Accessing Forest Rights An Insurmountable Task For Tribals In Madhya Pradesh
Adivasis are under constant threat of displacement from forests after serial rejection of both offline and online applications, officials blame it on non-adherence to eligibility criteria
Bhopal: Fifty-year-old Sahdev Bhavedi, a Baiga tribal from Dhangaon, lives in a hut that has no power connection.
Like most Adivasis in Mohgaon block of Madhya Pradesh’s Mandla district, his family has been growing a variety of crops, including rice, wheat, Kodo millet, maize, gram, pigeon pea, lentil, ramtil (Niger seed) and mustard, on the forest land for generations. To date, he has not received Individual Forest Rights (IFR) under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also known as Forest Rights Act (FRA).
Tribals and other traditional forest dwellers in 12 villages of Mohgaon block face a similar plight.
“No patta (land title) means no benefits under government schemes like PM/CM Kisan Samman Nidhi, no subsidy on fertilisers or seeds, and not even household power connections. Above all, there is this fear of displacement. If the forest department feels like taking action, we are in for big trouble,” he said.
Bhavedi and Siyaram Jharia, another Adivasi whose source of livelihood is eight acres of ancestral property, claimed that they have applied for pattas for years together. They also took the pain to apply on the MP Van Mitra portal twice, though they were not familiar with the online system. Yet, the claims came to a naught. There was no intimation from the government regarding the rejection either.
According to Census 2011, Madhya Pradesh has the highest tribal population (1.53 crore) in the country. The FRA recognises individual and community land ownership claims of tribal and forest-dwelling communities if they submit evidence that they have been residing in the forest on or before December 13, 2005, and have been dependent on it for their livelihood.
This way, a tribal household can claim ownership of up to 10 acres of forest land. The claims are scrutinised at the gram sabha and at the sub-divisional and district levels.
In 2008, Wildlife First, the Wildlife Trust of India, Nature Conservation Society, and Tiger Research and Conservation Trust moved the Supreme Court (SC) to assess constitutional validity of the FRA, while arguing that it would promote deforestation and encroachment.
The court on February 13, 2019 ordered eviction of all those whose claims were rejected under the FRA. Over 1 crore tribals across 20 states came close to becoming homeless with this order.
Two weeks later, the court stayed eviction proceedings on a petition from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, and directed all states to re-examine whether due process of law was followed while rejecting the claims. Since then, the court has issued around 240 notices to chief secretaries of different states, ordering them to submit affidavits on the status of FRA implementation. However, no hearing has taken place between January 22, 2020 and September 13, 2022 due to the COVID-19 issue.
The three-judge constitutional Bench had scheduled its final hearing for November 10, 2022, but did not take it up due to the retirement of Justice Indira Banerjee. A new constitutional Bench will have to be formed.
In December 2019, in a first-of-its-kind initiative in the country, the MP government launched Van Mitra portal and mobile app to review the rejected claims and to simplify the process of claim redressal. According to an affidavit filed by the state in the SC, 3,54,787 (61.2%) of the total 5,79,411 IFR claims received between 2008 and January 2019 were rejected.
Once the Van Mitra portal became active, 6,27,513 claims (5,85,326 individual and 42,187 community) were received till November 2022. Of them, only 2,94,585 claims (2,66,609 individual and 27,976 community) were approved.
With no solution in sight, over 300 tribals recently launched a campaign for pattas in Mandla district and submitted personal memorandum to the district Collector. Sharda Yadav, a Narmada Ghati Navnirman Samiti leader who played a key role in mobilising people for the campaign, informed 101Reporters that tribals and other traditional forest dwellers in 89 tribal development blocks in the state faced problems with claims.
“I am sure most of the tribals will get to know about the rejection of their claims if and when the forest staff take action against them. There is a provision in the FRA to inform the claimant in writing, so that they can appeal against the rejection. But that is not followed,” Yadav said.
Suraj Saharia, who helped the Saharia tribals of Guna district to get land titles through social service organisation Ekta Parishad, said several letters have been sent to both the Collector and Chief Minister regarding the claims, but the problem persisted.
