey conducted last year. "We had surveyed the number of beneficiaries and the land to be distributed.
This was done to ensure that there is no delay in the process of verification by the frc
," said Sharma. But what are the numbers? There seems to be no one estimate. The tribal and forest departments quote different numbers. Verma says 1.8 million yellow forms and 0.6 million pink forms were printed to be distributed in 18 districts of the state, of which they received 0.25 million claims and were expecting more in the near future.
Diwakar Mishra, chief conservator of forests (land management), Chhattisgarh, said the state government had received only 0.12 million forms as yet. This is less than 2 per cent of the state's 2001 tribal population. Nobody knows the number of expected beneficiaries but everybody does accept that it will be a small percentage of the state's tribal population. Sources in the state's tribal affairs ministry told dte
that survey of 12,000 villages near forest areas was yet to begin.
Although Sarguja's district collector has sanctioned villagers' demands that gram sabhas and not tehsildars be authorized to issue caste certificates, many fear that inter-community conflicts could spoil the situation. The Baiga-Gond conflict is a case in point. The Baigas were forced to leave their habitat at the Rajarani hills in the Maikal range and settle in the foothills in Bhokrabara village. The Baigas claim they settled there before 2005, but the panchayat head, who is a Gond, claims the Baigas settled in Bhokrabara after December 13, 2005 and, therefore, are not eligible for the deeds. "It's rare that anyone would have a record of the past 75 years," says Kumar. There is apprehension among people that the forest department may be unofficially playing the role of a nodal agency on the distribution of land.
Sarin says the additional burden is because the Union tribal affairs ministry has washed its hands of any kind of funding, for maps and other documents, to help implement the Act.
"Forms are yet to be given. We were told that the forms would be circulated by the frc
," says Pradhan Majhi, a Santhal from Godibari, a village near Bhubaneswar. Majhi and others, mostly unlettered, in the village attended the palli
sabha, or the village committee meeting, on March 18. They put their signatures or, thumb impressions on a register and came back with the knowledge that a committee was formed and that they would get forms to file claims.
They were told that claim applications needed to be submitted within 90 days of the meeting. "We were told we could apply even on plain paper but there is no one to help us out. Does it mean we won't be able to claim after all?" asks Majhi. Laxmidhar Soren, member of the Godibari frc
, had no idea about when the forms would be issued. "The sub-divisional level committee was supposed to supply the forms," he says.
Villagers across the state are as confused as Majhi and Soren. The targeted beneficiaries in several villages of Chandaka area, visited by dte
, have not received the forms and the sarpanches plead helplessness. Forty-year-old Ram Chatar of Kantabad panchayat is also awaiting the forms and so is Sabitri Mundri of the same village. They had attended the palli
sabha on April 27. Kantabad sarpanch Bhabgrahi Sahu says he has done his job by organizing the palli
sabha and ensuring formation of the frc
, but has not been told anything about when the forms will be issued.
Job half done
The government, though, claims it has undertaken a sensitization drive, involving sarpanches and officials, before initiating the process of calling the palli
sabhas and constituting frc
s. Says Kumar Pradhan, revenue inspector, Chandaka panchayat, "I don't have a copy of the Act. I have asked the additional tehsildar to provide me one." In another incident, at a palli
sabha in Jugsaipatna in Kalahandi district, the agenda included formation of a forest protection committee and not a forest rights committee. There are some like Kuni Digmunda, a tribal from Phirikinali village under Chandaka gram panchayat, who are still waiting for the palli
sabha. Digmunda says the meeting was scheduled on March 23, but could not take place for lack of quorum. Though they were assured of a later date, there has been no development so far.
The state's panchayati raj department had set March 16 and March 23 as the dates for organizing these meetings. It later extended the date to April 30. R K Pani, additional secretary, panchayati raj department, said June 30 was the new deadline.
In another development, the range officer of Badrama Wildlife Sanctuary in Sambalpur district has issued a letter to the chairperson and secretary of the Bhutel frc
informing him that the village and its environs should be included in the critical wildlife habitat. Villages under such a habitat will have to be moved out. The officer was requested to call the gram sabha and discuss in detail forest rights-related matter. Voluntary sector workers say while the wildlife department has erred in not taking the villagers into confidence before mooting the proposal, they should not be making such a request before the process of verification and recognition of the rights of the people is completed.
Tara Dutt, commissioner-cum-secretary, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Development, Minorities and Backward Class Welfare, the nodal department for the execution of the Act, claims 35,249 frc
s have been formed and 483 claims received till the end of April. He expects the number of claims to be around 0.3 million by now, which, like Chhattisgarh, is a small (3) percentage of the state's 2001 tribal population.
There appears to be a lack of coordination between the nodal Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Welfare Department and the three other departments--forest, panchayati raj and revenue--involved in the implementation of the Act. SC Mohanty, the principal chief conservator of forests and a member of the state-level monitoring committee, sums it up saying his department did not have a major role to play in the present situation.
Six months past the fra
implementation deadline, Maharashtra is struggling to understand the Act and its provisions. The central issue in the state revolves around the local body employed to initiate the implementation procedure. The state government is going by gram panchayats and group gram panchayats, and villagers are demanding pada
(hamlet)-based committees, saying it will facilitate people's participation, filing of claims and physical verification.
in Nandurbar district, a hilly terrain, has over 197 villages under 42 gram panchayats. One gram panchayat covers various villages, which could be as far as 30 km.How can one gram panchayat represent everyone correctly? What will happen when the claims made by the people would require to be physically verified by one village committee?" asks Pratibha Shinde of Nandurbar-based Punarvasan Sangharsh Samiti, which works on forest rights issues of tribals in Maharashtra and Gujarat.
Brian Lobo of Kashtakari Sangathan, a Dahanu-based civil society group, says they have tried explaining to the state government the need to go down to the pada
level, but to no avail. "Gram sabhas in Dahanu have been conducted at group gram panchayat levels and village committees formed at the revenue village level. In some cases the sarpanch has become the chairperson of the committee and does not want to let go of power. In February, some hamlets in Dahanu declared themselves a gram sabha unit, but the confusion remains if the state will recognize these gram sabhas," he says.
Some villages in the taluka, on their own, decided to decentralize the process. For instance, Shisane village held its gram sabha at the pada
level and formed a forest committee there. Vanai, a resettlement village within Chandranagar village of Dahanu taluka, is another such example.
Villages that are aware of their Schedule status--Nandurbar, Jalgaon and Dhule--have used provisions of the Panchayats (Extension To The Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 to set up their own pada
committees and directed the government to recognize them. In Nandurbar, 152 pada
committees have been formed, in Jalgaon, over 150 and in Dhule, 45.
The Act says that gram sabha should be 'convened' by gram panchayat, which is being interpreted as each gram panchayat should hold just one gram sabha. This issue needs to be resolved urgently. The 90-day period for filing of the claims will end soon, leading to chaos. "Even in case of the 90-day time-frame, the Act is being wrongly interpreted. It says 90 days from the day village committee calls for the claims. But this is being misinterpreted as 90 days from the day a committee is formed," Lobo says, adding that the decision on whether to go for pada
committees of revenue village committees should be left to the gram sabhas.
Matters get further complicated when one looks at villages that have both tribal and non-tribal populations. "In villages with a mixed population, Shahpur taluka in Thane for example, non-tribals do not want land to be given to tribals because that would mean less labourers in their farms and more conflict over grazing and other issues. Implementation of the 2006 Act will heighten this tension. Hence it is important to have pada
-based gram sabhas," argues Lobo.
Unique land systems
|Land is our basic right, say Maharashtra tribals
Maharashtra has some local land systems such as Dali plots and Aksali land, which have existed since 1876.
Dali plot is issued on a one-year lease to a community, and the practice is continuing for the past 100 years. Aksali land is leased to an individual. The state also has another unique feature of private forestland. In 1975, the state government came up with Maharashtra Private Forests (Acquisition) Act, under which private land was 'acquired' as forestland. But the land remained in possession of the previous landowners, most of whom still till it. "It remains to be seen how the state government will settle such claims," says Lobo.
Another pressing issue in the state is the Melghat Tiger Sanctuary. "In a meeting with forest officials and Project Tiger officials at Chikaldara, it was clear that the forest departments did not want to implement the act. They do not want to let go of forestland," says Bandya of Khoj, an Amravati-based ngo
. Villagers are thinking of ways to ensure that the 2006 Act becomes applicable in such habitats. In Melghat region, village committees have been formed with gram sevak as its secretary, whereas gram sabhas are yet to be held.
The other issues are the same as any other state in the country gram sabhas being held hastily, not enough forms, no mention of community forest claims, very little staff training, constitution of forest rights committees and caste certificates. The tribal development department initially thought of printing only 50,000 forms for the entire state, which is laughable, say experts, because in Thane district alone, claims will exceed the 0.1 million mark.
There are no figures on the extent of land that will be covered under the Act in Maharashtra. However, Pune-based Tribal Research and Training Institute's recent status report says, "... gram sabhas are being organized across the state. The committees have also been formed and the state level monitoring committee headed by the chief secretary is also in place." The institute, under the tribal department of Maharashtra government, is the agency involved in the implementation process.
Officials themselves want separate machinery for the implementation of the Act. Most sub-divisional officers claim they are overburdened with the paperwork. "Our aim is that all the claims get settled at the village committee level so that no one has to approach the sub-divisional or state level committee," says Shinde. Lobo adds, "This Act should not be viewed only as an election promise to be fulfilled but must be implemented systematically."
Activists and villagers in Maharashtra, like in other states, are closely following the implementation process. So do the millions of expectant tribals and traditional forest dwellers for whom the law was enacted. They hope the teething issues don't stretch and they live on their land, which they say is "rightfully theirs".