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Fined, Threatened, Intimidated for Claiming their Rights

18 families in a Madhya Pradesh village are struggling to formalise the ownership of the land on which they live and cultivate but the state, instead of supporting, is intimidating them.

The importance of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) lies in its alternative names of Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act and Tribal Rights Act, among others. Its importance also lies in the fact that it was passed by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, to return to tribal communities the land they have lived on, lived from, lived with – the land to which they belong, and which belongs to them – but have been consistently denied any right to that land.

This key piece of legislation also points us towards the intention of the law to reconnect tribal communities with the land they have a deep-rooted history with, and a connection to. As a civilisation, we have reached a point where the importance of addressing climate change can no longer take a backseat. We are trying to rebuild our connection with the environment, which is perplexing because humans evolved from nature. There are about 140 million adivasis who live in and around forests across the country in absolute harmony with nature, yet they have been denied rights to their homes, essentially, and instead, have been treated as encroachers. Hence the adoption of the FRA. However, like most laws in India, the implementation of this one too has been slow and unsteady.

Community Correspondent, Ramlal Baiga, who belongs to the Baiga community has consistently reported instances of denial of rights to  Adivasi communities in Madhya Pradesh. Earlier this year, he reported on the denial of land rights to the Kol community in Umariya district who are so intrinsically dependent on their immediate forests. He returns with a similar story from the same district of 18 Baiga farmers and their families from Narwar village.

According to the Act, any Adivasi who has been occupying and cultivating land since before December 2005 are eligible for ownership documents. The families found out about their rights in 2014-15, and submitted an application. Instead of giving them access to their land, the Forest Department fined them with 3000 rupees, and also threatened them with eviction.

And here lies one of the greatest loopholes of this Act. The Forest Department has been charged with recognising forest land eligible under the FRA and also with handing over tribal communities’ rightful land. However, vested interests mean that in some areas the Forest Department stands a lot to gain through non-implementation. This bureaucracy coupled with people’s lack of awareness of their rights gives rise to a tyrannical situation. Luckily, the families of this village became privy to privy to their rights around 2014-15, and so have taken their case to court.

Ironically, this law was also created to wade off illegal encroachment of forests by the state, and it is a unit of the state that views forest residents as encroachers. State governments were tasked with recognising eligible forest land and according to government statistics, at least half of India’s forests can be brought under the scope of Community Forest Rights under FRA. Moreover, according to a joint study by Vasundhara, Rights and Resource Initiative, and National  Rural Management Consultants, at least 40 million hectares of forest in 1.7 lakh villages can be brought under the FRA, which will be advantageous to 90 million Adivasis. Till now, 82 percent of Madhya Pradesh’s forest blocks have not been surveyed.

The Tribal Rights Act, 2006 was passed for many reasons, including the need to address “historical injustice” done to forest dwellers, as well as a way to recognise the importance of tribal communities in saving the environment. Adivasis have maintained a symbiotic relationship with the environment, and instead of evicting them for the sake of unnecessary development, the government should sit in silence with its laws and create space to implement them.

Help the community get rights over the land that rightfully belongs to them by calling the Collector, Mal Singh Bhayadiya, at +91-7653222600 and urging him to look into the matter. 

Video by Community Correspondent Ramlal Baiga

Article by Shreya Kalra, a member of the VV Editorial Team

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