The Forest Rights Act: The Ground Situation


Friends,

The struggle for forest rights continues, now with the added strength of an Act (flawed as it is) in our hands.  The implementation process for the Act has now begun in most of the major central Indian States.  Details are given in this mail.

There is a wide variation in how the Act is being implemented, as would be expected with such a complex legislation.  The organisations are now, along with their other struggles, fighting to ensure that the Act is implemented in a just and democratic manner reflecting its spirit.  As all expected though such things do not come easily; and in many instances there are conscious efforts to undermine the Act through sabotage, haste or simply illegal measures.   One of these measures, the Ministry of Environment and Forests' efforts to spread false propaganda that rights would not be recognised in tiger habitats, preceded the Act itself.  Other types of sabotage are taking place under the State governments, for instance in Chhattisgarh.  

In most cases the sabotages are proceeding on expected lines, in precisely the areas where the movements had pointed out flaws in the Act and the Rules - on the fact that the requirement that people "primarily reside in the forest" can be used to exclude most forest dwellers; on the failure of the Rules to require that gram sabhas should be convened at the level of actual settlements instead of the gram panchayat; on the hurdle of ST certificates; and so on.

But the most politically crucial aspect of this Act is already evident: the empowerment of the gram sabha as the democratic body for determining rights.  What is showing on the ground is that, even where awareness is low and information just percolating through, people are beginning to fight back.  There are ongoing efforts to reduce rights recognition once again to forest guards and surveyors (the same settlement systems of previous forest laws), as we expected there would be.  But the government is facing growing resistance.   The political space created by this Act and its procedures are already proving to be potent weapons.

Meanwhile, as has now been reported in the press, some of the hardline conservationists, having failed to completely subvert the democratic process, are now attempting to use the courts against the struggle.  We will be sending out a statement on the situation shortly.

Campaign for Survival and Dignity


CHHATTISGARH


Forest Rights Committees have been formed throughout the State, excepting the salwa judum areas, where it appears that the government is intent on giving rights only to those in the camps (more details on this are awaited).  Gram sabhas are being called at the panchayat level, at extremely short notice - in some cases on the morning of the day.  The SLMC is also notified, with SDLC's and DLC"s being created.   Implementation of the Act has largely been delegated to the Forest Department as it is claimed that the Tribal Department does not have enough staff.

The government of Chhattisgarh has meanwhile produced a "schedule" for implementing the Act.  This requires that claims be filed from March 1st onwards (though as per law it is the gram sabha who is to decide when claims will start).  It then has the date "March 7th" listed next to the words "Verification of claims by Forest Rights Commmittee".  In at least some areas, such as Jashpur District, this is being interpreted to mean that the filing of claims should have been completed by March 7th- an impossibility by any reasonable standard and a total violation of the Rules, which require that a minimum of three months be given for this process.  The schedule moreover makes no mention of when the gram sabha is to pass the claims recommended by the FRC, giving rise to a suspicion that this step is to be bypassed entirely (in violation of the Act).  Meanwhile officials say that community rights in the Act (such as minor forest produce, rights to water bodies, community forest resources etc.)  are not to be dealt with at all now but to be handled "later".  

This gives rise to a fear that the Chhattisgarh government aims to effectively bypass the Act process and grant pattas as per their earlier illegal - and corrupt - "surveys", a point that is strengthened by the fact that the government is already announcing figures of "beneficiaries" and areas for which pattas are to be given even before the Act is implemented.

Regarding the issue of "residing in forests", the Chhattisgarh government has apparently requested a clarification from the Centre on this matter.  It is unclear if they have received an answer yet.   

There are other widespread irregularities, including automatically making the sarpanch a member of the FRC, only BJP MLA's being the non-official members of the SLMC, etc..

Finally in the salwa judum areas there are moves afoot to hold gram sabhas inside the so-called relief camps, where only 15% of the population is living now - a clear and total violation of the Act.  This matter is being taken up both in Chhattisgarh and in Delhi.

A series of meetings and mobilisations are taking place at the district level around the Act and organisations are intervening in the gram sabhas.   

MADHYA PRADESH


The FRC's were formed in the first two weeks of February and the claims period has begun.  All gram sabhas are being called at the revenue village level.  Movements are attempting to organise hamlet level garm sabhas and declare them under MP's PESA law.  In Burhanpur district, however, gram sabhas are being called at the gram panchayat level, and the organisations are opposing.  Forest villages and unrecorded settlements in Burhanpur and elsewhere are being left out of the process entirely as a result of the panchayat gram sabhas being called, since they do not fall within the boundaries of any panchayat.     

There is so far not too much sign of party manipulation of the constitution of FRC's, though government officials are not following the guideline on minimum representation of women.  The Madhya Pradesh government is intent on issuing pattas by August / September, and the process has begun moving at that speed.  There is no clarity from the government side on the "reside in forests" issue, but the organisations are encouraging people to build huts etc. on their forest plots so as to avoid this as a potential problem.
 

GUJARAT


The FRC's have been constituted in many areas, though not all, often at extremely short notice (gram sabhas being called at one day's notice etc.).  Gram sabhas are taking place at the panchayat level in general, but many have been held at the revenue village level in Scheduled Areas, wherever the matter was raised in protest.  Hamlet level self-declaration of gram sabhas has been rejected in some areas by officials, but negotiations are continuing.  So far there seems to be little sign of party manipulation of the Committees, in part because awareness is high.     The forest department is continuing to dig trenches and pits on cultivated lands in some areas despite the Act having come into force and in villages where JFM committees exist, the department is attempting to manipulate the FRC selection process by getting JFMC members selected.  Finally people are facing difficulties in getting ST certificates due to the bureaucracy involved, as anticipated, and this is becoming a crucial roadblock in the process (particularly given the short time frames).

