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