It took the Government 14 long years to extend the Forest Rights Act (FRA) to J&K. Article 370 was never an impediment for ratification of this law by J&K legislature. All the successive Governments in Jammu & Kashmir, which includes National Conference, Congress, PDP and even BJP failed to give benefits of this pro-poor and pro-tribal law to the Gujjars, Bakerwals and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) of J&K in past. What stopped the BJP leadership in extending FRA to J&K way back in 2016, 2017 or 2018 when Forest Ministry in J&K was with them. If the Govt could extend the GST law to J&K or in past the central laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), TADA or National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) were extended to J&K, who stopped the successive governments not to make FRA-2006 operational in last more than a decade?
Finally FRA has rolled out after being extended to J&K on Oct 31st 2019. What is the urgency to make it operational within a few months without any proper awareness? The Forest Rights Act (FRA) doesn’t make it mandatory to make the law operational within a specific period. In Fact the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) and UNDP have given clear guidelines in 2015 that no cut off dates or deadlines be followed in FRA implementation.
Forest Rights Committee (FRC)
Under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), the Gram Sabha which consists of all adults of the village are to elect a 15 member Forest Rights Committee (FRC) at village level. Rule 11 (1) (a) of Forest Rights Act 2006 says that Gram Sabha shall (a) call for claims and authorize the Forest Rights Committee (FRC) to accept the claims and such claims shall be made within a period of three months from the date of such calling of claims along with at least two of the evidences mentioned in rule 13, shall be made within a period of three months. Provided that the Gram Sabha may, if considered necessary, extend such period of three months after recording the reasons thereof in writing. This makes it clear that the Gram Sabha has the powers to extend the time of receiving the claims for Forest Rights from villagers. Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) the nodal agency of FRA kept this thing into consideration and made necessary guidelines explained below.
J&K Government is said to be directing the field officials to complete the entire process by 31st March 2021, that is why people are asked to hold meetings amid snow and freezing temperatures in villages. Why isn’t the Gram Sabha asked to start accepting claims with effect from April 1st when the weather improves ? They could do that even without the Govt’s directions but the unfortunate problem is that these people are unaware of their powers under the FRA 2006.
“Even after 14 years of enactment of FRA not even 10 % of the rights under FRA have been recognized in India. In Bihar mere 1 % of people have been benefited till date. In Jharkhand only 10 % have got justice and in Orissa mere 9% tribals and traditional forest dwellers have got the legitimate rights over forests” said Y Giri Rao a noted Forest Rights activist and researcher from Bhubaneshwar while interacting with this author
Closed door Gram Sabha
Before holding Gram Sabha meetings the Govt was supposed to issue a gazette notification through J&K Tribal Affairs department wherein they will provide details of villages where people can claim the rights under FRA. We are still unaware whether the JK Tribal Affairs Department has been made the Nodal Department or not? Most of the FRA meetings have been organized by the Forest Department at the top which goes against the principles of this legislation. Government made some people in villages hold “closed door meetings” which have been labelled as Gram Sabha meetings. There has been resistance from people as well. In these meetings 10 to 15 member Forest Rights Committee (FRC) members have been elected. In the bone chilling cold with 4 to 5 feet snow on ground in most of the forest villages Gram Sabha were hardly held. Have these meetings been held in places like Tulail, Gurez or Machil which are totally cut off from the rest of J&K? At many places not even 5 people were present in the meeting but they elected 15 member FRC? I don’t blame the officials of the Rural Development Department or members of Panchayat for all this. It is the Govt at top which is enforcing this. They seem to be under a confusion that by March 31st Govt has to implement FRA 2006 in J&K. This is not the case at all. FRA is a continuous process with no time period to implement the act. There are more than 5000 village Panchayats in J&K. The average village population consists of more than 2500 people and not even 1 % people have participated in the FRA gram sabha meetings. Thus killing FRA’s spirit.
No deadline & cut of dates
As per the FRA guidelines, jointly prepared by Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) India office in 2015, there is no time limit for receiving FRA claims. Processing of applications by Gram Sabhas have to be done as per Forest Rights Rules 2012 especially proviso to Rule 11 (1) (a), which provides that the Gram Sabha shall call for the claims and authorize the Forest Rights Committee (FRC) to accept the claims. Since the Gram Sabha is the “authority to initiate the process for determining the nature and extent of individual or community forest rights or both” the commencement of the process must be made by the Gram Sabha, and not the Forest Rights Committee. The guideline further reads :
“The FRA is intended to recognize the rights of the country’s poorest and most marginalized people. Such communities frequently will not even become aware of the existence of this legislation for long periods. Imposing a cut-off date would amount to penalizing them for the failure of the state machinery to inform them of their rights”
If Govt is really serious about implementing the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in J&K, then first of all list of villages be notified. Then a massive awareness campaign has to be launched. School teachers, officials of Rural Development Department, Revenue officials and NGO’s be involved in this campaign. The role of the Forest Department has to be restricted as they are the respondent party under FRA. Further Gram Sabha / FRC meetings must be held when the weather improves. Ensure these meetings are more democratic and there is enough participation of people which includes women as well. The Government must stop issuing cut off dates for implementing FRA which goes against 2015 Govt of India guidelines issued by Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA).
The Gram Sabha or Deh Majlis meetings on Forest Rights Act (FRA) are not organized to discuss NREGA works or construction of a bund or culvert but to decide on giving individual and community forest rights to people. Gram Sabha under FRA is a Quasi-Judicial body. The Government should have instead ensured better participation of people through print and electronic media but the meetings were held in complete secrecy. Women were further sidelined in these closed door meetings. I was hopeful that the J&K Govt will launch FRA with a big bash but the way it has been kickstarted is quite disappointing & depressing. What all is being done defeats the very essence of this historic legislation and PM Modi’s claim of strengthening the grassroots democracy in Jammu & Kashmir
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is Founder & Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement