The state of Maharashtra has held the District Level Committees (DLCs), part of its own bureaucracy, accountable for “unlawfully rejecting the land claims” of lakhs of Adivasis and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) as reported by Huffingtonpost on September 11. The DLCs comprise officers from Revenue, Forest and Tribal Affairs departments and three nominated members from Panchayati Raj institutions.
The Maharashtra government has filed two separate affidavits before the Supreme Court and blamed the DLCs for rejecting at least 22,509 forest rights claims across the state without appropriately assessing the evidence submitted to support these claims or for rejecting the claims by giving “irrelevant reasons”.
A subsequent affidavit, filed by the Maharashtra government on September 4, 2019, suggests the number of wrongful rejections might even exceed 22,509.
In August, the Supreme Court, while responding to the petition filed by the conservancy group Wildlife First, had directed state governments to file compliance affidavits indicating the process undertaken to “reject” the claims filed by forest dwellers on forest land. In February, the SC, at first, gave an order of “eviction” of millions of people from communities based in forests. However, after this led to widespread protests, the SC stayed its own order.
By the next date of hearing i.e. on July 24, soon after the elections, more than 19 intervention applications had been filed before the SC, and national and international bodies had urged the Central government to defend the FRA. Filed by different sets of directly concerned individuals and organisations, all of these defended the constitutional validity of the Act. Among these applications, one has been filed by retired bureaucrats and academics, Sharad Lele and Nandini Sundar. Another has been filed by two Adivasi women leaders, Sokala Gond and Nevada Rana, backed by All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) and Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP).
Within a few days, many states asked for more time and admitted that there were procedural lapses in their decisions rejecting the claims for pattas (land titles). These states filed separate affidavits in the SC.
Following this, the Court directed the Chief Secretary of the State Governments to file their detailed affidavits, covering all the aforesaid aspects, and also to place on record the rejection order/s, details of the procedure followed, grounds of rejection of claims, opportunity to adduce evidence, details of supposed incumbents who have been reportedly ‘occupying’ these areas, course of actions with respect to the claims etc.
The Maharashtra government held the DLCs responsible for wrongful rejection of the claims and it directly contradicts the claims of the petitioners who had asserted that the “claims have been rejected after due verification and an appeals process.”
As per the ‘State of Forest Report 2001’ published by Forest Survey of India, Dehradun, the forest cover of Maharashtra is 47482 sq. km. (30894 sq. km. ‘dense forests’ with crown density above 40 percent and the remaining 16588 sq. km. The tribal population in Maharashtra in 2011 was 10.5 million constituting 9.35 percent of the total population of the state. The state has the second largest tribal population in the country, next only to Madhya Pradesh, with 10 percent of the total ST population of India.
Apparently, the Supreme Court’s scrutiny has prompted the Maharashtra governments to rethink its approach in evaluating claims under the FRA, suggesting that the rights of even more vulnerable families could have been similarly trampled upon without proper evaluation.
“The close examination of the rejected cases under the directives of this Hon’ble Court has proven to be very insightful,” the state claimed in its affidavit filed on September 4, 2019. “It has come to the notice of the government that several similar cases have been rejected by the DLCs. The government further intends to study these cases in a manner similar to that of the 22, 509 cases.”
Overall, Maharashtra state had emerged as a forerunner in implementing the legislation by recognising the most number of community forest resource rights claims. However, a closer look suggests that most of these claims have been recognised mainly in one district, Gadhchiroli.
A report published by Community Forest Rights Learning and Advocacy highlighted that the state had granted community forest resource rights in 15 percent of these lands with the potential for these rights to be recognised. However, this was only because it had recognised these rights in 66 percent of the potential land in Gadchiroli. In the rest of the state, there was no implementation at all in 21 districts, between 0 percent and 33 percent implementation in nine districts, and between 33 percent and 66 percent in two districts.
Maharashtra has granted community forest rights in 15 percent of the 1.2 crore acres of potential forest land that could be eligible under these rules, benefitting 5,741 communities. Kerala is a close second at 14 percent, followed by Gujarat at 9% and Odisha at 5 percent. Across India, states have recognised only 3 percent of potential community forest rights.
Also read:States claim procedural lapses in processing FRA land claims, ask for more time
No due process or formal communication to land claimants: MP govt
No procedure of eviction under FRA 2006: Chhattisgarh gov’t
In Pictures: A journey that explains how Land Claims are filed under FRA 2006