Poor record keeping in Forest Department

It is unfortunate that the official record of FRA beneficiaries isn’t being digitised
Poor record keeping in Forest Department
Representational Pic

It is now almost 2 ½ years since Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA) is operational in J&K. The law was extended to Jammu & Kashmir post article 370 abrogation and became applicable from 31st October 2019 like many other central laws. As discussed in my past write-ups, FRA was rolled out only after a public outcry from December 2020 when the Forest Department was evicting forest dwellers and tribal Gujjars in some areas of Anantnag and Budgam. The Forest Department, in spite of being the Nodal Agency for implementation of Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA) in J&K, is not maintaining proper record of the beneficiaries under this act in the respective Forest Divisions headed by Divisional Forest Officers (DFOs). Except a few Divisional Forest Officers (DFOs) 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. They are taking FRA so casually and do not maintain proper liaison with the District Collectors / Deputy Commissioners who heads the District Level Committee (DLC) under the Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA).

Information provided

This author had to seek the information about beneficiaries of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) using the Right to Information Act (RTI). The DFOs of Kupwara, Kulgam, and Kishtwar also provided information on FRA beneficiaries but the information which I received in last 2 months or more, only the Budgam information is holistic. This information also reveals the quantity of land allotted under Community and Individual Forest Rights-CFR, IFR to beneficiaries.

After going through the details provided by various DFOs, DC offices, under RTI Act 2005, I have prepared this brief report which depicts the implementation of FRA in different districts / forest divisions of Jammu & Kashmir. These details have been provided under RTI Act by DFOs and some offices of District Collectors (Deputy Commissioners).

Rajouri district

The response from DFO Rajouri like many other DFOs was strange. The officer in his reply said:

The said information is not in shape and consolidated or tabulated form as desired by the information seeker. However, the records related to said information can be inspected in divisional office on any working day “

When the details were sought about selection of individuals given FRA entitlements by Lt Governor JK in Jammu / Srinagar in September 2021, the DFO said “The matter pertains to higher ups”

How many individual and community claims have been cleared by competent authority that lead to issuance to the FRA certificates?

The DFO Rajouri in his reply said:

The individual and community right files are cleared on a case to case basis. The case file processing is at 3 levels and processed / cleared is different at three levels.”

When the officer was asked whether the concerned Gram Sabha, SDLC, DLC cleared these cases and asked to provide certified copies of the DLC, SDLC and Gram Sabha in these cases?

The DFO provided this short reply which reads:

“The records related to the said information can be inspected in the divisional Office on any working day.”

This means information seeker will have to travel 450 Kms to Rajouri from Srinagar to inspect the documents and the DFO will not digitise the information and make it available on Rajouri district website like it has been done by Deputy Commissioner Kathua. In fact the DFO Rajouri informed me through a telephonic conversation that he would provide the information, but it was depressing to note that he had not digitised the information about FRA beneficiaries. I, in fact, brought this matter into the notice of Chief Conservator of Forests Jammu Shri B M Sharma.

DFO Kathua, Samba

The DFO Kathua in his RTI reply dated 11.01.2022 said that not a single person was given any entitlement under FRA in District Kathua. The officer said information was not available with him. When this author researched, I found that District Administration Kathua had kept the details of FRA entitlements on its website www.kathua.nic.in. The district administration has a separate link related to FRA. The information revealed that 18 CFR and IFR were given to people in the district. Among this, 4 CFR claims and 14 IFR claims had been decided. Here is the link https://kathua.nic.in/forest-right-act/. I appreciate the district administration, especially DC Kathua for this beautiful work.

I am unable to understand why DFO Kathua said the information was not available with him? Is he not aware about the Forest Rights Act? Doesn’t he know that the Forest Department is the Nodal Agency for implementation of this law in his forest division? It is ironic that he simply told me in a written reply that no information was available in his office? This shows callous attitude of the Forest Department and lack of coordination between Forest and other departments especially the DCs office.

The Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Samba in Jammu also didn’t provide any information about FRA beneficiaries. The officer said information about FRA beneficiaries was not available. The district website of Samba didn’t have any information on its website about FRA beneficiaries.

DFO Udhampur

When the Deputy Commissioner Office Udhampur sought information on FRA beneficiaries from DFO Udhampur in response to my RTI application forwarded by Tribal Affairs Department to DC Udhampur / DFO Udhampur the reply of the DFO was shocking.

The DFO in his letter No: 6394-96/FDU Dated: 22.12.2021 in reply to question No 1 name and address of FRA beneficiaries said that information was not available in his office? The officer, however, said 5 (five) Community claims under FRA had been cleared by the District Level Committee (DLC) Udhampur.

When the details about Gram Sabha, sub division level committee (SDLC) and District level committee’s (DLC) clearance were sought (certified copies), the DFO in his written reply said that certified copies had been issued but were not available in his office. I thought that the DC office Udhampur would provide the said information but the office passed on the buck to the Tehsildars who have nothing to do with the Forest Rights Act (FRA). Tehsildar Udhampur provided a reply under letter No: TUDR/RTI/2021-22 /137-38 said that Information does not pertain to the said office.

Another reply came from Tehsildar Panchari. This author was unable to locate this tehsil as the letter had no mention of the District. Finally after some research I came to know that Panchari was a tehsil in Udhampur. The Tehsildar asked me to pay Rs 100 so that information would be provided. I thought 50 pages of information would be provided by him. But, the officer didn’t even provide his email or phone number and neither provided an account number where Rs 100 could be deposited?

After many weeks, when I finally contacted the Tehsildar, he sent me misleading information. Instead of the FRA beneficiary list, he sent me a soft copy of the Forest Rights Act 2006 and its rules. These documents are easily available on the internet, why did this officer send me this information? I think the blame goes to the Deputy Commissioner Office Udhampur and many other DC offices that unnecessarily forwarded the RTI application on FRA to Tehsildars by misusing section 6(3) of RTI Act 2005.

Conclusion

The DCs and the DFOs are the custodians of information related to the Forest Rights Act and if they play hide and seek and don’t digitise these documents, it will lead to chaos and confusion in future. Except DC office Kishtwar no other DC office provided me information on FRA. I will now be forced to go to the Central Information Commission with a complaint or appeal. In fact section 4 of RTI Act 2005 also insists on digitisation of official records, but who cares? It is impressed upon the forest department to immediately start digitising the official record related to the Forest Rights Act. If this isn’t done it would create a lot of confusion in future. Special training programme on office record management for forest officers should be held in every forest division. I would suggest that FRA record keeping be made completely digital and all the information be made available on every district website and other official websites of the Forest Department.

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow.

He is Chairman JK RTI Movement & Anant Fellow for Climate Action.

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.

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