The SMC, DLCs and SDLCs are yet to be formed despite the rules requiring that SDLCs and DLCs provide information and support related to the Act to the gram sabhas. In many areas, gram sabha meetings are being called by taluka level officials or even field level health officials or teachers when these officials themselves are unclear about the provisions in the act. In a couple of districts, field implementation has been delegated to forest officials who are saying that only those 'living in' forests shall be eligible for the recognition of rights.  

Movements are fighting for hamlet level gram sabhas, for FRC's to be properly constituted and for ST certificates to be awarded correctly and quickly.

MAHARASHTRA


Government officials say the gram sabhas will be called in March.  The gram sabhas are likely to take place at the revenue village level, with the government rejecting hamlet level GS's as impractical.  The government is also likely to try and get the gram sevaks to be members of the FRC's on the grounds that adivasi youth will be unable to handle the recording of claims, filling of forms, creating registers etc. Organisations have begun constituting hamlet gram sabhas in the areas where they work.

ORISSA


The State Level Committee was notified in February and all districts have been asked to constitute DLCs and SDLCs. Four departments - Tribal Welfare, Revenue, Forest and Panchayati Raj, are working in coordination for implementing the Act, with the tribal welfare dept being the nodal agency.  Gram sabhas are also expected to be convened on the 16th and 23rd of March.  There were no efforts to convene them on the 28th of February after the Ministry of Panchayati Raj's letter was rejected as impractical.  The gram sabhas here will take place at the "palli sabha" (revenue village) level.  Forest and unsurveyed villages are being left out "for the time being."  Gram sabhas and field staff are being supplied with forms etc.   Officials claim that they will not take too strict a view of the "reside in forest" requirement.  However, intense police repression in the wake of the Nayagarh strikes is hampering the ability of activists to move, making it difficult to get information or organise for the GS's.

RAJASTHAN


The government had made no announcement of any kind on the Act until the matter was raised in the ongoing Assembly session  at the end of February.   After pressure was put, plans have been made for district level trainings on March 17th and 18th and block level trainings the following week.  Gram sabhas are to be called on the 28th and 29th.  Movements are working to ensure that the gram sabhas are called at the revenue village or hamlet level rather than the panchayat level.

JHARKHAND


Gram sabhas are to be convened in March.  In two districts gram sabhas were convened on February  28th in accordance with the MoPR letter but no FRC's were elected, only information was supplied.  In one district and in some other areas movements and organisations have constituted hamlet level gram sabhas.  They intend to declare them to the Collectors shortly.  However, the Jharkhand CM believes that since the State's law provides for constitution of such gram sabhas (which however was subject to a deadline of 30 days after the Rules to that effect were notified several years ago, as a result of which none were actually declared), there is no problem.  In addition, since Jharkhand has not had panchayat elections, there is confusion on who will convene the gram sabhas.  The Jharkhand government has asked for a clarification from the Centre on this matter.

TAMIL NADU


No initiative at all.  In late January the government had informed reporters that in the absence of direct instructions from the Centre they would not act.  Notwithstanding the arrival of such an instruction in the form of the ill-designed letter from the Ministry of Panchayati Raj on February 20th, this position is being maintained.  Now, with the Madras HC issuing a stay order on issue of pattas on the 22nd of Feb, the government is unlikely to move on determination of rights (which, it should be noted, has not been stayed) without further pressure from the ground.

KERALA


Despite appointment of a special officer and constitution of the State Level Monitoring Committee, no work has started  at the ground level and none of the other committees have been constituted.

KARNATAKA


Gram sabhas were called on the 28th in many tribal areas and it appears that some FRC's have been constituted.  In some areas FRC's were constituted by either the panchayat or the Forest Department without calling the gram sabha at all.  Gram sabhas were not however held in North Karnataka and in Chikmagalur.  Organisations have protested, mobilised gram sabhas of actual settlements, etc. Elected representatives and others have demanded the cancellation of the FRC's and their re-constitution in actual gram sabhas.

GOA


Gram sabhas were called on the 28th in accordance with the MoPR letter.  Gram sabhas were called at the panchayat level, which is a problem in some areas but not in all.  FRC's were also elected.  We are trying to find out more information on how the process took place.  It appears that the forest officials were asked to go to the villages to explain the law.  From the limited information available, there appear to be few problems in information dissemination so far.

ANDHRA PRADESH


The gram sabhas were to be convened and FRC's formed before 29th of February.  Claims are to be received up to 31st May.  The aim is to finalise claims by October 31st.  Gram sabhas are being convened at the panchayat level on the ground that hamlet level gram sabhas under PESA have not been constituted in the state even in the scheduled areas.  In some cases, the Panchayat area is spread over 15 to 20 kms. At an official discussion it appears that it was said that the "reside in forests" issue will not be seen too strictly, though apparently the AP government has now requested a clarification from the Centre.   As in the case of Chhattisgarh, the state govt has been publicly confusing the FRA process with its own survey, and has been citing figures for the area of pattas it will issue.  There are also moves to forcibly relocate Chenchus from the Nallamala forests, under the garb of "voluntary" relocation - even though such 'voluntary' relocation is also illegal until the process in the FR Act is complete.  The organisations are resisting such moves, fighting for properly constituted FRC's and otherwise building up the claims process.

HIMACHAL PRADESH


Process has been initiated in Himachal by the department of tribal developmentm which has issued letters to deputy commissioners of the state's two Scheduled Tribal districts this week. The file for non-tribal areas is in process and may be cleared soon. Further details are awaited.

WEST BENGAL


No movement appears to have taken place from the government level.