Tribals play hardball on land rights

Dissatisfied with RTI answers on traditional land rights, tribals of Thane file appeals

By Akshay Deshmane
Published: Monday 15 July 2013

imageTHE revenue office of Jawhar in Maharashtra’s Thane district witnessed an unusual sight on June 18. About 30 tribals from Anantpur village of Jawhar had congregated at the office for the hearing of their first RTI appeals. They are part of a group of 456 tribals who have filed first RTI appeals following unsatisfactory answers to their queries. Under the RTI Act, applicants can file the first appeal if the authorities fail to provide them the required information within 30 days or if they are not satisfied with the information. The hearing, which is being held in batches, is likely to continue for a month.

The tribals from 14 villages in Jawhar and Vikramgad talukas had filed RTI queries related to claims under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) on April 9. FRA recognises traditional rights of the scheduled tribes and forest dwellers on forest land and resources. Some had resorted to RTI to find out the status of approval of their FRA claims. Several tribals had filed RTI queries despite receiving land titles. Their main allegation is that the authorities allotted them lesser land than what they had claimed without taking into account the evidence presented by the forest rights committee (FRC) of the gram sabha. Consider the case of Jana Hadkya Kutade from Hateri village. He has received land titles for 1.5 hectares (ha) while the Hateri FRC had cleared his claim over 9 ha. Ganpat Janu Pawar, chief of Hateri FRC, says, “The authorities should have approved the claim because our recommendation was based on the survey conducted by the revenue department itself.” Kutade had filed RTI queries to know why he was allotted such a small parcel of land. Under the FRA amendment rules of 2012, the authority must disclose why it has partially or entirely rejected the claim of an applicant.

While people had specific queries about their claims, the authority’s response was same for all

Kutade and other applicants started receiving answers to their RTI queries in the last week of April. But the answer was the same for all: “Sub-divisional and district-level committees have cleared all land claims made. Appeals against the decision are filed with the district-level committee. However, your application for an (FRA) appeal was not found in our records.”

While people had specific queries about their claims, the authority’s response was same for all Milind Thatte, founder of Vayam, a non-profit working with the tribals, says the authority’s response is ambiguous. “People had specific queries about information regarding pending claims or incompletely processed claims. What is the point of saying that no appeal under FRA is found when an FRA appeal has never been made for a single claim?” Datta Bhadakawad, additional resident collector (revenue) of Jawhar, who is hearing the first RTI appeals at the taluka level, told Down To Earth that “some people feel their claims have not been cleared adequately. So, we are hearing them out.”

The tribals are, however, not happy with the way the hearing is being conducted. They allege that Bhadakawad refused to provide minutes of the hearing and intimidated the unlettered applicants by asking them to choose between land titles and information under RTI. They plan to the make a second RTI appeal—the third step under the RTI Act to get the information requested—with the state information commission. In their appeal, which will be submitted in the first week of July, they have also sought penal action against Bhadakawad.

Shailesh Gandhi, former chief information commissioner and prominent RTI activist, who was present at one of the hearings says, “I have seen people filing 100 RTIs about the same query, but never come across a campaign of such a magnitude. I feel proud to see the most disempowered people assert their rights.” Gandhi says the tribals will find a positive feedback from the state commission.


The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006

Status report on implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 for the period ending 31st March, 2013

Our forest our rights

A national report on community forest rights under Forest Rights Act

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