Forest Rights Act: J-K admin’s haste unsettles forest dwellers

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“Nobody hears us, except god,” Nazir Ahmad, a resident of Raiyar, a village adjacent to the forests in central Kashmir, complained during a recent demonstration against the manner in which the Forest Rights Committee was formed: “inside closed rooms”.

Ahmad and other residents of Raiyar alleged that “block officials, panchs, and sarpachs made themselves [committee members] on their own discretion.” They recorded a video of their demonstration to highlight their resentment as local officials remained indifferent.

Ajaz Ahmad Dinda, an activist in Raiyar, said that the gram sabha was initially scheduled to be held on 8 January but was pushed owing to heavy snowfall — or so the public had assumed. Panchayat officials, he said, “kept stalling us by saying that the gram sabha will be held again in a few days.”

When patience ran out, residents of Raiyar again contacted the officials but much to their surprise were bluntly informed that the gram sabha was no longer needed. “When we called the Village Level Worker to ask about [new dates for] the gram sabha, he said that we have already formed the committee,” said Dinda.

By not holding the gram sabha, Dinda and other residents believe that officials are intent on subverting their rights. Under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, Forest Rights Committees are intended to facilitate the process of local residents claiming rights over forest resources. These committees are elected by gram sabhas to ensure fairness in processing claims.

Dinda accused panchayat officials of colluding with local politicians in forcibly wresting control of the rights committees. “There was just the panch, sarpanch, and three others present” in the gram sabha that was officially claimed to have been conducted in Raiyar.

More than two months after the Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) administration announced FRA’s implementation, after razing down huts and orchards of forest dwellers, besides issuing eviction notices to countless more, it is now expediting the process — moreover only on papers, say activists — to meet its self-given deadline of documenting all claims by 31 January.

So close but so far

The FRA, officially called the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, has been described as “a unique piece of legislation” that protects the rights of local communities over forest land, resources, and the constitution of community-based governing bodies.

As per the law, all claimants of forest rights must go through the ten to fifteen member rights committees that would record a list of claims on official receipt to the claimants. Further as per the rules issued by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, mandates that two-thirds of the committee members must belong to scheduled tribes and one-third must be women. The FRA doesn’t mandate the presence of forest or panchayat officials — but the J-K administration has done so.

The process of adjudicating rights involves the gram sabha, sub-division-level committee (SDLC), and district-level committee (DLC). However, the role of the gram sabha is the most prominent — scrutinising the claims before it is forwarded to the SDLC.

In Raiyar, however, Dinda said that panchayat officials informed him that ten panchs and one forest guard besides himself were made members of the committee — he believes it is to ensure that he doesn’t raise objections or highlight the fraud. There has, however, been no official communication on this so far.

Furthermore, Dinda said that local residents have been warned that their claims would be rejected if they objected to the committee formation. They were also directed to “submit 200 rupees for their [claim] forms” that he alleged weren’t provided to the potential claimants.

When Raiyar’s residents objected to the malpractices, Dinda said they were brazenly dismissed and told to “go and complain to the Governor.”

What’s the hurry?

The story of malpractice, however, isn’t limited to Raiyar alone. In the Madhmadu village in north Kashmir’s Kupwara, “forest rights committees are being formed under pressure, by those with political clout,” said Shahid-ul-Islam Wani, also the local panchayat’s chairperson.

Amid the heavy snowfall, about forty to fifty of the estimated 1100 voters could gather for the gram sabha held inside a government school building. But, little groundwork has been done for effective implementation, said Wani. “The public didn’t understand the [reason for convening the meeting],” he said.

“They realised what it was about when they were told that this meeting would decide on [future] evictions and [forest land] allotments,” said Wani, an engineer by qualification. “Before convening the gram sabha, the [administration] should create awareness among the public as to what the Forest Rights Act is.”

Forest dwellers in J-K have used forest resources — and lands — for generations on quasi-official orders and to a large extent official indifference. At the micro-level, forest dwellers have been in friction with, and sometimes exploited by, forest officials.

The FRA as such was a long pending demand of activists, particularly from the marginalised Gujjar-Bakarwal community that comprises a large chunk of the population dependent on the forests.

The FRA was in implementation in many states of India since 2006 but successive governments in J-K chose to overlook extending the progressive law to the erstwhile state. It was imposed in J-K on 5 August 2019 with the abrogation of the region’s limited-autonomy and statehood.

For more than a year, its implementation on-ground was overlooked and today it remains in disarray — after resorting to coercive measures against forest dwellers in late 2020, the administration is rushing through a grassroots process even as much of Kashmir’s forest areas remained snowbound.

Moreover, the training imparted to officials of the administration and in-turn to the public, wherever meetings were held, was “done in a haphazard manner”, said Wani. “The officers — of the revenue, forest, rural departments — themselves have no clue about the [FRA], how can they train the public?,” asked Wani, recalling that during a workshop, administration officials had “told us that the FRA is only for the SC-ST [Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes] communities.”

The SC and ST communities largely comprise of the Pahadi, and Gujjar-Bakarwals whereas ethnic Kashmiris, who have also resided in villages adjacent to the forests for generations, fall under the ambit of the Other Traditional Forest Dwellers.

Moreover, an order by the District Panchayat Officer in Kupwara, shared by Wani, directed for a teacher and the concerned forest guard to be part of the rights committees whereas the concerned panchayat secretary as the committee’s member secretary. This is in violation of the FRA that doesn’t lay down any such mandatory criteria.

Wani said that some wrongs were corrected after deliberations with unrelenting officials. “The [administration] has so far only made a list of SC-ST dominated villages but left out other forest dwellers… We want them to implement it after April, we don’t want to hold the gram sabha till then,” said Wani. “I feel they are upto mischief.”

Qazi Sarwar, the director of the Rural Development Department, which monitors the conduct of gram sabhas, said that the department has received a “few complaints”, particularly from Budgam district, and immediately issued orders for re-convening the gram sabhas.

Wherever the gram sabha’s quorum, one-tenth of its total strength was not met, or the gram sabhas was not conducted at all, Sarwar said that “We have issued general instructions that wherever something similar has happened, to convene a new gram sabha and form committees by taking the public in confidence.”

Is FRA enough?

The manner in which the FRA is being rolled out didn’t inspire much confidence, said Gujjar activist Zahid Parwaz Choudhary. “It is being politicised by the administration that has given a free reign to sarpanches and [panchayat officials],” he said. “If the administration wants to properly implement it, it isn’t a big deal.”

Choudhary emphasized that more than the Gujjars, who use the forests largely for grazing livestock as opposed to permanent settlements, the ethnic Kashmiris and Dogras stand to benefit the most from FRA being land-holders.

The key to effective implementation of the FRA, say activists, is the coordination and support of administration officials. However, in J-K, Choudhary said that administration officials “are not [implementing] it properly and because of their inefficiency, [forest rights] claims will be rejected and the eviction process will be started again.”

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