Involve SDM’s , DPOs, Tehsildars , BDO’s and NGOs in awareness building
By Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat
RECENTLY, the Deputy Commissioner Anantnag with an aim of implementation of the Forest Rights in district issued a circular on 4.01.2021 asking forest officers to create awareness on the Forest Rights Act (FRA) . Yet again, a mistake that was committed in other states in the past is being repeated in J&K. The Forest Department is a Respondent Agency when it comes to implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 commonly known as Forest Rights Act or FRA. How can an organization that is holding title of a land give away the same to the tribals and traditional forest dwellers living around forest areas ?
With an aim to ensure justice delivery vis a vis Forest Rights Act (FRA) , the Tribal Affairs Ministry was made the nodal agency for implementation of this pro-poor and pro tribal law at national level. In states and UTs, the respective Tribal Affairs Departments are the nodal departments to implement FRA. Rural Development and Revenue authorities also have a great role. But in the case of Jammu & Kashmir, the Govt seems to be ignoring them and involvement of forest officials is given more focus. If this is a deliberate attempt then that needs to be exposed but if it is done due to lack of awareness around this law, the same needs to be rectified.
It is not wise to call upon Divisional Forest Officers (DFOs) through an official circular to carry out awareness and information education and communication (IEC) programmes among forest dwelling communities. Will DFOs , Range officers or Foresters or even Forest guards in Anantnag dare to tell forest dwellers or gujjar population living around Kokernag , Pahalgam, Breng , Gadole or other forest areas that
“We will be surrendering our land that is under your possession very soon in your favour. You will be its owner and can carry out your agriculture and other activities on it “ . They can’t tell them and this will kill the essence of this law.
The Deputy Commissioner could have instead directed the SDMs, District Panchayat Officers (DPOs), Tehsildars or Block Development Officers (BDO’s) to do this work or involved some reputed NGOs as well . Even the Government at top level is giving the role and responsibility of FRA implementation to the Forest Department while the Tribal Affairs Department JK Government or even Panchayati Raj Department are completely sidelined. During the last two weeks, several workshops were held across J&K on FRA , and in most of these programmes, Forest Department officials were either giving powerpoint presentations (PPTs) or were involved in other activities related to FRA. I am not against what they are doing. Their intentions might be good but as per the law they have a limited role as FRA goes against their interests. As FRA is in its infancy and has been recently rolled out by the J&K Government recently, I am trying my best to make Govt officials aware about this historic legislation through my regular columns. I have already written a lot of 10 articles on FRA in other media outlets. Through this media platform I want to continue with my advocacy and activism on the Forest Rights Act. This piece explains the role of Govt departments and preamble of FRA.
Preamble of FRA
The preamble of Forest Rights Act calls for recognizing and vesting the Forest Rights to the tribals and traditional forest dwellers. The preamble reads as
“An Act to recognize and vest the forest rights and occupation in forest land in forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who have been residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded; to provide for a framework for recording the forest rights so vested and the nature of evidence required for such recognition and vesting in respect of forest land “
Explaining the background of this legislation plus aims and objectives to enact Forest Rights Act, the preamble further reads as:
“ Whereas the forest rights on ancestral lands and their habitat were not adequately recognized in the consolidation of State forests during the colonial period as well as in independent India resulting in historical injustice to the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who are integral to the very survival and sustainability of the forest ecosystem and whereas it has become necessary to address the long standing insecurity of tenurial and access rights of forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers including those who were forced to relocate their dwelling due to State development interventions “
A large population living in and around forests especially the scheduled tribes (Gujjars , Bakerwals in case of J&K) and other traditional forest dwellers (Kashmiris , Pahadis or even Dogri speaking people of J&K) have lived in these areas for a long period in symbiotic relationship. This relationship has led to formalized or informal customary rules of use and extraction, often governed by ethical beliefs and practices that have ensured that forests are not too degraded.
During the British rule colonial the focus shifted from the forests being used as a resource base for sustenance of local communities to a State resource for commercial interests like setting up of dams , railways and mining and development of land for agriculture. Several Acts and policies such as the Indian Forest Acts of 1865, 1894 and 1927 of the Central Govt and some state forest Acts curtailed centuries‐old, customary‐use rights of local communities. This continued even after independence till much later until enactment of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. FRA was enacted in 2006 and rolled out in 2008 across India except J&K.
This law was not ratified by the JK legislature which it could have. Even the former Forest Minister Lal Singh claimed 370 was an impediment in extending FRA in J&K, but that should not have been the problem as Lal Singh was not in favour of giving rights to Gujjars and Bakerwals of J&K. There are several laws like GST which were ratified by J&K legislature in recent past and even central laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) or even NREGA were extended to J&K in-spite of article 370 having been in force that time. The Govt of J&K could have even enacted a similar law of its own in the past but even the Forest Ministers from Kashmir like Mian Altaf Ahmed also failed to do that. I believe he was not well advised by the Forest Bureaucracy in the past. After abrogation of article 370 the FRA got automatically extended to J&K, but from Oct 31st 2019 till December 2020 Govt failed to roll out this law. After Govt issued eviction notices by invoking an obsolete Indian Forest Act 1927, it infuriated the tribals and we also tried our best to impress upon the Govt to implement FRA 2006. The Govt started rolling out the law after the Chief Secretary himself made announcement of this news. The way law is being rolled out violates the basic principles and preamble of Forest Rights Act (FRA). This needs to be looked into. As I said in the past, authorities also need to learn from the mistakes that were committed in other states during FRA implementation.
What experts say?
Veteran Forest Rights activist , researcher and columnist Y Giri Rao who heads Bhubaneswar based NGO Vasundhara while having an informal conversation with the author said that Forest Department is like an accused party under the Forest Rights Act, and it is not ethically right to involve them in awareness and implementation of the Act. “ How can the petitioners get justice from respondents ? “ he questioned. Giri Rao says that mistakes being committed during the past across several Indian states should not be repeated in Jammu & Kashmir.
“ If there are no officials of Tribal Affairs department available at Sub Division or Block level , let the Tehsildars and other officers be given a role like in case of Himachal Pradesh. For training Director Tribal Affairs J&K Govt and Director Panchayati Raj and District Panchayat Officers (DPOs) must play their role. In addition the elected panchayat representatives, village forest rights committee like BDC members , DDC members and even District Development Council Chairperson have a great role. They must understand their roles and responsibilities “ said Giri Rao
The aim of this article is not to undermine the forest officers. The land title in forest areas where tribals and traditional forest dwellers claim the rights is registered in the name of the forest department. Will the forest department allow free use of their land by such people ? No they won’t as this is a natural phenomenon. Let the law be implemented without any interference of the Forest Department. Axing of 10,000 apple trees by forest officials on November 18th 2020 at Kanidajan Budgam is a clear example before us that the forest department won’t allow tribals and forest dwellers to claim the rights over the land that is under their possession. I appeal to the Chief Secretary to involve the Tribal Affairs, Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Departments in FRA implementation. SDM’s, District Panchayat Officers (DPOs) , Block Development Officers (BDOs) and Tehsildars who already have a role under FRA need to be involved more for creating mass awareness on this law. FRA is not a rocket science , even a simple graduate if trained properly can become a master trainer “
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
Be Part of Quality Journalism
Quality journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce and despite all the hardships we still do it. Our reporters and editors are working overtime in Kashmir and beyond to cover what you care about, break big stories, and expose injustices that can change lives. Today more people are reading Kashmir Observer than ever, but only a handful are paying while advertising revenues are falling fast.