Respect the Forest Rights Act   

RECENTLY, while speaking at a ceremony in Srinagar on the implementation of the ‘Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act also called as Forest Rights Act (FRA), Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha said that the administration was working continuously at different levels to safeguard the rights of tribals. He said that the Government was working on a mission mode for their development and betterment. The LG during the function handed over individual and community forest  right certificates  (IFR & CFR) to the beneficiaries of Gujjar-Bakarwal and Gaddi-Sippi communities. Yet another function was held at Jammu where IFR and CFR claim certificates were handed over to several beneficiaries. Describing the occasion as historic, LG Sinha thanked PM Modi for extending FRA to J&K post the abrogation of Article 370.

Government rolled out the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in J&K after a public outrage last year in December when several apple orchards were axed in Kanidajan in Budgam and many Gujjar hutments were razed to ground in Pahalgam in South Kashmir. The Forest department had acted on the orders from the Government invoking the obsolete Indian Forest Act 1927. Dozens of eviction notices were issued by the forest department in several villages of Kashmir valley asking the gujjar and other forest dwellers to surrender forest land which was under their occupation for the last many decades. Infact, the FRA was extended to J&K on Oct 31st 2019 when the 1st order under JK Re-Organization Act 2019 was issued post article 370 abrogation. This law was not operationalized for almost a year and was only implemented as the issue was raised time and again.

Ground situation

Through my visits to places like the tribal hamlet called Darwan Basti near Yusmarg in district Budgam I have come to the conclusion that the tribal population and other traditional forest dwellers had more forest rights before FRA rollout. Only 2 years back, the families who live in Darwan Basti forest area were allowed to grow vegetables around their Kotha’s (huts) between May to October but for the last 2 years the forest department is not allowing them to continue that traditional activity.

There are almost 250 families putting up around Darwan Bast who belong to almost 4 villages of Chalyan,Tchoonth Nad,Nowgam and Darwan. The families who are mostly Gujjars and other traditional forest dwellers are forced to buy even leafy vegetables from the market several kilometers away from their habitation. For years they would grow Collard greens (Kashmiri Haak),potatoes,kidney beans and other vegetables during summer months near their Kothas but out of the blue, in the summer of 2020, they were forced to stop that age-old practice.

Lack of Awareness  

Without any proper awareness, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was rolled out last year in December. Gram sabha with better participation of people (50 % of Coram) to elect Forest Rights Committees (FRCs) was not held in a majority of villages near forests. Women’s participation was meager, which defeats the essence of this act.

SDLC & DLC Meetings

Under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), the Gram Sabha which consists of all adults of the village have to elect a 15 member Forest Rights Committee (FRC) at village level. 50 % coram is to be mandatory during the gram sabha meetings. 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 a 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. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA),the nodal agency of FRA, kept this thing in consideration and made necessary guidelines.

Pertinently, the J&K Government had directed field officials like Panchayat Secretaries and Patwaris to complete the entire process of holding gram sabha on FRA implementation by 31st March 2021 and that is why people were asked to organize the meetings in a haste in January and February this year. Inspite of all that confusion and chaos all the claim forms submitted in the majority of villages are eating dust. They lie with local Chairpersons of the Forest Rights Committees (FRCs).These claim forms had to go to the Sub Division Level Committee (SDLC) members headed by Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM) and then to the District Level Committee (DLC) headed by respective Deputy Commissioners.

Gram Sabha Inside Rooms?

Before holding Gram Sabha meetings, the Govt was supposed to issue a gazette notification through J&K Tribal Affairs Department wherein they would provide details of villages where people can claim the rights under FRA. Ironically, JK Tribal Affairs Department has not been made the Nodal Agency for FRA implementation in J&K. Why so?

In December last year, the Forest Department was made the Nodal agency by the Govt and I had written several articles on that arbitrary decision. At the national level as well, it is the Ministry of Tribal Affairs that looks after the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and its awareness/advocacy.

Most of the FRA meetings from December last year to March this year have been organized by the Forest Department at top, which goes against the principles of this legislation.

Infact, the Government made some people in villages hold “closed door meetings” which have been labelled as Gram Sabha meetings. There has been resistance from some people as well. In Bonen village of Budgam the villagers came out in 6 feet of snow and held a protest against the holding of a closed door gram sabha. The local panchayat then held a fresh gram sabha which was attended by 50% adult population of the village which is the requisite coram as per the law. With 4 to 5 feet of snow on the ground, in most of the forest villages, Gram Sabha were hardly held. How were these meetings held in places like Tulail,Gurez or Machil; nobody knows.

In most of these meetings, participation was very meagre. One only wonders how 15 members of FRCs were elected then.

There are more than 6000 village Panchayats in J&K and the average village population consists of more than 2500 people. The participation of a majority should have been ensured in democratic spirit.

No Deadline

As per the FRA guidelines jointly prepared by the 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 the Government is really serious about implementing the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in J&K, then first and foremost, the list of villages should be notified. Then a large-scale awareness campaign has to be launched. School teachers, officials of the Rural Development Department, Revenue officials and NGOs need to be involved in this campaign. The role of the Forest Department has to be restricted as they are the respondent party under FRA.

The government should ensure that no pretext should be available for the Forest Department to harass forest dwellers. The LG must now ensure that no leeway be left for forest dwellers to suffer further. More provisions should be made and meaningful ones must be restored to make the mission a complete success. This can start from allowing forest dwellers to grow vegetables near their huts.

The government must also ensure that people from all traditional forest dweller communities are included. In addition to Gujjars and Gadi Sippis there are other traditional forest dwellers especially Kashmiri speaking ones who also need to be given a space and platform in government initiatives/functions like the ones recently held at SKICC.


Views and details expressed in the article are the author’s own responsibility 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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