Tension prevails as forest dwellers wait for rights

Tension prevails as forest dwellers wait for rights

A Kunbi hamlet at Patagudi inside Kali Tiger Reserve, Dandeli. dh photo/Anitha Pailoor

Ordering eviction of ‘bogus and illegal’ occupants of forests in one fell swoop, a recent order by the Supreme Court, which was subsequently stayed, has ruffled the feathers of tribal communities across the country while paving way for a high decibel debate on the rights of forest dwellers.

The order by the apex court targeting illegal claimants, solely on the basis of the affidavits filed by as many as 21 state governments, has ironically been twisted and taken a political colour. With polls round the corner, the issue has gained even more traction with several political leaders being associated with the burgeoning crisis.

Amidst twists and turns fuelled by sociopolitical interests, The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, (FRA) 2006, enacted with the sole intention of striking a balance and peaceful coexistence between the forest dwellers and conservation activities, has failed to make its desired impact. Regardless of the provisions that would streamline and put confusions to rest about the rights of the forest dwellers, the woes of tribals in various parts of the country continue to be the same. The recent order has only added to the sociopolitical unrest largely due to the skewed and lopsided policies or actions of the respective state governments in validating the claims of traditional forest settlers.

Rumble in the jungle

In Karnataka, confusions over the implementation of FRA are not new as they are often laced with politics especially in parts of malnad, coastal and southern districts. The fear of eviction gripped communities ever since the enactment of FRA and the successive governments saw it as an opportunity to put forth their political agenda. In fact, between 2013 and 2018 in Karnataka, it almost became a fight between the revenue and forest departments with elected representatives projecting forest officials as villains and often throwing barbs at officials who issued notices to settlers. While the forest officials too failed considerably in convincing and explaining the settlers about the provisions of the law.

While the State government has time and again reiterated its stand on protecting the rights of the traditional forest dwellers, it is also worthy to note the alarming rise in the number of claims by the settlers and the extent of land.
According to sources in the State government, as many as 2,75,446 claims have been filed by people belonging to scheduled tribes (STs) and other traditional forest dwellers (OTFDs). Surprisingly, the State government’s affidavit before the Supreme Court, a copy of which is with the DH revealed that a total of 1,76,540 claims have been rejected till date and only 98,906 claims are pending with the government.

Similarly, the Act in itself had several loopholes which came in the way of approving the rights of the traditional forest dwellers. Acknowledging that it would be hard for tribals to hand out documentary evidence for their claims, the rule 13 of the Act laid out various other parameters based on which they are given rights, including statements from the eldest in the settlement and the condition of structures like houses and huts. The same, according to activists, has also given enough opportunity for bogus and illegal claimants to stake claim on forest land and scuttle the opportunity for genuine and traditional settlers.

“The State government has given them enough opportunities to prove their claim. If the claims are rejected at the gram sabha level, they are given a chance to appeal at the higher level. The claims were rejected only after the settlers failed to prove their ownership in several attempts. This apart, expanding family of the tribals has also prompted them to stake claim over excess amount of land. A few of the existing claimants also applied for fresh claims in anticipation of validity by the State government. If the government rejected their claims, they apply all over again preventing any further action citing adjudication,” detailed an activist.

Currently, a total of 3,322 hectares of forest land is under illegal occupation, as per the State government records. These claims have been rejected on legal grounds. The situation is even larger at the national level as 72 lakh hectares of land, equal to the extent of state of Assam, is under illegal occupation.

“The same FRA also provides for notifying of critical wildlife habitat and if at all any rights is given within those areas, the settlers need to be resettled. Have we complied with that part of the same Act? The petitioners’ fight is only to ensure that the government complies with such provisions of the Act as a huge chunk of forest lands are under illegal occupation,” explained another activist.

Praveen Bhargav, trustee of Wildlife First and a petitioner in the matter, said, “Even as we await the written order, we welcome the apex court’s decision to scrutinise evidence of all claims. We believe that this will ensure greater transparency as the judicial scrutiny by the apex court will also include evaluation of claims based on satellite imagery analysis by Forest Survey of India as ordered earlier. We hope that this order by the court will ultimately deliver justice to India’s forests and wildlife, which do not have a voice or a vote.”

Procedural lapses

Attempting to implement the Act in its true spirit, the State government has also failed considerably in rehabilitating the indigenous communities from the critical wildlife habitat. Bureaucratic lapses and lack of interest at the government level have spoiled the rehabilitation programmes in various parts of the State. Even though tribals and other traditional dwellers are willing to move out of forests, the government’s retarded approach has stalled the process.

“The government had set aside money in its budget to fund the rehabilitation programme. This apart, Dr BR Ambedkar Development Board has also earmarked Rs 15 lakh per family for settlement. At the all India level, a whopping Rs 55,000 crore is pending under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority which can also be used for the rehabilitation programme.

There is enough land at disposal with the government and there is no dearth of money and people are willing to relocate. Yet, the government is delaying the process,” rued an activist who has been working on a rehabilitation project in Kali Tiger Reserve of Anshi-Dandeli.

Sources in the State government revealed that only the Bhadra Tiger Reserve in Chikkamagaluru has achieved 100 per cent rehabilitation. Similarly, about 500 families have moved out of Nagarhole and another 500 families are still within the notified forest area. In Kudremukh too, some of the private organisations spent their own funds to relocate some of the families and subsequently the same has been stalled.

“The government has to post a full-time officer to carry out these rehabilitation programmes and monitor the progress on a monthly basis. This is even more important when people have expressed their willingness to come out,” voiced a wildlife volunteer working in Chikkamagaluru and Mysuru districts.