The state has rejected 10,000 claims
The Odisha government, after hearing several appeals, has rejected more than 10,000 claims under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. It recently filed an affidavit with the Supreme Court.
At least 45,000 forest dwellers’ livelihood is at risk (10,000 claims X 4.5 average family size in Odish), but the state doesn’t seem to have followed the process of appealing against rejection of claims.
One such example of this is 53-year-old Charulata Singh, who lives in Ambapadiya hamlet, just 15 kilometres from state capital Bhubaneshwar. She stands to lose an acre, on which she lives and grows vegetables on, because she was not given a proper chance to appeal against rejection.
She claims to be a Santhal, but doesn't have a certificate to prove it because to get that she would require a land title that she doesn't possess.
Ambapadiya is right next to Chandaka Wildlife Sanctuary, which has been home to around 52 families since the 1950s. They had moved to the sanctuary from Mayurbhaj after a severe drought had vanished the means to survival there.
“My father came here in the 1950s and I was born here. He used to tell me that if we had stayed in Mayurbhaj, the drought would have killed us,” said Charulata.
Charulata and others at the sanctuary had filed for Individual Forest Rights (IFR) under the FRA in 2008 and had them rejected in 2010. The Act says the rejection and its reasons are to be communicated to the applicant in writing, which they can use for appeal within 60 days. But, the claimants were orally told that the land they were occupying was leased to someone else.
“We have been cultivating the land for years and we don’t even know who these lessees are. We have neither seen them, nor have they come to any of the Gram Sabhas to stake claim on the land,” said Bijoy Soren, member of the Forest Rights Committee of the hamlet.
In 2010, the villagers wrote to government officials but to no avail. Their rights were still rejected.
But once the Supreme Court ordered eviction of 11.8 lakh “illegal forest dwellers” on February 13, the state was once again interested in the lives and rights of the people in Ambapadiya. However, on February 28, the SC stayed the ruling and ordered states to file affidavits on the number of final rejections by July 12.
On June 15, Bhubaneshwar block’s sub-divisional magistrate sent notices informing claimants from Ambapadiya and four nearby villages that a hearing was organised with the sub-divisional level committee (SDLC) on June 18. In total, the SDLC was slated to review the appeals of around 500 forest dwellers.
“First, the notices were not given directly to the people or through the Gram Sabha, they were given to residents of a nearby village who then gave it to the people here,” said Archana Soren, an independent researcher working in the area.
She added that the notice was just a modified version of the ones sent to FRA nodal officers by the additional secretary to the government on April 27.
“While FRA gives claimants 60 days to gather evidence and appeal against rejection, the notice had the line on 60 days struck out and had June 18 as the day of the hearing,” Soren added. Charulata got the notice dated June 12 on June 15.
She and other villagers had to hire two vehicles for Rs 3,000 to reach the SDM office for the hearing when the Act mentions that the hearing must be held in the Gram Sabha office where the claim is rejected. And once they got there all they were made to do was tell their name, age and sign on a paper.
“I waited for two hours and then I was called, was asked my name and age, was made to sign on a paper and then asked to leave,” said Charulata.
The villagers were made to sign an affidavit stating they accepted the decision of the SDLC, said the researcher. “We have seen similar practices in Kandhamal district where people were made to sign affidavits saying they didn’t have proof. Since the reason for rejection was lack of proof, getting people to accept not having one justified the rejection,” said Soren.
Once the SDLC review was over, the state issued notices for the DLC review the very next day and scheduled the hearing for June 25.
Another discrepancy in the order was that while the SDLC notice cited “area already leased” as the reason for rejection, the DLC notice blamed it on absence of caste certificate.
On June 25, the claimants went through the same process, but they were asked fewer questions. They were their names, were made to sign and around 50 claims from Ambapadiya were rejected. This was how the claims process under FRA, purported to undo historical injustice, was drawn to an end.
Not just one case
In other parts of the state too the government adopted similar practices to hurriedly finish the process. In Nabarangpur district, the notices were sent without any mention of issuing date.
In Ganjam district, officials went around villages asking Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) if they had any proof of occupation for the last three generations or 75 years. The claims of those who did not were rejected on the spot; no appeals entertained and no questions asked.
This was despite Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs’ (MoTA) repeatedly telling states that in the case of OTFDs the lack of proof of occupation cannot be valid grounds for rejection of claims.
Moreover, the figure for final rejections that the state gave to MoTA stood at just around 2,000 in March. Within four months — of which two saw General Elections — the state managed to jack this figure up to more than 10,000.
According to the affidavit, the DLC completed the herculean task of hearing around 11,000 suo motu appeals and the SDLC around 29,000 appeals. As these appeals do not account for all the rejections in the state, the Odisha government has sought another nine months from the court to hear them.
The state has now listed Charulata’s claim, along with around 10,000 more, as those that have attained finality. This data is now with the apex court which will decide the fate of these “encroachers” in the July 24 hearing.
Down To Earth tried to contact state government officials, but received no response until the time of publishing this story. It will be updated if and when there is a response.
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