Rightful or rightless: Forest villagers in Saranda struggle to shed ‘illegal’ tag

Jharkhand forest department refuses to recognise rights of occupants of forest villages like Marchi gada in West Singhbhum

By Shruti Agarwal, Srestha Banerjee
Last Updated: Friday 07 December 2018
At least 15 villages in Saranda forests have been fighting against the 'illegal' status conferred upon them by the forest department.
At least 15 villages in Saranda forests have been fighting against the 'illegal' status conferred upon them by the forest department. Credit: Shruti Agarwal At least 15 villages in Saranda forests have been fighting against the 'illegal' status conferred upon them by the forest department. Credit: Shruti Agarwal

As one walks through the dense and beautiful Sal forests of Saranda into Marchi gada village, a stone slab in green catches your eye. The inscription on the slab, Shakti Sthal, commemorates the victory of the people and their sense of empowerment when the village was declared a revenue village in 2010. The same year, title deeds for Individual Forest Rights (IFR) were distributed to households in this village, which established that these people are now legal occupants of the forest land and have the right to cultivate the land that is in their possession.

IFR titles are issued under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act), 2006 [FRA]. This implies that the right holders are entitled to benefits from various government schemes targeted to improve land productivity, basic amenities, and livelihood. However, the villagers of Marchi gada have received none of these benefits in more than eight years since they received IFR title deeds. Worse still, villagers of Marchi gada continue to live with the label of ‘encroachers’. The forest department refuses to recognise these residents as rightful occupants of these forests and blocks development in the village.

Being ‘illegal’ seals fate

The fate of Marchi gada is not an aberration. It is one of the fifteen villages in Noamundi block of Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district that has been at loggerheads with the forest department for close to a decade now.  The fifteen villages are inhabited by the Munda and the Ho community, which are Scheduled Tribes and lie at the lowest rung of the economy.

“IFR titles allow right holders to carry out certain activities for land development to improve its productivity such as land leveling. But the forest department objects to us carrying out any such activity on our land”, says Prabhu Sahai Bhengra, mukhiya of the Meghatuburu Uttari Panchayat (under whose jurisdiction the 15 villages are), as he shows copies of the IFR titles signed by the district administration including the collector, divisional forest officer and tribal welfare officer to the authors.

Not only livelihood issues, the forest department has also come in the way of basic infrastructure and amenities that these villages urgently need. As we walk along, we see a group of school children, aged six-seven, coming. One of them says “Since the teacher has not come today, there are no classes”.

The regular availability of teachers is just one problem. A major challenge for these children is even to reach the schools everyday, particularly during rainy seasons. “In the monsoons, the river overflows and becomes impossible to cross. As the school is on the other side of the stream, it is impossible to reach. A small bridge over the river would solve the problem”, says Romal Topnu from Jambaiburu, also in Bhengra’s Panchayat. It could have helped to build the future of these children.

Equally critical is the pollution problem of the surface and ground water. The villages are surrounded by the some of the largest iron ores mine in the state, including the Kiriburu and Meghatuburu mines operated by the Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL). The run-off from the mines has contaminated the Koina River, which flows through these villages, and serves as the only source of drinking water. But safe drinking water seems like a distant dream.  In August 2018, the district administration had sanctioned Rs 8.33 lakhs for drinking water supply through hand pumps to five of these villages. The following month, the divisional forest officer issued a letter to the district administration to not implement the projects in these villages.

In the absence of any government support, these villages have resorted to SAIL to provide basic infrastructure as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility. “SAIL wants to help us but they cannot do anything because the forest department has declared our villages illegal,” Bhengra adds.

Bhengra is referring to the letter issued by the divisional forest officer of Saranda forest division in May 2017. The letter, addressed to the Deputy Commissioner of the district, states that barring 13 villages, all other settlements in the forest division have been occupying the land illegally. It goes on to list the names of the illegal settlements and requests the district administration to prevent undertaking any developmental activity in such settlements. The villages in Bhengra’s Panchayat figure in this list.

Are villagers really illegal?

According to the forest department, most of these villages comprise workers from abandoned mines, who settled in the Saranda forests when the iron ore boom in India came to a halt. “These villagers came from the neighbouring districts of Ranchi, Gumla, Simdega, etc around 2007-08 to work in the mines when the iron ore production boomed for the Beijing Olympics. Title deeds were issued to some of them amid huge political pressure”, informs Rajneesh Kumar, the Divisional Forest Officer of Saranda. “The occupation of forests by these recent settlers has disturbed the villages that have been here for generations. There are often conflicts. Allowing development to the illegal settlements is setting a bad precedent”, he adds.

The villages, however, refute the allegation. “They have been here since the 1980s”, says Sonu Sirka, a local activist from the region. In Kalayta, for instance, one of the ‘illegal’ settlements in the department’s list, a board outside the primary school states that it was built in 2003 by SAIL, which is before the cut-off date provided under FRA. “The forest department is free to verify the year of occupation using satellite imagery”, Sirka adds confidently.

Satellite imagery is one of the evidences used to check the veracity of claims made under the FRA, and identify cases of ‘encroachment’. If imagery shows occupation of land on the cut-off date i.e.13 December 2005 and possession of it in 2007, the claim is considered to be genuine, and a title deed can be issued following other procedures. If not, the claim is rejected.   

The district administration is scratching its head to address the situation. “If these villages did come up after the cut-off date under FRA, why didn’t the forest department remove them then?” it asks. The forest department cites Maoist presence in the villages as the reason. “From a humanitarian perspective, one could argue that these villagers are after all adivasis from Jharkhand and should be allowed to stay. From a legal perspective, however, this is a violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 and also the FRA,” Kumar says.

Villagers struggle, with or without support

While this back and forth continues between the villages of Bhengra’s Panchayat and the forest department, these villages seem to have made the Sal forests of Saranda their home. “We live off these forests, cultivating the land here and selling minor forest produce such as mushrooms, mahua flowers, sal leaves, etc. Elephants raid our crops, destroy our houses but this is home”, says Topnu, whose house was raided by elephants in 2015, causing him an estimated loss of Rs 42,000. He didn’t receive any compensation from the forest department because his village is illegal. “These people have record of rights in other districts but they don’t want to go back,” concurs the district administration.

Meanwhile, most residents from these villages have received electoral photo identity cards cards from the West Singbhum administration and constitute vote banks for every politician who promises to bring development to them. But Bhengra is hopeful: “We don’t know how long we would have to continue this struggle but we won’t give up,” he says.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.