COVID-19: Gujarat forest dept officials allegedly torched huts, fields

The state’s forest officials told villagers to evict land or face consequences

By Ishan Kukreti
Published: Tuesday 14 April 2020
Tribals from Kamat village in Gujarat's Dang district pose for a photo. The village is home to Konkani, Bhil and Warli tribal communities Photo: Centre for Social Justice__

Even as the entire country was under a lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), Gujarat's forest department officials on April 6, 2020, allegedly torched the huts and fields of forest dwellers in Dang district.

The forest officials reportedly reached Kamat village — home to Konkani, Bhil and Warli tribal communities — early morning on that day and gave an oral warning to the villagers to evict their traditionally held land, after damaging their property.

They burned preparations of the aadar — a tradition where wood and cowdung is burned on a field for cultivation — of two individuals and torched two huts as well, said a villager, requesting anonymity.

“Around 10 am in the morning, the forest department officials gave an oral warning to six villagers to evict the land or face consequences,” the villager said.

The people in the village lived and cultivated land in the area for three generations, according to him.

There were 51 individual forest rights claims filed in 2007 under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. All of them — except three — were rejected by the district-level committee (DLC).

Documents including Aadhaar cards and ration cards along with oral testimonies of village elders were submitted by the claimants to authorities, said the villager.

The claims were rejected by the DLC on the basis of satellite imagery, according to Roshan Saroliya, a member of the Centre for Social Justice, a Gujarat-based organisation working for tribal rights.

“A high court order from 2013 given in the case of Arch Vahini vs State of Gujarat & others, however, made it clear that claims could not be rejected on the basis of satellite imagery,” said Saroliya.

The state had to re-examine all claims by doing spot visits, he said, adding that while the claims were re-examined, the visits were not conducted.

The claims were under appeal and pending with the DLC, according to him.

“The officials would come to the village, but would not visit the areas in question,” he said.

The forest department showed no sensitivity at the time of a pandemic and lockdown, Saroliya said.

DN Rabari, the divisional forest officer of the south Dang forest division, however, said the government was not aware of the incident.

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