This is the part VII of the series of articles I have written on Forest Rights Act (FRA). Part I was carried on November 20th 2020. This law was not being rolled out and instead Forest Department had started issuing eviction notices to tribals and forest dwellers across J&K under obsolete Indian Forest Act 1927. Budgam suffered a lot with more than 10,000 apple trees being axed in Kanidajan village. Govt is yet to act against the officer who ordered this ? Due to public pressure, Government agreed to formally implement FRA. Even after 14 years of its enactment, the Forest Rights Act has only helped less than 10 % tribals and forest dwellers in India. As mentioned in my previous column, mere 1 % tribals and other traditional forest dwellers (OTFD) in Bihar have been benefited till date. In Orissa where FRA implementation is said to be the best only 9 % people have been benefited. J&K Government should have learned from the mistakes committed in past by states and UT's but the way Govt has committed blunders by holding sham Gram Sabha's has created a great mistrust among the people.
The Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA) acknowledges the fact that the forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers have been residing in forests for generations, but their rights could not be recorded, recognized and accorded to them. Historical injustice has been done to the forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who are integral to the very survival and sustainability of the forest ecosystem since the colonial period as well as in independent India.
FRA is therefore aimed at addressing the long-standing insecurity of tenure and access rights of forest-dwelling tribes and communities, including those who were forced to relocate their dwellings due to development interventions undertaken by the State. The FRA provides a legal framework for recognition of individual and community forest rights. It also provides an opportunity for democratization of forest management. But the way this law is being implemented on ground in J&K, it seems criminal elements are taking a lead to get rights over the encroached forest land. In many villages undemocratically elected Forest Rights Committees (FRC's) are headed by timber smugglers and history sheeters. Those who deserve the forest rights and women are not made part of FRCs in scores of villages.
Who can be the Claimant?
Person who claims for the rights under the Forest Rights Act is known as a claimant. The claimant can be an individual, groups of individuals, family or community making a claim for recognition and vesting of rights listed in the Act. This includes nomadic and pastoral tribes like Gujjars, Bakarwals. Other traditional forest dwellers (OTFD) who are living in and around the forest area for at least 3 generations (75 years or more) are also entitled for claiming forest rights.
Community Forest Resources
Community Forest Resources (CFR) means customary common forest land within the traditional or customary boundaries of the village or seasonal use of landscape in the case of pastoral communities like Rangelands or Bahaks in case of Jammu & Kashmir. This may be the reserved forests, protected forests to which the community had a traditional access. Forest Resource Rights means right to forest resources within the traditional or customary boundaries for scheduled tribes, other traditional forest dwellers like Gujjars, Bakerwals, Chopans, Kashmiri, Pahadi, Dogri or any other community. All these people have the right of grazing, seasonal use of landscape and usage of water in the case of pastoral communities, right of access to traditional seasonal resources for pastoral communities.
Community Forest Rights (CFR)
Community Forest Rights means the right to ownership, access to collect, use and dispose of minor forest produce which has traditionally been collected within or outside village boundaries. Community right of use or entitlements such as fish and other products of water bodies, grazing, seasonal resource access. The right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage community forest resources; rights of access to biodiversity, intellectual property, traditional knowledge and cultural diversity, right to in-situ rehabilitation including alternative land. The right to protect, regenerate, conserve or manage community forest resources are to be claimed under Community Resource Rights through claim Form 'C', while the remaining are to be claimed under Community Rights process through claim Form 'B'.
Individual Forest Rights (IFC)
Individual Forest Rights means right to live and hold land in the forest, cultivate the forest land including forest lands used for allied activities ancillary to cultivation, such as for keeping cattle,post-harvest activities, rotational fallows, tree crops and storage of produce. It includes the right over disputed lands, conversion of pattas/leases/grants, in-situ rehabilitation and alternative land, land from were evicted without land compensation, land in forest villages and any other traditional rights. To claim these rights the forest dwellers have to prove that they are living in the area for at least 3 generations i.e. 75 years or more. Gram sabha and Govt needs to ensure that vested interested persons don't start constructing illegal Kothas in winter months and then claim rights over it inside the rangelands Bahaks.
Developmental Rights & FRC
Development Rights means the thirteen rights prescribed in the Forest Rights Act (FRA) such as schools, anganwadis, dispensaries or hospitals, minor irrigation canals, roads, drinking water supply, electricity access etc. The Forest Rights Committee (FRC) that is constituted by the Gram Sabha has to actually assist them it in the discharge of its responsibilities prescribed under FRA. This includes receiving of claims, verification of claims, and consolidation of claims. Gram Sabha is the supreme body under FRA & its meetings shall be convened by the Gram Panchayat separately. The quorum of the Gram Sabha shall be 50 percent of all members of the village, of which minimum 1/3rd shall be women. In case of recent Gram Sabha meetings in J&K not even 1 % of the members of the village were present in the majority of the Gram Sabha's. This was mainly due to snow and cold season plus Govt didn't create an awareness through print and electronic media. Many people allege that 4 to 5 persons from village panchayats convened these meetings and created 15 member Forest Rights Committees.
Forest officers worried?
For last more than two months I have been trying my best to create awareness about FRA. My aim is not to justify the illegal encroachments that have taken place in the last 20 to 30 years. Forest officers seem to be worried about giving forest rights to tribals and forest dwellers. This has been experienced in other states also in past. The department needs to introspect how much damage has been caused to forest by the forest officials? Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) has also been responsible for causing destruction to forests in J&K by allowing axing millions of trees in past two decades paving way for construction of hydropower projects, highways, railways and laying of transmission lines. In comparison to all that past destruction entitlement under FRA will not cause environmental disaster, provided legitimate people are given the forest rights. It is up to the forest & revenue officials now how they will manage the show?
Government especially the Forest Rights Committee (FRCs), Forest officials and particularly the Gram Sabha have to be alert as many criminal elements will try to claim rights over encroached forest land. In dozens of villages, many such people have managed to be the members of FRC's especially in Budgam , Poonch , Kupwara, Ganderbal and Bandipora districts. Some have been elected Chairpersons or Secretaries of these committees by Sarpanches and Panches in league with Panchayat Secretaries (VLWs) thus bypassing the gram sabha. The gram sabha's must only accept such claims which are legitimate and justifiable. Govt needs to create more sensitization programmes for gram sabha's to overcome these challenges. Massive awareness on FRA is the only solution.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is Founder & Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement