In rejection of forest rights claims, duplications cited
State governments have attributed the high rate of rejection of forest rights claims largely to duplication of claims — either by one forest dweller making multiple claims or persons from the same family making separate claims.
This was the observation the ministry of tribal affairs (MoTA) made on Wednesday at a meeting to follow up on the Supreme Court’s February 28 order, whereby it stayed its earlier order asking the governments of 17 states to evict an estimated one million tribal and other households living in forests after their right to live in forests were rejected under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006.
The SC, while hearing an 11-year-old public interest case by wildlife activists challenging the FRA, has sought information on the process followed by states for rejection or recognition of claims in detailed affidavits.
Although most states said duplication of claims was the most common reason for their rejection, they did not have adequate documentation to back it up. “Most claims rejected by district level committees (DLCs) have been documented with exact reasons etc. But in many cases, the reasons for rejection at the gram sabha or sub-divisional level committee (SDLC) have not been documented by states. The documentation is inadequate. States are answerable for it,” said Deepak Khandekar, secretary, ministry of tribal affairs. States would be given 15 days to firm up their data on rejection of claims at various levels, he added.
Under the FRA, if a claim is rejected at the gram sabha level, the reasons for rejection have to be communicated to the claimant. The claimant can appeal the rejection before the SDLC, comprising panchayat members, the forest officer and an officer of the tribal welfare department. If the SDLC upholds the rejection, the claimant can appeal to the DLC.
According to the FRA, all decisions involving modification or rejection of a gram sabha resolution or recommendation of the SDLC shall give detailed reasons for such modification or rejection.
“If claimants are not given reasons for rejection, how will they appeal to other committees? Their statutory right to appeal will be violated. It is a principle of administrative law to give reasons and document them,” said Shomona Khanna, ex-legal consultant to tribal affairs ministry. “In most cases of rejections, the forest officer who is a member of the committee doesn’t agree with the claim. I know of cases where claims have been rejected at the DLC level because the area is marked for a coal block,” she added.
Khandekar said, “If states have a high number of rejections because of wrongful reasons, we will speak with the chief secretary who has to communicate the status to the Supreme Court on July 24, the next date of hearing. We cannot do anything about it.”
Over 45% of forest rights claims nationally are rejected. According to data with the tribal affairs ministry, 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 4,00,000 are still being assessed.