A Recipe for Disaster: How forest laws destroy the asset they were designed to protect

Shimoga

Forest-dwelling communities were given a voice in the protection and management of forests by the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. But by insisting on proof of residency in the forest for three generations, the government is destroying the very communities that have safeguarded our forests.

Karnataka has a forest cover of  4,335,694.80 acres(1,011,839.82 acres of deemed forest and 3,323,854.98 acres of notified forest) including mangroves, wetland forests, land classified as jungle in revenue records. But, these forests are under constant threat of encroachment. Between 2014 and 2018, according to the data obtained by CAG, some 60,000 acres of forest land in Karnataka was encroached, taking the total to 2, 64, 000 acres.

Increasing commercialization of forest produce, population pressure, and human greed is driving the encroachment of forest land.

On one hand, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forests Rights) Act 2006Forest Rights Act (FRA), seeks to protect the fundamental rights (including right to life and right to dwell)of all forest dwellers;

On the other hand, it is forcing non-tribal, traditional forest-dwellers to produce proof of having lived in the forest for three generations, or 75 years, to qualify for protection under the Act. This is an impossible demand to fulfill as it would require documentation from pre-independence days, a time when even land rights in settled agricultural areas were patchy and forests were considered crown land.

Many of these non-tribal traditional forest dwellers are nomads, who by definition do not have fixity of residence. These communities, who depend on forests for their livelihood and have been, in turn, their custodians for generations, are being evicted under the very legislation that was enacted to safeguard their livelihoods and way of life.

“This act is unimplementable because these communities are nomadic and cannot produce any strong proof of land (occupation) where they currently live. Lawmakers should have thought about it and could have made it a perfect savior of Indian forests.”

Naresh Kumar, Deputy Range Forest Officer, Shimoga Circle.

“We have been here since 10 years and do not want to leave this place now because we can’t spend our entire life as nomads. Why forest department cannot understand that we are not the people who are harming the forest, they are all outsiders. But, many a times it happens that forest officials come and start forcing us to vacate our houses and find new places,” says Bharti, a dweller of Sidiginahalu village in Harogoppa forest, Shikaripur.

Harogoppa forest, which is the dwelling place for people like Bharti is some 15 km from Shikaripura town, and is home to the Gavaliand Sidhi community who, by their own account, have been dwelling in the forests near Shikaripura for over half a century.

They are dependent on the forest for their various needs, from grazing their animals to collecting minor forest produce like gum, bark, leaves, herbs, shrubs and fallen branches. They cultivate maize on small plots and use most of what they collect or grow for themselves and sell the remainder in the nearby market in Shikaripura town.

Vitthal, 45, a dweller of Harogoppa Marathi camp in Shikaripur taluk.
People dwelling in the forest with reasonable life sources with a constant fear of eviction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They are also facing lack of facilities due to negligence of government and un-cooperative nature of forest department. They also run school till  class five and to study further, children have to go to a higher school, 5 km away.

“Most of the people here belong to Gavali community and most of them are illiterate, we have built a school and toilet here for children for which we all faced problem from the forest department. After our struggle, on special permission from a former MLA, we succeed in building this campus because the land belongs to forest department and the school is still running on unregistered land,” added Umesh.

The forests around Shikaripura have been steadily shrinking. By one estimate, they have been denuded to just 16,061 acres from over 34,595 acres 15 years ago. Amith S, a deputy range forest officer, says that tonnes of sandalwood have been felled and smuggled from these forests in the last decade.

He believes forest encroachment in Shimoga district is the highest in the state and blames communities like the Gavali for the problem.

“If government genuinely wants us to live a better life then it has to find a way where people like us, who also has the right to life,  are able to dwell where they belong. Also, government has scope for rich people but, not for the poor like us,” said Bharti, a dweller of Sidiginahalu village, Shikaripur.

This is not only one story, similar story one can discover inside every traditional forest dwellers’ mind. These forest dwellers who claim to look after the forests with much more efficiency in comparison to government are facing trouble in proving that they have been living in the forest since last few decades (ranging from last one decade to five decades). Either they are struggling to get their rights to the land or to earn a livelihood.

Karnataka has 3,463,986 members of Schedule Tribes according to census 2011 but there is no authentic data present on the total number of traditional forest dwellers that are living in forests of Karnataka.

In Karnataka, until February 28, 2017, 3,04,536 claims for allotment of forest land under FRA has been collected by the Ministry of Tribal affairs (data collected from Ministry of Tribal Affairs/ MoTA). Among these claims, 2, 98,795 are individual claims and 5,741 are community claims to get rights to the land where they are living. But, among these only 13,049 titles have been distributed till February 2017 and 1, 71,592 claims have been rejected; remaining 1, 19,885 have been disposed of.

