Public Hearings on FRA Implementation

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Newly posted Secretary Tribal Affairs has to play an effective role   

PUBLIC hearings are open gatherings of Government officials and citizens wherein the citizens and Government come face to face to deliberate on public issues. In most of the cases many grievances are addressed on the spot. This is the essence of good governance. The Back to Village programme conceptualized in Jammu & Kashmir for Govt –citizens interaction in rural areas is also a kind of public hearing but as these hyped programmes are held only once or twice a year , they are not sustainable models of good governance. Public hearings should be held at regular intervals without any pomp and show. It is the duty of public spirited citizens , civil society organisations and NGOs to facilitate frequent citizen-Govt interactions. The elected representatives like panchayat or district council members or Chairpersons of block councils can also facilitate these meetings. If the senior officers of the state or central Government are part of these public hearings , then such programmes  are more fruitful and workable.

Public hearing and FRA 

Recently, a four member expert committee that looks into the recognition and vesting process of the habitat rights of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) and access of seasonal resource to nomadic and pastoralist communities constituted by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) visited various areas of Kashmir valley. This expert group is headed by former Secretary of Tribal Affairs Ministry Mr Hrusikesh Panda. The group’s main aim was to see the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in J&K.  A team of four members  visited Kupwara , Budgam , Anantnag , Pulwama districts and interacted with various stakeholders like Govt functionaries, public representatives , NGO’s and aggrieved Gujjars and other forest dwellers.

On March 30th Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement in association with an NGO Koshish acted as a bridge to facilitate one such public hearing on Forest Rights Act (FRA) implementation in Draggar village of Khansahib sub division in Budgam.

The members of Sub Division Level Committee (SDLC) headed by Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of Khansahib area , local forest Range Officer and officials of Rural Development Department were also present in the programme. A two members team from Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA)  namely V Gri Rao and Priya Tyde were also present in the meeting. In addition to Sarpanches of neighboring villages , the members of Forest Rights Committees (FRC’s) and representatives from Scheduled Tribe (ST), Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) particularly the pastoralist group of Chopans were also present as well as the members of some NGOs were also present. Several issues were discussed during the meeting. There was confusion among forest officers and the village Forest Rights Committee’s (FRC’s) about various aspects of Forest Rights Act (FRA). The Chopan community representative Master Abdul Ahad while deliberating upon the FRA said that in many areas forest officers were telling Chopans that they won’t get any right  under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). But when Mr Giri Rao who also heads the Vasundhara an Odisha based action research and policy advocacy organization explained the rights of pastoralist communities, Chopans present during the meeting got a sigh of relief. He also explained the rights of Gujjars who migrate to local bahaks ( pasturelands) in summer months.  Similarly, when Gujjar women heard that they get priority under FRA claim finalization , the women Sarpanch of neighboring village Gurwaith Haneefa Begum who belongs to Gujjar community  seemed overwhelmed.

“ I should have got more women to the programme , I didn’t know it would be such a fruitful meeting”, she said while deliberating during the meeting.

Rights of Pastoral communities 

Bakerwals, Gujjars and Chopans are traditional pastoral-nomadic communities that live in Jammu and Kashmir. Before 1990, when there was no armed militancy in the region, they would travel through the length and breadth of Jammu and Kashmir, exploring the summer pastures and meadows to graze their sheep and goats. Due to heavy military presence on the border areas of North Kashmir and parts of Poonch and Rajouri of Jammu Division from 1990 onwards, several traditional travel routes and meadows became inaccessible to these communities. Now the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir has been carved into two Union Territories (UTs) post the abrogation of Article 370. This summer, these pastoralist communities may have to suffer once again as there are apprehensions about whether they would be able to move freely inside the Ladakh region. The Bakerwals regularly visit pastures in Ladakh in search of fodder and grasslands. On the other hand, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, which was inapplicable in Jammu and Kashmir in the past, has been implemented in the newly carved out regions. This gives these communities some legal protection to travel and graze their flock. The Chopan, also known as Pohul in Kashmiri, live a laborious life. This pastoralist community usually owns no livestock, unlike the Gujjars and Bakerwals. They take care of sheep that belong to local farmers. It is not uncommon to see Chopan shepherds dotted across the hilly rangelands of Jammu and Kashmir. In the summer, they negotiate the treacherous mountains to reach the alpine meadows, also called “bahaks”. In bahaks, Chopan shepherds graze sheep from June until autumn. The farmers pay them Rs. 350 to Rs. 400 per sheep to look after them for a season that lasts five to six months. Some Chopans, who have grazing land around their villages, continue the activity until November. The Chopan community is socially, educationally, and economically underdeveloped. Despite being pastoral and tribal, they are not included in the ST category by the central government. The Kashmiri Chopan is similar to the Changpa community of Ladakh or Gaddis of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Only the Changpas and Gaddis are recognised as a Scheduled Tribe. The Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly, in 2000, passed a resolution to include the Chopan community in the list of tribes, but the Centre never took it seriously. Early this year this author met with Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha to bring this to his notice. He assured me he would take up the issue with the government.

During the public hearing at Draggar Khansahib the Chopan Welfare Association also submitted a detailed memorandum to the visiting team from the Ministry. The association again demanded that Chopans be declared as Scheduled Tribe (ST) community so that they get benefits of various Govt programmes aimed at empowering tribal and other deprived classes of society.  The visiting team from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) during the public hearing got a first-hand account of the issues faced by these neglected communities.

Conclusion

I would suggest that more such public hearings on Forest Rights Act (FRA) be held in villages located near the forests in the months to come so that  Gujjars , Bakerwals and other traditional forest dwellers are sensitized about their rights under FRA. Department of Tribal Affairs has to play an active role now in view of being the nodal agency on implementation of FRA. The newly appointed Secretary Tribal Affairs Dr Shahid Iqbal Chowdhary has to make sure his department reaches out to more and more people this summer through a massive awareness campaign on Forest Rights Act (FRA). The department having a dearth of staff and manpower must involve panchayats , NGOs and even the education department for awareness building on FRA. Government must facilitate awareness programmes to be held in forests and meadows of J&K as tribal populations mostly Gujjars , Bakerwals or Chopans migrate to these places in summers.


Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

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Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow and Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement. Feedback [email protected]

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