Just two weeks before model code of conduct came in force in Gujarat, the Narendra Modi government decided to reopen 75,000 odd applications seeking forest lands by tribals under the forest rights act, which were previously rejected by the authorities on the ground that “claims were bogus.”
The government’s decision is seen as another desperate attempt to woo crucial tribal voters, which are decisive in three dozen assembly segments across north eastern belt in the state. “Among tribals, it’s a major concern so we have reopened close to 75,000 applications for review,” a senior official in the state secretariat said, admitting mass rejection of the claims infuriating tribal population.
The decision to reopen the claims was taken in a meeting headed by Additional Chief Secretary tribal affairs RM Patel, who has on September 30th taken voluntary retirement to contest assembly polls on BJP ticket from SC reserved seat Asarva in Ahmedabad.
Under the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, total 1.91 lakh claims were received from the tribals seeking forest lands from 12 districts having tribal populations.
However, the state tribal development department had approved only 19,000 claims, rejecting others citing the satellite based survey not backing the claims.
“Gujarat has the highest rejection rate of claims among all states having tribal population. A feeling has developed among local population that the government does not want to recognize their rights on the lands,” a district collector said.
He added that a change occurred in the government’s attitude on the following a series of visits by K Kailasnathan, Modi’s principal secretary and most trusted bureaucrat, in tribal areas in July and August.
“He visited Dahod, Godhara and Chhota Udepur areas and held meetings with local officials who apprised him about the issues and forest land was the most prominent issues came up during the meetings,” the district collector said.
“Secondly, the Congress party has been telling tribals that this government gives lands to only industrialists and not to poor tribals,” he added, elaborating on why the government decided to reopen claims which were closed.
“In my constituency Dediapada in Narmada district, total 17,000 claims were made out of which the authorities approved only a few hundreds. I want to ask why the tribals are denying their right as entitled under the central act,” Dediapada Congress MLA Amarsinh Vasava said.
Another top Congress legislator Mohansinh Rathva, also chairman of assembly’s public account committee (PAC), said the Modi government used satellite based survey to authenticate the claims.
“No state in the country has used this technology for validation so why only in Gujarat and that too only for forest lands asked by the tribals? Under the pretext of satellite based survey, all claims were summarily rejected,” Rathva, MLA from Jetpur Pavi tribal seat said.
How Modi is wooing tribal voters
Gujarat has 27 ST reserved assembly seats in the state. In 2007, Congress had won 14, BJP 12 and one seat had gone to JD (U).
By reopening the old claims, the ruling party leaders have been telling the tribals that they would get lands in few months.
Eying tribal votes, which are traditionally Congress loyalists, the Modi government has declared formation of two new tribal dominated districts Chhota Udepur in central Gujarat and Arvalli in north Gujarat.
The government also provided Rs. 21,000 as direct cash transfer for building houses under Sardar Awas Yojna in tribal pockets