Data obtained from Social Welfare Department, Shikaripur and website of Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

S/noLocationClaims received for distribution of forest landClaims distributed till 28-2-2017Rejected claimsClaims that have been Disposed of.
1.India41,65,3955,27,700N/A36,37,695
2.Karnataka3,04,53613,0491,71,5921,84,641
3.Shikaripur (Shimoga)10,4404,5705,870N/A

 

The table proves that the success ratio of claims  is very low. In Karnataka, 4.28 is the per cent of success of claims.87.33 per cent claims received at national level were disposed off due to false information, lack of information etc.

There are 10,440 applications that have been received by Social Welfare Department (SWD) in Shikaripur Taluk in the last two years as per the data obtained from SWD. People who are looking for a permanent address in the forest land to live a life with all the basic amenities are waiting for the government to respond. They are living in the various villages in the forest and working as laborers, goods sellers, and other kinds of activity to ensure their meals.

“We came here long back, when my father used to graze his animals, now where can we go if the department tells us to leave because it happens many a times and we won’t be able to keep shifting because after so much effort now, here we manage to earn something,” said Vitthal, a dweller of Harogoppa Marathi camp.

“I have been living in this patch of forest for 80 years, I have also filed an application for the allotment of land but, still no clarity from the side of forest department, even though I fulfilled all the requirements,” said Appanna, dweller of Harogoppa forest camp.

Chand, 20, a dweller of Sidiginahalu village in Harogoppa forest, Shikaripur.

Encroaching on forest land is illegal. Under the Indian Forest Act 1927, the government is obliged to protect designated forests. But after enactment of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forests Rights) Act 2006, or the Forest Rights Act, it’s become a lot harder to take action against people that are believed to be encroachers.

“People are producing proof that they belong to Scheduled Tribes (ST) and filing applications again and again even after rejection. On an estimate, about 90 per cent applications is being rejected because when they were scrutinized the department finds them faulty,” said Laxmikant, statistics manager, Shimoga Forest Circle.

On the basis of the FRA 2006, the forest department is forcing some of these traditional forest dwellers to evacuate their villages.  “The law has to involve every citizen as a stake holder. Not just the tribal, the wildlife also is a stakeholder. So, the best way would be to rewrite it,” said  Stalin Dayanand, an activist.

“This act is impossible to implement because these communities are nomadic and cannot produce any strong proof of land piece where they currently live. Lawmakers should have thought about it and could have made it a perfect savior of Indian forests,” said Naresh Kumar, Deputy Range Forest Officer, Shimoga Circle.

The Forests Act recognizes the rights of “forest-dwelling scheduled tribes or traditional forest dwellers” to inhabit, hold and cultivate forest land, collect minor forest produce (including all non-timber forest produce of plant origin), fish in its lakes and streams and graze their cattle there.

Majority of Gavali and Siddhi community have been living in forests of Karnataka as forest dwellers. They have a tendency to live in the forest as well as to protect them. They worship forest as their god. The problem for the Gavali community is that the Act protects only non-tribal, “traditional forest dwellers” who have lived there for 75 years. Given the pathetic state of land records in even the most intensively cultivated parts of India, this is a tall order.

The law is in-effect asking the Gavali community to provide documentation dating back to pre-independence India.

Under the amended Forests Rights rules, 2012, the gram panchayats have to certify the claims of all forest dwellers to the sub-division level committee. That is a requirement for registration that will provide them a permanent living space in the forest. And for which forest department has to collect all the data about the forest-dwelling people and communities from gram panchayat, sub-divisional committee, and divisional level committee. The work is still in process because of the enormous population of traditional forest dweller in Karnataka.

Says K.B Raghvendra, regional forest officer, Shikaripur taluk, “About 13, 345 acres of forest land has been encroached upon and destroyed by the tribal dwellers. Population of animals has also decreased. We have got 4,500 applications for land registration, some of which we have rejected. Other than those all have been accepted. The process of registration is almost complete, we have to verify and proceed.”

The FRA has clearly recognized that the traditional forest dwellers or communities have various rights among which three rights are major. They have individual rights, community rights, and rights to protect, conserve, manage forest resource for communities, and to regenerate forest produces. Individual rights include cultivation in a limited forest land to ensure livelihood. Grazing of animals, the collection of non-timber forest produces, fuel woods, fishing in the lakes or pond inside the forest to an extent which has no serious impact on the ecology of the forest.

