The Forest Rights Act entitles Adivasi and forest-dwelling communities to both individual and community land ownership, but the process, mostly, is a long-winding one.
Kandari, a seventh-grade student in rural Odisha, had to discontinue her studies because her school required a number of identification documents, including proof of residence, which her family did not possess. Kandari belongs to the Paudi Bhuyan Adivasi community, a Scheduled Tribe whose name literally translates to ‘hill people’. Her community has always been living in the Lahunipada block of Odisha’s Sundergarh district, a region infamous for malnutrition and economic marginalisation.
Under the Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA), Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers are entitled to community and individual land titles if they had been residing on the forest land before December 13, 2005. But the Paudi Bhuyan community that had been living on the land for generations did not receive land titles even ten years after the implementation of the Act. Most of them don’t have homes under the central government’s housing scheme either.
According to a press release by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, by the end of 2015, 17,11,045 land titles had been distributed, against the 44,13,727 claims that had been filed. Community Correspondent Bideshini Patel’s video on the Paudi Bhuyan community is a testament to how tedious a process it can be. From filing claims to receiving land titles, it can take years.
When Bideshini first heard of the problem in August 2016, she held a meeting with the community. In the video that she then made, she particularly highlighted how the lack of land titles was affecting children’s education. After making the video, Bideshini once again held a community meeting and the following day, she, along with nine people from the community, went to meet the District Collector with an application. They met the Sub-Collector who conveyed the problem to the Revenue Inspector and assured the community that the Revenue Inspector will follow up soon.
The entire process took almost one full year.
In a week’s time, they were summoned to the Revenue Department office where 14 people filled up forms staking claim to the land; however, there was a lull after this. This was also around the same time as the new school session and children were once again at the risk of losing out by having to drop out. Bideshini then got in touch with the Sub-Collector once again, who in turn contacted the Revenue Inspector who instructed the school to admit the children. A month after this, when there was no notice regarding the land titles again, Bideshini again spoke to the Sub-Collector who said that the allotments have been made and the community will be notified within a month.
Despite the assurance, no notice came their way. The community then went to the Revenue Department once again to meet the Tehsildar (a revenue officer) but because the official in-charge was not present, they could only leave an application. A fortnight later, the community was called to the District Collector’s office through the District Grievance Redressal Cell, and the families finally received their land titles. The entire process took almost one full year.
Powerful District Level Committees and Sub-Divisional Level Committees override or influence the decisions of tribal leaders who represent the panchayats.
Odisha has actually recorded the highest number of land titles distributed under the FRA, and the state government also runs a scheme to allot land titles to transgender persons. But not everyone has reaped the fruits of the many schemes and implementation efforts, and problems of many kinds persist. The Mankidia community, for instance, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) just like the Paudi Bhuyan, has been fighting for land inside the Similipal Tiger Reserve in Mayurbhanj, a forested area that they have always been living in and are heavily dependent on for their livelihood. But the District Level Committee is leaning in favour of the Forest Department instead.
In matters of land distribution under the FRA, it is the Forest Rights Committee constituted under panchayats (village councils) that have primary decision-making powers. But a UNDP Report (United Nations Development Programme) on land rights in Odisha suggests that non-functioning panchayats and the lack of information amongst panchayat members often dilute the rights that the law provides. The report also suggests that powerful District Level Committees and Sub-Divisional Level Committees override or influence the decisions of tribal leaders who represent the panchayats.
However, positive case studies of forest communities asserting rights to community and individual forest resources have also come out of Odisha; and such efforts by local communities also ensure conservation, of forest resources and of indigenous knowledge and ways of living.
Video by Community Correspondent Bideshini Patel
Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team