The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 also called the Forest Rights Act or FRA, is one of the historic legislations; it ensures protection of the rights of tribals (STs) and other traditional forest forest dwellers (OTFDs) over their land, community resources, and habitats. This law also ensures better forest management and governance. FRA gives certain rights to the forest-dwelling communities with regard to land and other resources as the same was denied to them for decades. The reason for this denial was the continuance of forest laws that had been enacted during British India. The Forest Rights Act gives legal recognition to the rights of forest dwelling communities, partially correcting the injustice caused by the colonial forest laws. As already mentioned in my previous articles, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was not extended to Jammu & Kashmir after it was enacted by Parliament. Many political leaders say that article 370 was an impediment in extending FRA to J&K, but I say it wasn’t. There were several central laws which were extended to J&K even before abrogation of article 370. If MG-NREGA or GST Act could be extended to J&K, why was the Govt of India and previous Govt’s in J&K reluctant to extend FRA 2006 to J&K. The past Governments in J&K could have even enacted a state law on the pattern of FRA, but this wasn’t done.
Under J&K Reorganisation Act 2019, FRA was also extended to J&K with effect from October 31st 2019, but the law was not made operational on ground for more than a year. Government rolled out the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in J&K after a public outrage around November-December 2020 when several apple orchards were axed in Kanidajan in Budgam and many Gujjar hutments were razed to ground in Pahalgam in South Kashmir. The Forest department had acted on the orders from the Government invoking the obsolete Indian Forest Act 1927. Dozens of eviction notices were issued by the forest department in several villages of Kashmir valley asking the Gujjar and other forest dwellers to surrender forest land which was under their occupation for the last many decades. There was a public outcry and the activists of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement also raised this issue vehemently and held several protests as well. This author wrote a series of articles aiming at advocacy around this legalisation (FRA). The Govt finally rolled out the act and Gram Sabh’s were held in bone chilling cold with 4 to 5 feet snow on the ground in February 2021. The Forest Rights Committees (FRCs) were also constituted amid chaos and confusion. In September last year while speaking at a ceremony in Srinagar on the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha said that the administration was working continuously at different levels to safeguard the rights of tribals. The LG during the function handed over individual and community forest right certificates (IFR & CFR) to the beneficiaries of Gujjar-Bakarwal and Gaddi-Sippi communities. Yet another function was held at Jammu where IFR and CFR claim certificates were handed over to several beneficiaries. Describing the occasion as historic, LG Sinha thanked PM Modi for extending FRA to J&K post the abrogation of Article 370. Unfortunately the other traditional forest dwellers (OTFDs) like Chopans were left out and they were not given any entitlements under the FRA during the two programmes.
Challenges in implementing FRA
The process of constitution of a Forest Rights Committee comprising members from within the village by conducting a Gram Sabha with two-thirds of the members present is not followed in most of the places. The Gram Sabha was not held in majority of the villages where FRCs have been constituted in J&K. Instead Panchayat Secretary, Sarpanch and Panches elected the village FRC and not even a single woman was present in the meeting. FRCs have women members but they never participate in the meetings and most of them are unaware of their role. Unfortunately even the male FRC members whom I met personally in different villages in Doodh Ganga and Raithan forest ranges in Budgam district were ignorant about their role and responsibilities. The Government has not organised any training programme for them till date. In all the states Tribal Welfare Department is the nodal agency for FRA implementation, but in J&K the job has been entrusted to the Forest Department which needs to be looked into. In fact I have been highlighting this for a long time and have written a lot on this. Recently I brought the matter into the notice of Nitti Ayog officials and other Govt representatives during a national consultation on FRA which was held at Bhubaneshwar.
The Forest Department, in spite of being the Nodal Agency for implementation of Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA) in J&K, is not maintaining a proper record of the beneficiaries. Except in some Divisional Forest Offices which include Kulgam, Kishtwar, Kupwara, and Pir Panjaal Forest Division Budgam, most of the forest divisions even don’t have the record of FRA beneficiaries with them. The Divisional Forest Officers (DFOs) do not maintain proper liaison with the District Collectors / Deputy Commissioners who head the District Level Committees (DLC) under the Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA).
As reported already in one of my articles published on 19th March 20222 in Greater Kashmir, I had to seek the information about beneficiaries of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) using the Right to Information Act (RTI). Almost one dozen DFOs provided information on FRA beneficiaries but out of them only the information received from DFO PP Division Budgam, DFO Kishtwar (Through DC office Kishtwar), DFO Kupwara, and DFO Kulgam was perfect and updated. I had brought the matter into the notice of PCCF J&K Dr Mohit Gera who is seriously working to make FRA operational. In fact he recently organised a workshop for the members of Biodiversity Management Committees and I raised the issue of linking FRA and Biodiversity Act which was appreciated by him and other participants which included several DDC Chairpersons, Members, Forest officers and members of district level Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCs).
Convergence of FRA
The Forest Rights Act (FRA) recognises and vests the forest rights and occupation in Forest land in forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who have been residing in such forests for generations but whose right could not be recorded. With regard to Community Forest Rights (CFR), our advocacy helped people in five villages - Draggar, Basant Wodder, Kachwari, Hill Kachwari – that got the titles under Community Forest Rights (CFR). Lt Governor Manoj Sinha handed over the title certificates to the beneficiaries last year in September during a function held at SKICC Srinagar. People got enough land for the graveyards in these villages which was a long pending demand. In addition to it some parcels of land were given to beneficiaries under the Individual Forest Right (IFR) as well. As the landholding in J&K is very less it is not possible to transfer 2 hectares of land under IFR to forest dwellers who claim for the same, but in states like Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra or UP, this is possible. In these places the land which is transferred to people under FRA is not fertile in most of the cases. In such a situation what shall the people do with this unirrigated and barren land? To address this issue funds available under various Govt schemes like MG-NREGA or CAMPA must be utilised through convergence. During the recent National Consultation on FRA held at Bhubaneswar on 7th and 8th July 2021 wherein I was invited as a speaker, the participants especially the Director SC ST Research & Training Institution (SCSTRTI) Dr A B Ota laid emphasis on transferring CAMPA funds to Panchayati Raj Institutions ( Gram Sabha) so that same could be utilised for afforestation programmes. The Secretary Ministry of Tribal Affairs Govt of India Anil Kumar Jha who also spoke on the occasion also emphasised on convergence of different Govt schemes so that tribals and other forest dwellers get better livelihood options from the land and other resources transferred to them under Forest Rights Act. Mr Jha said that Bank Officers, Agriculture credit societies need to be sensitised on FRA so that forest dwellers get better credit facilities. He also said that during the land acquisition process the title holders have full rights on the land and are entitled to get compensation for the acquired land by any Govt or Non Govt body.
Instead of looking at how much land has been transferred under FRA to individuals or communities, we need to see whether this land has changed the lives of the beneficiaries or not? Let the Govt institutions link up Forest Rights Act with biodiversity conservation & livelihood generation and I would request our Forest and Tribal Affairs Departments in J&K to work on these lines. Women Self Help Groups (SHGs), NGOs need to be involved by Govt. A collaboration between J&K Rural Livelihood Mission, Tribal Affairs Department & Forest Department is much needed to upscale this work.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.