Forests

Now tribal affairs ministry FRA claim settlement number under cloud

Is there something fishy behind giving wrong data for over a decade and then disowning it?

 
By Ishan Kukreti
Last Updated: Friday 22 February 2019
Photo: Agnimirh Basu

The headline figure of 19 lakh title claims by forest dwellers rejected after an appellate process, being touted by some activists who cite government data, has led to fears of large-scale potential evictions. Turns out the figure does not reflect the real picture.

The Supreme Court of India on February 13, 2019 asked state governments to file affidavits about action taken against encroachments on forest lands, the Down to Earth reported on February 14. In its written order on February 20 it also asked the states to act against encroachers where eviction notices were given.

Both are to be done before the next hearing on July 27. The apex court is hearing a petition by some wildlife activist organisations and retired forest officials against the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 [FRA].

“Based on due process prescribed under law with two levels of appeal, a total of 19,34,345 claims stand rejected as on 30.09.2018 as per the MoTA statement of which individual claims are 18,88,066,” according to a statement  by Wildlife First on February 21, 2019.

“Importantly, 14,77,793 claims have been rejected at the Gram Sabha level itself,” the wildlife conservation organisation, which is among the petitioners, added.

The number of rejections cited — 19,34,345 — however, is not even the latest, according to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) website. The figure was from its October 2018 FRA implementation report. In November the tally rose to 19,39,231.

None of these figures represent title claims that have been rejected after the due appellate process, an official source said.

The FRA recognises rights of forest-dwelling communities, many of them Scheduled Tribes, over the land they have inhabited traditionally. It, however, puts a caveat cut-off date of 2005. Forest-dwellers can claim for title deeds under the Act.

“This figure on the MoTA website is highly inflated and it keeps changing based on the data that is given by the states. And the states give cumulative data on the rejections that have taken place at the level of Gram Sabha, Sub-Divisional Level Committee (SDLC) or at the District Level Committee (DLC). It is not a figure inclusive of rejections after the process of appeal,” the source said.

Wildlife First highlighted the rejection of most claims at the basic, Gram Sabha level. That, however, is par for the course: The FRA provides that title claims have to go through Gram Sabha-level committees to reach SDLCs and finally DLCs. The process is completed with a Record of Right being given to a claimant.

The claims can be rejected at any of the three levels, but the claimant can appeal to the next level. A rejection under the FRA by DLCs can be challenged at a court of law.

According to the official source, however, most people whose claims are rejected have not gone for appeal.

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“These people are not educated or economically well off. Most of the times they don’t know what evidence they need to submit with their claims. This leads to a high rate of rejection at the Gram Sabha-level,” the official told DTE.

The MoTA does not compile data on rejections at the three levels in states or their reasons. Its website, however, gives data for Odisha as on April 30, 2017. According to that 34 per cent of rejections were due to lack of evidence and 17 per cent were because the land claimed was non-forest area.

The process from rejection to the disposal of final appeal takes about 240 days, according to Giri Rao of Vasundhara, a Bhubaneshwar-based non-profit working on the FRA.

The Supreme Court, however, has left the states with about 150 days to file their affidavits.

When the discrepancy in the figure was pointed out, Praveen Bhargav from Wildlife First wondered why the ministry would put out data without making its methodology transparent.

“We are making a bigger point — the FRA recognises pre-existing rights, not new encroachments. If claims are rejected then they should have no rights over the land,” he said.

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