“As many as 2,822 individual and 4,679 community claims have been rejected in Guna’s Bamori tehsil. A March 2022 report of Van Mitra portal and mobile app said 6,202 claims have been rejected in Aron, Guna, Chachoda, Bamori and Raghogarh tehsils.”
Trial And Error
Several members of the Bhil, Bhilala, Barela, Gond and Korku communities in Burhanpur district have not received land rights even years after they made FRA claims. A Bhilala tribal from Sunod in Burhanpur, Tulsia Bai (75) made individual claims on the forest land thrice, but all of them were rejected without any explanation. The first two were offline applications, made in 2010 and 2013. In 2020, she tried her luck again through the Van Mitra portal, but nothing changed for her.
Likewise, Tukaram (90) applied for forest rights on an eight-acre plot 10 years ago, but was rejected three years later by the Sub-Divisional Level Committee (SDLC). The portal raised some hope, so he applied again in 2020. That too was a failure. “If my 20-member family is evicted, where will we go,” he asked.
As per the rules, the panchayat should convene a gram sabha meeting to constitute a Forest Rights Committee (FRC) and elect a chairperson and secretary for it. The FRC does the first level of physical verification of claims.
Antram Awase, the FRC secretary for Siwal village in Nepanagar tehsil of Burhanpur, said that the panchayat secretary (an FRC member elected by gram sabha) should visit the plot for physical verification of a claim, along with the talukdar and forest department’s beat guide.
“This procedure is mostly ignored. Not only that, the officials are adept in rejecting claims. They even upload fake proposals and old photos by logging into the portal,” he alleged.
Denying the allegations, Siwal Panchayat Secretary Sunil Patel said that the plots were duly visited and the gram sabha concerned was informed about it. Any information would be uploaded into the portal only after taking those two steps.
“The FRA gives a tribal family the right to claim up to 10 acres. However, families here occupy 20 to 25 acres each. Only when tribals make the claims, they learn about the 10-acre rule. As they do not want to leave the rest of the land, another claim is filed in the name of a family member, which results in the rejection of both applications,” Patel said.
To make FRA claims through Van Mitra, the applicant should create a user login ID and set a password. Once the application is submitted, the FRC officials can review the uploaded documents by logging in with their personal IDs and comment against each submitted document.
It is then forwarded to the SDLC and later to the District Level Committee (DLC) with the required recommendations. The DLC takes a decision on the recommendation only after consulting with the gram sabha. If the claim is allowed, the approved claim certificate is uploaded by affixing the necessary signature and seal. The claimant can download the certificate from the portal. If the claim is rejected, the reason for the same should be mentioned in the portal.
By now, it is clear that the system does not work properly. What more, the portal is functional only in Anuppur, Alirajpur, Umaria, Chhatarpur, Ratlam, Rewa, Sidhi and Narmadapuram districts of the state.
Lakhan Agarwal, Assistant Commissioner, Tribal Welfare Department, Burhanpur, elaborated further by saying that the SC had ordered re-examination of 5,944 rejected offline claims.
“As fresh claims were also getting filed during this period, the number of claims in the Van Mitra portal increased to 10,173. This created confusion, so the portal was closed in the district in June 2020,” Agarwal informed.
Usha Pathak, Divisional Deputy Commissioner of Gwalior-Chambal Division of Tribal Welfare Department, agreed that the portal was not operational in many districts.
“A review process is on in the department headquarters in Bhopal. Reports have been sought from the districts and a decision is expected soon,” Pathak told 101Reporters.
Nitin Varghese, an activist working in Burhanpur district under Jagat Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, said Van Mitra portal has taken away the option of applying offline. Tribals have to contact the government-approved online kiosks to get it done. The state government has fixed a fee of Rs 60 for kiosk operators, but the latter charge Rs 200 to 500. The claimants don’t have to pay if they apply on their own, but it is near-impossible for the less educated tribals.
“The kiosk operators upload documents without reading them properly and often end up attaching documents of another person to a given application. The portal was launched for easy review of rejected claims, but what is happening is the exact opposite,” Varghese said bluntly.
(Sanavver Shafi is a Bhopal-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)
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