The people of communities other than ST have been facing problems in Shikaripur Taluk of Shimoga district of Karnataka.

The Gavali vehemently deny they cut down trees. They claim it is they, who depend upon the forest for their livelihood, who protect the forest. “We can give these forests our lives but, cannot leave the place. Why will we cut trees or exploit our motherland when we all are dependent on it…I don’t know the law and I can’t understand government policies but, it is not peaceful for us to live here. Where will we go?” said Chaand, 20, a dweller of Sidiginalu village, Shikaripur.

“The law is fundamentally flawed. It has good intentions, but the repercussions are not taken care of. Fewer forests mean less water. And importantly it proceeds on the assumption that only humans are the stakeholders. Though there is a provision to declare areas as critical wildlife habitats, this has not moved a step forward even after a decade,” said Dayanand..

“The 75 years requirement was inserted at the last minute by bureaucrats but it is only meant for non-tribal and not tribal. The tribal only needs to prove occupation of forest land while claiming individual forest rights before December 2005. In the case of claiming community forest rights, even non-tribal can benefit from the collective claims by mixed tribal & non-tribal communities,” says Madhu Sarin, a forest rights activist.

But on the other hand, Jagmohan Sharma, Nodal Officer & Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Forest Conservation) said, “The criterion of providing 75 years’ documents can be compromised sometimes, if they cannot be made available under any circumstances. In such situations, if any aged and respected person of the village gives the assurance that a particular family has been settled in that area since many years, then that family can claim that particular forest land area.”

“The law is fundamentally flawed. It has good intentions, but the repercussions are not taken care of. Fewer forests mean less water. And importantly it proceeds on the assumption that only humans are the stakeholders. Though there is a provision to declare areas as critical wildlife habitats, this has not moved a step forward even after a decade,” said Dayanand..

“The 75 years requirement was inserted at the last minute by bureaucrats but it is only meant for non-tribal and not tribal. The tribal only needs to prove occupation of forest land while claiming individual forest rights before December 2005. In the case of claiming community forest rights, even non-tribal can benefit from the collective claims by mixed tribal & non-tribal communities,” says Madhu Sarin, a forest rights activist.

But on the other hand, Jagmohan Sharma, Nodal Officer & Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Forest Conservation) said, “The criterion of providing 75 years’ documents can be compromised sometimes, if they cannot be made available under any circumstances. In such situations, if any aged and respected person of the village gives the assurance that a particular family has been settled in that area since many years, then that family can claim that particular forest land area.”

The law isn’t stopping the encroachment but, keeping the genuine traditional forest dweller away from their rights. All those who belong to nomadic communities are habituated to travel and shift their temporary house from one place to other in a particular span of time which is a natural and harmless process. Thus, they cannot produce any paperwork for their location, which should be 75 years before 2006 according to the law.

“We do not have any records of how many people are there in forests because we didn’t get an update from revenue and social welfare department, we only have a number of applications received by us,” said Gopinaik, Assistant Conservator of Forest, Shikaripur range.

There are cases across India where tribal communities are working to save the forest and it has a huge positive impact on the forest. Government is slow in recognizing the tribal community rights, but, there is a high possibility for the government which will manage all conflict between Tribals, Traditional forest dwellers, and their communities is Community Forest Resource (CFR) in the potentially capable forest area.

“Two categories of people ‘encroach’ on forest land – powerful land grabbers or impoverished villagers (often tribal) displaced by development projects without rehabilitation. The first lot enjoys support of politicians while the second category suffers regular harassment and eviction,” says Madhu Sarin.

Solution will come by providing rights to these people in the forest because they are not those who are causing harm to forest, although the promising attitude of these communities towards safeguarding forest will give positive results and they can use minor forest produce or non-timber produce for survival. It will not cause exploitation of forest when FRA will be amended in a way that it will provide a clear picture among departments and traditional forest dwellers.

According to Stalin Dayanand, the possible solution for the scenario would be, “They have to be given leases and all operations on the land must be in collaboration with the Govt. No ownership rights. Caretakers cannot become owners they can remain occupiers and can live of the land without degrading it. Government must help them with organic technologies.”

“As a member of the technical support group of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs which drafted the FRA – despite some shortcomings, I think it is a historical law which aims to democratize forest governance by limiting the powers of the forest bureaucracy set up by the British to exploit our forests,” affirms Madhu Sarin.

Nobody can own the forest land because it is a social property. But, it needs to be taken care of. The government should understand that if they cannot give a better livelihood to these communities, then they do not have any right to take away what little these communities already have.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *