The Forest Rights Act (FRA) along with the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Actis a cornerstone of Indian grassroots democracy. They give forest dwelling communities and individuals a final say with regards to land use. When it came into power in 2006, forest dwelling communities who had fought hard to assert their rights over land they had lived on for generations met it with enthusiasm. Nearly a decade later, the rights and the mechanisms through which they are to be established lie in the doldrums.
Community Correspondent Reena Ramteke has been working in many communities in Chhattisgarh to ensure that their rights to secure land tenure are upheld. Ahead of the international day for indigenous people she brings two videos documenting the multiple challenges faced by such communities.
In 2013 the Chhattisgarh Government claimed that the state topped in the implementation of the FRA. Those working on the ground rejected this claim immediately. Till 2013, over 56% of the claims filed had been rejected by officials.
For a majority of its population, who are farmers these forests are essential parts of their lives. Their lands, small produce like wood, fruits, medicinal herbs are all connected to these. Between 35-40% of Chhattisgarh’s residents live below the poverty line. For many rural and marginalised communities, opportunities to earn incomes are severely limited because of poor infrastructure like roads and electricity. Uncertain land rights play a large role in further limiting these opportunities. The implementation of FRA has been hampered on several fronts across India, including Chhattisgarh. On one hand these rights are denied when extractive and industrial projects are planned in an area. On the other hand government bodies like the Ministry of Environment and Forests have planned plantation drives to curb the worst effects of the aforesaid industrialisation. The Green India Mission envisions 5 million hectares of new forest land by 2020! For this Forest Departments rampantly plant whatever they feel like in areas where land rights claims have already been made.
In Kodobhat, Chhattisgarh Reena found 11 farmers in exactly this situation.
“The Forest Department has done what it feels like. Without any inspection, without asking us they have planted trees on my land… They’ve dug a huge pit on it and now it is uncultivable… I want the land rights and land in exchange for land, only then can I sustain my family,” says Dasrath, a resident of Kodobhat.
Many in the village had been given land tenure in 1992 and have the necessary paperwork to prove their ownership of this ancestral land. How then could the Forest Department take it for a tree plantation drive? For these individuals cultivating their land has become impossible.
While it is important to conserve forests in the country it is also essential to ensure that the country’s farmers, who form such a large part of the economy, have access to their rights. In this case land use will not hamper any forest area, then why all the fuss to provide tenancy?
The Forest Rights Act 2006 explains how those who have been cultivating their land prior to December 13, 2005 without documentation can claim up to 4 hectares of land. Those who have a government lease, but whose land has been illegally taken by the Forest Department or whose land is the subject of a dispute between Forest and Revenue Departments, can claim those.
A major problem in the area is that the sheer amount of paperwork involved bogs down individuals. What happens if one isn’t literate? Which authority does one seek help from? Confusion reigns supreme. Many civil society organisations have taken the lead in trying to overcome this hurdle. A shady tree in the village becomes the spot for an impromptu meeting of volunteers and aspirants trying to claim land tenure. Reena covered one such meeting in Gaurella, Bilaspur Block Chhattisgarh. 200 people in the village had filed applications under the FRA in 2008. Many of these were rejected and others still wait for that elusive response.
“We’ve just explained how to fill forms what officers they need to get verifications from. Residents are now aware and taking a keen right in filing for their land rights,” explains Chandrapratap Singh one of the volunteers.
It is time for India to stop treating those who live in forest areas as encroachers. These communities enable vibrant plant diversity and help conserve these forest areas. If we are to call ourselves a democracy then lets start acting like one—from the ground up.