General Elections 2019

Forest Rights Act to cast its shadow on polling in Himachal Pradesh

A large section of people in the hill state are united in their stand to boycott the elections as successive governments have failed to implement FRA

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Friday 17 May 2019
Hundreds of people took to roads in Mandi on April 11, 2019. Photo: Sumit Mahar

The implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, stands out to be a key issue among the voters as Himachal Pradesh (HP) goes to polls in the last phase of Lok Sabha elections on Sunday. Denied their rights over several years there have been voices calling out for exercising None of the Above (NOTA) option to boycott the polls to express resentment against the attitudes of the governments on this issue.

There have been a series of conventions where this issue has been discussed at length by the activists with people residing in remote villages and with politicians. As recent as on May 3, 2019, Himachal Van Adhikaar Manch (HVAM), a platform of community organisations and activists, submitted a peoples’ demand charter on FRA to all the contesting political parties in the state — Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party and Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPM).

It was conveyed that individual and community forest rights recognised under the FRA hold paramount importance for majority of the population in HP given the dependence on forest land, which forms 70 per cent of the hill state’s geographical area. The activists say over the last three years, voices demanding implementation of FRA have grown louder and yet the government, especially the administrative officials have been lethargic and non-committal in their responses.

The activists underline, “Section 3(1) of this act entails the recognition of rights over forest land for agriculture and habitation for ‘bonafide livelihood’ needs (not just for subsistence purposes but also for earning an income) and includes both Individual rights over land under occupation and community rights over use, conservation and management of community forest land resources whereas Section 3(2) of the act provides rights to the Gram Sabha to provide consent for diversion of less than one hectare of forest land (involving felling of not more than 75 trees) for 13 types of village development activities.”

They have been claiming, “On one hand1,900 cases have so far been sanctioned by the government under section 3(2) of the FRA whereas, though 17,503 Forest Rights Committees (FRCs) have been formed, only 129 claims have been issued titles so far under the Sec 3(1) of the Act.

The issue had come up in the winter session of the state assembly where CPM MLA Rakesh Singha and Congress MLA Ashish Butail had torn into the state government for shying away from FRA implementation. There had been a major demonstration by activists at Dharamshala outside the state assembly on the issue.

Singha said, “If we, the people of Himachal Pradesh, are not ‘forest dwellers’ then who is, when 67 per cent of the land area is under forest land here. Himachal should have been the best implementer of the Act. Instead we are the worst compared to other states.” Butail said, "Why are we scared to implement this act? What is the fear? When there is a thorough process in place to assess and verify the claims, when the law is clear on the three generations clause. There is no need to worry about misuse as these rights cannot be sold. They are inherited rights and pass on from generation to generation.”

This had led state tribal affairs minister Ram Lal Markande to promise that the FRA implementation would be undertaken in a mission mode. He said committees at state, district and sub divisional levels have been formed to look into the Act implementation. He had claimed that 17,500 FRCs had been created at the local level and till September 30, 2018, 1,440 proposals had been approved, under which around 660 hectares of land had been diverted for the purpose of constructing schools, hospitals, anganwadis and roads.

A study by Himdhara Collective in collaboration with Zila Van Adhikar Samiti in Kinnaur had raised a finger at forces that have connived to create the image of forest dwellers as ‘encroachers’. The study ‘Who Gains from the Forest Rights Act, 2006?’ debunks the notion that claimants are ‘encroachers’ and points out that they are in fact marginal land holders.

“The state level monitoring committee in its meeting in January 2019 had also positively taken upon the endorsements by HVAM reiterating promises but on the ground, the officials continue to be unaware of the provisions of the act,” says HVAM convener Akshay Jasrotia.

The activists say that instead of providing any training and awareness on the Act, in February the district administration of Kangra gave Panchayat Secretaries a 90 day deadline to get claims from the FRCs. They claim that in absence of any awareness about the act, FRCs are being made to send ‘nil’ or ‘zero’ claims certificates as had been earlier done in Mandi and Chamba districts.

Shyam Singh Chauhan, a member of the District Level Committee (Mandi) formed under the Act and also a Zila Parishad Member from Karsog in Mandi said, “Lakhs of occupants had applied under the 2002 policy of Regularisation of Encroachments. Further, revenue and forest records too have recorded occupations on forest land for agriculture, habitation and cattle rearing, but people still hold no legal titles. They are all eligible to claim their individual rights under this act but have been blatantly denied their constitutional right.”

Laal Hussain, a representative of the Gujjar Community of nomadic livestock rearers from Chamba says, “Around two lakh people of different pastoral communities who sustain by grazing livestock in pastures, categorised as ‘forest land’, are eligible for community forest rights under FRA and via this charter we want to communicate that this election we will only support those who speak of our rights and interests.”

Prakash Bhandari of Himdhara Collective claims that FRA has emerged as an important determinant of polls this term not just in Himachal but across the country.” The activists allege that whereas the national manifestos of the Congress and CPM have explicitly stated that they will not allow unjust eviction and will implement the Act in letter and spirit, the BJP has remained mute on this issue.

Bhandari further said, “In Himachal people are looking out for the priority given to FRA by contesting electoral candidates from the state.”

The activists allege that a huge percentage of population has already been traumatised by the state governments’ betrayal on the promises of regularisation of land under occupation and now live under constant paranoia of eviction. This became evident when on April 11, 2019 a public gathering of more than 600 people in Mandi together gave the slogan, ‘Himachal Ki Janta Kare Pukar, Humein Chahiye Van Adhikar’.

Jiya Lal Negi, convener of Zila Van Adhikaar Samiti in Kinnaur added, “Kinnaur has had the highest number of claims but these legitimate claims have been delayed on frivolous and illegal grounds going to the extent of questioning our identities as tribals and forest dwellers.” Hit by the similar apathy of government and bureaucratic hurdles in the long struggle for FRA implementation, Save Lahaul Spiti, a civil society group from Lahaul had on March 23 appealed for election boycott from their area. Similar public appeals of boycott or exercising the NOTA options have echoed across many tribal villages in the state.

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