Heavy encroachment led to rejected forest claims: FSI
The need for an FSI survey arose after a bench led by Justice Arun Mishra on February 13 this year ordered eviction of forest dwellers whose claims had been rejected.
The Forest Survey of India (FSI) has found that 80% of land claims rejected under the Central Forest Rights Act were encroachments on basis of satellite imagery analysis of 1.19% of the total claims rejected , according to an FSI affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court last week.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also known as Forest Rights Act or FRA allowed people living in the forest for at least three generations (75 years) to claim ownership of land up to four hectares that they have been tilling.
According to a tribal affairs ministry report in January, 1.8 million applications for claims were accepted while 1.19 million were rejected by the district level committees constituted to decide on them. Animal right activists filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking eviction of people whose claims were rejected. On the other side are forest right activists who believe the claims were wrongly rejected.
On February 28, the Supreme Court asked FSI to conduct a survey detailing encroachments on forest land. “The FSI has to make a satellite survey and place on record the encroachment positions as far as possible in this Court before the next date of hearing as directed in the order dated February 13, 2019,” the court said.
FSI has since analysed 14,259 rejected polygons (a land parcel on which a claim has been made) in two batches, which is just 1.19 % of the 1.19 million rejected claims it has to study. The FSI report shows encroachment on 11,582 polygons.
Explaining the methodology, Subhash Asutosh, Director General, FSI, said a technical committee has been set up to supervise the verification process.
“We are essentially looking at satellite images of various periods—one before the forest rights act came into force on December 13, 2005, another of an intermediate period, and third image of the current period. In some cases we are looking at more images wherever possible and also consulting Google Earth. Then, we are looking at signs of what changes have taken place—signs of agriculture, huts, concrete structures and similar signatures which show that encroachments have taken place,” he said, adding that “the methodology is well established and is being done in a sanitised manner”.
The analysis was based on satellite images of some parts of forest areas spread across 12 states. In an affidavit submitted to the top court in August, FSI pointed out that with its current staff strength and existing infrastructure it will take 16 years to complete the exercise of conducting a satellite survey of the forests to determine the alleged encroachment, as ordered by the Supreme Court.
“If all states submit their rejected claims to us we will receive about 1.2 million polygons to assess. We have for now put a dedicated team of 20 people. But it will still take a very long time to assess all polygons so we have submitted a proposal to the environment ministry about man power, infrastructure and more supervisory officers,” Asutosh said.
Responding to the FSI affidavit of December , Ambrish Mehta, Gujarat based member of Community Forest Rights Learning and Advocacy Group, said: “I have seen FSI’s previous affidavit (of August ) They are looking at individual plots which are very small. The FSI should use high resolution imagery which they aren’t using. If it is higher resolution one can see if the encroachment is partial or full or what is the nature of encroachment. One needs to also check if claims were wrongfully rejected. They have not testified their methodology yet. We have seen in Gujarat that high resolution satellite data can be extremely useful in checking for wrongful rejection also.”
Mehta said that a Gujarat High Court order and Ministry of Tribal Affairs guidelines clearly state that satellite data cannot be the only evidence.
Sharachchandra Lele, Distinguished Fellow in Environmental Policy & Governance at Ashoka Trust For Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) said FSI’s analysis of whether rejected individual forest rights (IFR) claims constitute encroachments is fatally flawed for many reasons, several of which are beyond FSI’s control.
“Firstly, FSI has no information on the legal status of the land. In fact, the need for settling IFRs arose precisely because legal forest boundaries are in many cases incorrect or illegal,” he said. Lele is among other academicians who have approached the SC to implement community forest rights. He said FSI should only be commenting on land cover status and not on its legal status. Also, he found FSI’s definition of “encroachment” flawed. “”FSI has itself acknowledged that their ‘level of confidence’ is ‘low’ in many cases,” he said.
The need for an FSI survey arose after a bench led by Justice Arun Mishra on February 13 this year ordered eviction of forest dwellers whose claims had been rejected. But the court stayed the order on February 28 after the Centre and the Gujarat government rushed to the Supreme Court, seeking a modification to the directive following widespread concerns among tribal rights activists. Later, states said they were reviewing the claims, even as FSI was asked to “make a satellite survey and place on record the encroachment positions and also state the positions after the eviction as far as possible.”
In August the department placed its analysis of two states – Andhra Pradesh and Uttarakhand -- in an affidavit. Others had not provided details of the rejected polygons to it. Its affidavit was based on an analysis of 6200 rejected polygons, covering 7100 hectares of land area, having an average size of 1.14 hectares. According to FSI indications of alleged encroachment were found in 3,587 polygons.
Subsequent to the court’s August directions, other states responded to FSI but only 12 of them furnished “at least part data” pertaining to 77,485 rejected polygons. However, information of only 8,268 polygons acorss 10 states were found to be in usable form. Till November 20, FSI could analyse only 7,995 rejected polygons of these -- across Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand and West Bengal -- and noticed encroachments in 5,682 polygons.