50% of forest land right claims end in rejections
The claims are by tribal or pastoral communities seeking community rights over forest land they have inhabited for generations. Out of 4.224 million claims received, only 1.894 million titles have been distributed, 1.939 million have been rejected and a little less than 400,000 are still being assessed.Updated: Mar 02, 2019 07:29 IST
One out of every two claims made since 2007 by forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act has been rejected, data from the ministry of tribal affairs (MoTA) shows, underlining the problems in the process through which their claims are addressed and indicating they have a long wait ahead as the ministry begins to reassess their claims after the Supreme Court on Thursday stayed its own order which would have resulted in the eviction of a million forest-dwelling families.
The claims are by tribal or pastoral communities seeking community rights over forest land they have inhabited for generations. Out of 4.224 million claims received, only 1.894 million titles have been distributed, 1.939 million have been rejected and a little less than 400,000 are still being assessed.
On February 13, the Supreme Court, while hearing an 11-year-old public interest case by wildlife activists challenging the law, which was passed in 2006 and which gives legitimate forest dwellers rights over the forest, passed an interim order that had nothing to do with the main case. It said that those forest dwellers whose claims under the law have been rejected should be evicted.
Following a public uproar, the government filed a petition and the court stayed its own order. It also asked the states to file details of the process and people involved in rejecting the claims. The government (through the tribal affairs ministry) contended in court that the details of the process and the rejected claims were not provided by most states.
With a stay in place, the ministry is now tasked with reviewing reams of documents to check why so many claims had been rejected by the state- and district-level forest rights committees. It has called for a meeting of all state governments on March 6 in which state government officials are expected to bring details of rejected claims.
Deepak Khandekar, secretary, ministry of tribal affairs, said: “Yes, half of the claims have been rejected. Till now, we were more concerned about recognition of claims because the issue of eviction was not raised. Now, since the issue of eviction came up in the court, we want to look at why so many cases have been rejected in the first place.”
As an annexure to the government’s petition, the ministry submitted a letter it wrote to chief secretaries of states on June 27, 2018.
The letter highlighted high backlog of claims, high rate of rejection, even of community rights, and the early review of rejected claims, including a suo motu (on its own) review of rejections.
“Non-communication of rejection at each level results in preventing the claimants from exercising their right to appeal or review… while rejecting claims, reasons must by cited by concerned authorities,” the letter said, adding that “it has recently come to the notice of MoTA that state forest authorities move immediately to evict people whose claims under forest rights act are rejected without waiting for decision on review… such an action while depriving aggrieved person of opportunity to prefer appeal creates grounds for unrest, agitation and also fuels extremism.”
Tushar Dash, member of the Community Forest Rights, Learning and Advocacy (CFR LA), said most rejections were arbitrary. “Our analysis from Chhattisgarh, for example, shows incomplete documentation, arbitrary decisions by forest officials in forest areas of Chhattisgarh like Korba and Surguja are behind a majority of decisions. These are forest lands where mining may come up.”
Senior ministry officials said claims were often rejected by the district-level forest rights committee whose members include the district collector, divisional forest officer and members of the district panchayat.
A number of wildlife conservation groups have also now called for transparent recognition of forest dwellers’ rights. The government, in its application, has noted that India is a signatory to the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples; the Universal Declaration on Human Rights; ratified the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, and is party to the Convention on Biological Diversity — making recognition of tribal rights imperative. “Further, international conservation organisations have strongly advocated respect for the relationship between forest dwelling communities and forest conservation,” the application said, giving examples of efforts by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and WorldWide Fund for Nature.
Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment , Nature Conservation Foundation and Conservation International have also recently endorsed a petition demanding that forest dwellers not be evicted from forest land.
“We have seen very positive impact of communities on conserving forest land in Maharashtra, particularly Gadchiroli. I will not be able to comment on individual forest rights. But community rights are very important. Community rights areas also coincide with rich coal and iron deposits, which is why even those claims may be pending,” said ecologist Madhav Gadgil.