Government violating Forest Rights Act

Recently a demolition drive was undertaken by the Government in Pahalgam area of South Kashmir, wherein several huts of nomadic Gujjars were raised to ground. These huts, locally called Kothas, are used by nomadic populations in summer months when they migrate to upper reaches in search of fodder for their livestock. This tradition has been followed for the last many centuries by migratory populations not only in Jammu & Kashmir but in several other places of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and many central Asian countries. Seasonal migration by shepherds and other nomadic population takes place in Europe, Turkey and Russia as well during summer months. After dismantling the Gujjar Kothas, Jammu and Kashmir government decided to extend the Forest Rights Act (FRA 2006) to J&K. One fails to understand why this law was not extended to J&K soon after abrogation of article 370.

In past FRA 2006 was not extended to J&K in view of article 370. J&K Govt continued to follow its archaic J&K Forest Act 1930 (samvat 1987) until recently. After the Govt of India enacted FRA 2006 14 years back , JK Govt could also have enacted a similar law, but  bureaucrats never persuaded politicians to enact a progressive forest law. The demand from civil society, gujjar or tribal groups to enact FRA in J&K in the past was also not visible except one or two groups having been demanding it on some occasions.

What is FRA ?

Forest Rights Act (FRA 2006), also known as Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, recognizes and vests the forest rights and occupation on forest land in Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes (FDST) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) who have been residing in such forests for generations. This act also establishes the responsibilities and authority for sustainable use, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance of the forest dwellers. On one hand Govt plans to give all these rights to forest dwellers of Jammu & Kashmir which includes Gujjars, Bakerwals, Pahadis, Dogras, Chopans and Kashmiri speaking people living around forest areas but on the other hand some forest dwellers are being harassed by authorities. Post article 370 abrogation notices are being issued across J&K particularly in Budgam, Anantnag, Kulgam, Kupwara and some other districts asking forest dwellers to vacate the land that is under their possession for the last hundreds of years. Several traditional hutments (Kothas) have been demolished in some areas of Kashmir which is an open violation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA-2006) while several Kothas were being allowed to come up during the last some years by officials of the Forest Department after taking money from beneficiaries. Genuine people, like migratory Gujjars and Chopans, who own kothas are not allowed even to repair the same when they get damaged during snowfall. These people have to pay bribe to the forest officials who are violating the FRA 2006 and J&K Forest Act 1930 had no protection for such people. I met several nomadic shepherds (Chopans) this summer living in dilapidated Kothas in the meadows of Pir Panjal in Budgam district. On the other hand new Kothas are allowed to come up in upper reaches. The owners who use even iron and cement to make such structures are mostly blue-eyed people who hardly migrate to these places, but instead use these structures for enjoyment with family and friends.

Meeting on FRA 2006

On November 18th J&K Chief Secretary presided over a meeting to review the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA 2006).  As per Govt statement issued after the meeting, the administration plans to complete a detailed survey by January 15, 2021 called “survey of claimants”. This survey will be taken up by a panel known as the Forest Rights Panel (FRP) for assessing the nature and extent of rights claimed at the village-level. The sub-divisional committees were asked to complete the scrutiny procedure of claims and preparation of “record of forest rights” by January 31, 2021. Committees at the district-level have to consider and approve the same by March 1, 2021. The Chief Secretary impressed upon the Forest Department to immediately constitute a 4-tier committees which includes State Level Monitoring Committee, District Level Committee, Sub-Divisional Level Committee, and Forest Rights Committee, to implement the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 or Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA 2006) in J&K

FRA beneficiaries?

Under FRA 2006 members of the Scheduled Tribes (ST) and other forest dwellers in the forests have the right over forest land for habitation or self-cultivation or livelihood. The Act also allows the use of forest land for developing government facilities, including schools, minor water bodies, and hospitals, on the recommendation of local Panchayat through the Deh Majlis or Gram Sabha. FRA 2006 gives the right to ownership to land farmed by tribals or forest dwellers subject to a maximum of 4 hectares. Ownership is only for land that is actually being cultivated by the concerned family and no new lands will be granted. Members of Scheduled Tribe (ST) Gujjars and Bakerwals of J&K who primarily depend on the forests or forest lands for bona fide livelihood needs can claim rights under FRA 2006. In addition to it Kashmiri speaking people or Chopans or any other non ST communities can also claim for entitlement under Forest Rights Act (FRA 2006) provided the community has been residing in the forest area for at least three generations – 75 years.

Conclusion

During 2019 lockdown and recent COVID 19 lockdown forests in J&K especially in Pir Panjaal forest division were looted on massive level. I have been highlighting this for the last 6 months now but no action has been taken against the forest officers who have failed to protect this green wealth. The committee that was constituted to probe the illegal felling of trees in Doodh Ganga range has exonerated forest officials and instead recommended construction of road around forests of Yusmarg which is a ridiculous idea. The action taken by Govt against forest dwellers recently violates the Forest Rights Act 2006. If the Govt plans to extend FRA to J&K what was the need to displace nomadic Gujjars in Pahalgam and many other places of J&K in this freezing winter ?

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement. He is undergoing Climate Action fellowship