This is the fifth part of the series on Forest Rights Act and its implementation in Jammu & Kashmir. In my previous columns I explained different aspects of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), its important provisions, role of the State, District , Sub Division and Village Forest Committees in implementing this law. I explained how the Govt of India and the Supreme Court came to the rescue of almost 12 lakh forest dwellers who were to be evicted in 16 states early last year for not meeting the criteria of Forest Rights Act (FRA-2006). I have highlighted violations of SC stay order even before the FRA was rolled out in J&K. The way 10,000 apple trees were axed by Forest Officials in Kanidajan, Budgam, will continue to haunt the affected people who are yet to get justice. The affected people have also not been compensated by the Government? Ironically not a single Government officer from district administration or any top forest official visited the village. This clearly indicates how indifferent the government is towards the disadvantaged communities particularly the Gujjar Bakarwals and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD).
In this article I will explain how the role of the Tribal Affairs Department in FRA implementation is being bypassed? I have urged the government on awareness building among forest and tribal affairs department officials plus other government and local body institutions.
FRA implementation in Maharashtra
As explained already more than one million forest dwellers were deprived of the forest rights across 16 Indian states. Maharashtra had a large population of such people. With an aim of studying the reasons for rejection of Forest Rights and pending claims an extensive report was compiled by Maharashtra Government through its Tribal Research and Training Institute (TRTI). The institute came up with fifteen major reasons for rejection of or pending claims and appeals. TRTI's report revealed that lack of awareness and training among the implementing agencies about Forest Rights Act (FRA), misinterpretation and poor understanding of this law and complete ignorance of various circulars of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) were the reasons for poor implementation of FRA in Maharashtra.
This is not the case with Maharashtra state only, but in most of the states the authorities at helm, due to ignorance and meager understanding of the various provisions of FRA 2006, have messed up the implementation of this act. It resulted in depriving the benefits of the Forest Rights Act to forest dwellers and tribals in 16 states who were asked to evict from the forest land under their occupation. As I mentioned in my previous article the Supreme Court had also asked these 12 lakh forest dwellers to evict in the matter of Wildlife First v/s Union of India case. The Government of India had to come to their rescue and the court had to stay its own eviction order on 28th February 2019 after mere 2 weeks of its pronouncement.
Van Mitra campaign
With an aim of initiating a multi-pronged strategy to ensure better implementation of forest rights act across Maharashtra, a state-wide campaign known as Van Mitra Mohim was launched in May 2018 by the state Government. This was then followed by a series of workshops and training programs for officers of sub-division and district level forest committees. The officers were made to understand the various aspects and stages of forest rights claims and its recognition. The Government and NGOs organised training for trainers (ToT) workshops and facilitated filing new claims, reviewing rejected claims, addressing pending claims and speeding up the process to hear the appeals at different levels. In 2018 around 30,000 farmers had marched from Nashik to Mumbai demanding Government's attention towards agrarian and forest rights related issues. The protest march, led by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) was called off only after the state administration promised that it will take steps to address all the demands of the protesters within six months. Farmers had been demanding time bound implementation of the Forest Rights Act. There were many other demands as well.
Expert Committee on FRA
Recently Principal Chief Conservator of Forests J&K (PCCF) constituted an eight-member committee of experts to provide technical and legal support for the implementation of Forest Right Act, 2006. The eight member committee is headed by Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, and CEO, CAMPA, Sarvesh Rai. Other members of the committee include Chief Conservator Forests (CCF) Central T Rabi Kumar, CCF (WPR&T), CCF S&D Shally Ranjan, Conservators of Forests Balaji, Irfan Ali Shah, ACF Rushal Garg, and law officer Paramjit Singh. This is a great development indeed but I would like to ask the Government that what is the role of Tribal Affairs Department J&K vis a vis FRA implementation? Why haven't the officials of this department been included in the 8 member committee which will act like a think tank on FRA implementation? If the Government is not aware about the role of this department then they need to study the FRA very minutely, but if this is a deliberate attempt to sideline this department, it is a matter of serious concern indeed.
Role of Tribal Affairs Deptt
The Tribal Development Department of Himachal Pradesh for instance plays a pivotal role with regard to FRA 2006 implementation. All the minutes of the meetings on FRA are available on the official website of this department http://himachalservices.nic.in/tribal/en-IN/index.html . When it comes to J&K the work is entrusted to only the Forest Department. I went through the official website of J&K Tribal Affairs Department www.tribalaffairs.jk.gov.in. I could not even find a link on the Forest Rights Act. The website is like a comedy of errors. Ms Rehana Batool is shown as Administrative Secretary of this department on the main page, but when one clicks on the who-is-who link Mr Abdul Majid Bhat's name and photograph appears quite visibly. Mr Bhat is still designated as Secretary Tribal Affairs Department. In the RTI link the website in-charge hasn't uploaded details of RTI Act 2005 and instead continues to follow the J&K RTI Act 2009 which has been repealed more than a year back.
If the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) is the nodal agency for implementation of Forest Rights Act (FRA) at national level why is the role of this department ignored in J&K? One can understand the fact that this department has no presence at district or sub division level, but at least the senior officers of the administrative department or the directorate should be given an active role in implementing Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA) in J&K? If the Govt. is really sincere about tribal welfare in J&K why can't new posts of District Tribal Officers (DTO's) be created under the Tribal Affairs Department? On the pattern of van Mitra campaign, Govt needs to create massive awareness on FRA in J&K as well from Panchayat to Civil Secretariat. Local NGOs should be involved in Information Education and Communication (IEC) campaign. Implementation of FRA has been marred by lots of controversies and challenges in other states. JK Govt needs to learn from those challenges and explore the good practices adapted by states like Orissa where FRA implementation has been better.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is Founder & Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement. He is a Climate Action Fellow at ANU Ahmedabad