Official machinery rejects claims without the knowledge of the Gram Sabha or the Forest Rights Committee
This is the first instalment of a series
On February 13, 2019, in a matter pertaining to the constitutionality of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), the Supreme Court of India (SC) directed the states to evict those FRA claimants whose Individual Forest Rights (IFR) claims were rejected. The apex court had ordered the eviction of 1,191,273 tribals across 20 states of the country.
Also read: ‘Review 150,000 forest rights claims rejected without reason’
After a huge outcry following the order to evict tribals and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) whose IFR claims had been rejected, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs Affairs (MoTA) filed an application before the SC for modification of its order.
The application stated that the procedure adopted for the rejection of FRA claims had not been strictly adhered to and hence, the eviction order was put on hold on February 28, 2019.
Following this submission by MoTA, the SC asked states to file detailed affidavits regarding: The rejection of claims, the details of the procedure followed for settlement of claims, the reasons for rejection and if the Scheduled Tribes (ST) and OTFDs (referred to as ‘tribals’ in the order) had been given the chance to produce evidence before rejection of claims.
MoTA further discussed the order with the concerned states and these states then undertook the process of suo motu review of rejected claims.
To simplify the process, the Madhya Pradesh (MP) government launched an online portal called MP Van Mitra. The portal would allow the claimants whose claims had been rejected to re-apply for review.
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Of 5,79,411 total filed claims by 2019 in MP, 354,787 IFR claims of ST and OTFDs had been rejected per the SC order — a rejection rate of 61 per cent or less, depending upon the number of cases disposed of. This means the state had only approved 224,624 claims since the FRA came into force.
Nitin Varghese, an activist working for the rights of the tribals with Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) in Burhanpur, told Down To Earth during a field visit how the misuse of the Van Mitra portal — which was created to facilitate the review of rejected claims — has now become a tool to fraudulently reject claims anew.
The individuals who file the claims through the Van Mitra portal are generally illiterate or have little formal schooling with no familiarity with the world of the internet. They approach the MP Online kiosk operators to help them fill up the application.
“These kiosk operators charge Rs 200-Rs 500 to fill up their forms when the state government already pays them Rs 60 just to fill up the form to help the ST and OTFDs file the claims. Second, they upload documents without properly reading them, often mixing up different individuals’ documents and printing out the receipt,” said Varghese.
Antaram Awase, secretary of the Forest Rights Committee (FRC) of Sivle village of the Nepanagar tehsil, told DTE:
The FRC is supposed to verify the claim and then ask for Gram Sabha’s recommendation before forwarding it to the sub divisional level committee (SDLC). But what is happening on the ground is far from the set guidelines.
Panchayat secretaries, talukdars and the forest department’s beat guards, who have the user Id and passwords to the FRC’s account, sit behind closed doors and reject the claims, uploading fake Gram Sabha resolutions and old photos without the knowledge of the Gram Sabha or the FRC, Awase explained.
Even if the panchayat secretaries go to the ground to verify the claims, they end up writing, “The claimant was not on the spot / residence” while forwarding it to the SDLC, which again leads to the rejection of claims, he added.
The state government of MP, after the 2019 SC order, had said the claims had been wrongfully rejected. So the reviews need to happen via proper procedure and involvement of the Gram Sabha, as mentioned in the FRA, in order to right the wrong.
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In Burhanpur, of the 10,173 cases to be reviewed, only 378 have been approved so far. The portal has been frozen now as the number of applications exceeded the number of rejected claims — 5,944, according to 2019 figures.
Lakhan Agrawal, assistant commissioner of tribal welfare, Burhanpur, told Down To Earth:
The portal has been frozen for Burhanpur as the new claimants also started filing their claims on the portal. The number of rejected claims (offline) back in 2019 was 5,944. This number has increased to 10,000 now. We are now in the process of reviewing all these claims filed on Van Mitra.
Since it is mandatory to upload Aadhar card on the Van Mitra portal, which is not mandatory as per FRA, people started scurrying to get it made.
In the meanwhile, the portal was also closed off for many districts. Many individuals whose claims were rejected have thus been unable to re-apply on the portal.
A similar situation exists in the Dhar district of the state. Of the 10,853 cases disposed of, only 2,740 were approved, according to the October 2022 Van Mitra Data accessed by DTE via RTI. Around 75 per cent of the cases reviewed had been rejected last year at the DLC level.
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Some 174,525 IFR claims were received in MP at the DLC through the Van Mitra Portal. Of these, 151,929 claims have been reviewed and 116,758 reviewed claims were rejected again at the DLC level, according to the RTI data. The data implies a rejection rate of almost 77 per cent of the claims.
This means that after the use of the Van Mitra Portal, the rejection rate went up by almost 16 per cent, going by the available data.
There are several claims which are rejected at the FRC level because of the backdoor involvement of panchayat secretaries, Rozgar Sahayaks and other local officials in reviewing claims that must be reviewed by FRCs, said a researcher working on forest rights in MP on condition of anonymity.
Around 155,252 claims have been recommended for rejection at the FRC level, data from October 2022 showed. The high rejection rate at the DLC level is precisely because of the extremely high rejection rate at the FRC level itself, the researcher added.
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