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The Chhattisgarh High Court (HC) ordered the Chhattisgarh Mineral Development Corporation (CMDC) to stop all bauxite mining activity at the Pathrai village in Surguja district’s Sitapur block on December 3, 2019.
The public sector undertaking (PSU) had started mining in the area where around 50 Individual Forest Rights titles had been granted to claimants. Another 50 claims under the Forest Rights Act (2006) are still pending.
The CMDC had received the go-ahead for Stage II Forest Clearance on June 19, 2018 based on the District Collector’s letter of August 27, 2015 which confirmed that no rights under the FRA were pending and no rights holders were straying into the mining area.
Tribals belonging to the Oraon and Manji tribal groups inhabit Pathrai, which falls under the Schedule V of the Indian Constitution. It is governed by the Panchayat (Extension to Schedule Areas) Act, 1996, under which no mining activity can take place without the consent of the Gram Sabha.
However, advocate Kishore Narayan on behalf of the tribals said that the CMDC had twisted their way around to begin the mining activity in the area. Down to Earth reported him as saying, “First, the CMDC obtained a forged ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NoC) from the Gram Sabha. They told the Gram Sabha that its members would have to give their signatures to reject the mining plan. Instead, they got the NoC document signed. The villagers approached the court after CMDC started mining activity around 15 days back.”
According to the Forest Rights Act, 2006, the Gram Sabha has been assigned to initiate the process for determining the nature and extent of individual or community forest rights or both that may be given to the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers. The Gram Sabha also is the authority on receiving claims, consolidating and verifying them and preparing a map delineating the area of each recommended claim in such manner as may be prescribed for exercise of such rights.
Apart from the allegedly fake NoC obtained from the Gram Sabha, the FRA title holders were sent notices by the sub-divisional officer saying that they were not eligible to be granted forest right titles and that they should appear before the office.
However, the FRA does not talk about cancelling of titles granted to forest dwellers and there aren’t any provisions under the Act for doing so!
Petitioner Peter Ghincha, who is a village resident and the holder of an FRA title over 0.2 hectares of land said, “It is submitted that the notices have been issued to circumvent legal requirements for mining in the area where people have been issued forest right titles.”
How forest rights are violated
In 2016, the Chhattisgarh government facilitated coal mining in the Ghatbarra village in the same Surguja district by giving away tribal land to the Rajasthan Vidyut Utpadan Nigam (RVUNL) and Adani Minerals Private Limited. In an order passed on January 8 that year, the government cancelled the community land rights of the tribals in the village that were granted to them under the FRA, 2006.
As stated above, under the FRA, there can be no revocation of either community or individual rights once granted under the law. The government can only divert the forest land for another purpose with prior consent of the tribals.
In 2019, a Right to Information (RTI) report filed by News 18 revealed that in Tamil Nadu, the forest right claims of 10,656 tribals and other forest dwellers had been rejected by the government. The RTI reported that due procedure wasn’t followed in the rejected cases and the review process for the same had begun.
In February 2019, the Supreme Court had ordered a mass eviction of more than a million forest dwellers in response to a petition against the constitutional validity of the FRA, 2006. The petition filed by retired forest officers and environmental groups had said that the FRA obstructed conservation efforts.
The order sparked massive outrage from tribals and activist groups. Activists claimed that most tribals being extremely poor and illiterate couldn’t produce substantial claims to their lands and some of them weren’t even aware of rejected claims to file further appeals.
In Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, forest rights dwellers face constant delays in formation of village-level forest committees. The district level communities are known to impede rights by rejecting proof of forest use by communities, obstructing community rights and approving smaller tracts of land that what is claimed, Bar and Bench reports. In December itself, the Orissa government arbitrarily rejected forest rights claims of 6,313 traditional forest dwellers.
In some cases in Chhattisgarh, forest rights titles have been rendered useless after the government has allocated land for mining; while in the others forest rights titles itself aren’t granted saying that the land has already been allocated for mining.
31% of Chhattisgarh’s population consists of tribals. This is a number that can surely work to the advantage of political parties.
In the 2018 Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, the BJP lost its share partly due to the FRA. The Congress, which in its manifesto, had promised to implement the FRA won 68% more of seats of the 39 total seats reserved for the SCs.
An analysis by IndiaSpend noted that the BJP had been extremely poor at recognizing rights of tribal and forest dwellers under the FRA. The BJP had been wiped out in SC / ST constituencies, with important tribal assembly segments like Surguja and Bastar voting for the INC.
The report noted that though the then Shivraj Chouhan government in Madhya Pradesh had implemented the recognition of individual titles under the FRA, the high number of rejections (more than 60%) had increased resentment in the people. Here too, the Congress claimed the win.
In Jharkhand, too, the dissatisfaction of tribals with regards to the slow implementation of the FRA is said to be a deciding factor, deciding the fate of the BJP. The FRA is critical to at least 3.8 million people in Jharkhand, which is 52% of the total voters. In 2014, it won 42% of the critical seats, but if it only relies on its Hindutva nationalism narrative and not talk about root issues like the FRA, it is likely to lose its vote share.
The Forest Rights Act, 2006 is an important tool for forest dwellers to hold over their traditional tribal lands that have and continue to provide them with all that is necessary for their livelihood. However, in this fight for jal, jungle and zameen, they have been shortchanged by governments and defrauded from their fundamental rights. The government thinks it will be granted impunity and arm-wrest its way towards the evictions of these forest dwellers just for the fact that they are tribals and their circumstances can be exploited. However, with the current order of the Chhattisgarh HC, a new hope has risen. Whether or not the government will toe the line is to be seen.