Chhattisgarh to grant habitat rights under FRA to tribals in 'Maoist stronghold' Abhujmad forest; Bhupesh Baghel's soft approach may score a win

  • The government's outreach to the 40,000 tribals living in the Abhujmad forest, which falls under the Narayanpur district of the Bastar region and is spread across 3,884 square kilometres, began in June this year

  • The Chhattisgarh government's move to kickstart the process of granting habitat rights in the epicentre of the troubled Bastar region, which has been rocked by armed violence against the State for decades now, is a step forward in tackling the insurgency

  • What are habitat rights under FRA?

The eight-month-old Congress government in Chhattisgarh is making a case for a "soft" approach to tackle the Left-wing extremism (LWE), or Maoist insurgency in the state by reaching out to tribals living in Abhujmad and accelerating the process of granting habitat rights to them. Abhujmad, an area infamously known as the 'liberated zone', is one of the strongholds of the armed movement.

Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, who has been credited with leading the party to victory in the Assembly elections in the state in December 2018, has adopted a local-centric mode of governance. This is further highlighted in comparison to the Ministry of Home Affairs' "all-offensive" approach on Naxalism, in line with which Home Minister Amit Shah held a meeting with the chief ministers of all the LWE-affected states this week and issued directions to overcome the problem.

The government's outreach to the 40,000 tribals living in the Abhujmad forest, which falls under the Narayanpur district of the Bastar region and is spread across 3,884 square kilometres, began in June this year, reports said. According to a report by The Times of India, Abhujmad will be the "first tribal area" in the country to receive habitat rights. The residents, the Abhuj Marias, constitute one of the 75 Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) in the country.

The report also quoted Narayanpur district collector Padum Singh Alma as saying, "The Forest Rights Act mandates the government to take a proactive role in applying for habitat rights for PVTGs. We have initiated the process of setting up village-level committees and sent a proposal to the government. It will be an effective confidence-building measure."

 Chhattisgarh to grant habitat rights under FRA to tribals in Maoist stronghold Abhujmad forest; Bhupesh Baghels soft approach may score a win

File image of Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel. Image courtesy: Twitter/@Bhupesh_Baghel1

Gram Sabha Level Committees (GSLCs) which were formed in some villages in the sensitive area of Abhujmad in June, are essential for the process of granting habitat rights as the filing of claims can only take place at the GSLCs.

What are habitat rights under FRA?

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, or simply the Forest Rights Act of 2006 is an attempt of the State to correct the "historical injustices" done to the indigenous communities living in the country's forests. The Act is aimed at recognising the Scheduled Tribes' property rights to land along with non-timber forest produce.

"It is important to go into the history that necessitated the FRA. One major reason for the Act is the faulty settlements in place in Adivasi areas. When reserve forests were constituted, thousands of Adivasis were displaced from their homes and lands, usually without any compensation, and prevented from their customary use of forest," a report of The Hindu Centre noted.

Under the Act, 'Habitat' is defined as, “the area comprising the customary habitat and such other habitats in reserved forests and protected forests of primitive tribal groups and pre-agricultural communities and other forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes.”

Habitat rights, which, under the FRA are a special provision for the 75 groups of PVTGs in India, constitute a provision to give rights to the adivasi and non-adivasi forest dwellers to the entire region they need for their habitation.

A provision in the FRA says, "In view of the differential vulnerability of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PTGs or PVTGs) among the forest dwellers, the District Level Committee should play a pro-active role in ensuring that all PTGs receive habitat rights in consultation with the concerned PTGs’ traditional institutions of these groups, after filing claims before the gram sabha”.

Habitat rights transcend the individual and community rights that the Act provides for. They not only aim to protect land rights and livelihoods of forest dwellers, but also to encompass the tribals' entire culture and way of life. "These are composite rights over larger landscapes covering multiple villages that recognise territories used by vulnerable tribes and pre-agricultural communities for habitations, livelihoods, social, spiritual, cultural and other purposes," an article in Down To Earth said.

Confusion around implementation of habitat rights

One of the wins in recent years for activists of the FRA, is the granting of habitat rights to the Baiga community in Madhya Pradesh in February 2016. However, the process of granting the rights was delayed in part by the lack of guidelines on the implementation of habitat rights. Stating that the administration, activists, experts, and community leaders were "clueless" about how to go about it, a Down To Earth report said, "Even when the FRA enshrined this right in the law, in the absence of guidelines to implement these rights, no one is sure of how to go about it."

Additionally, there has also been ambiguity around the interpretation of the extent of the term 'habitat'. Even though the English version of the FRA defines the term in Section 2(h), in addition to defining the right to such habitat under Section 3(1)(e), the Hindi translation used the word ‘aawas’ in place of habitat ,which is commonly understood to mean house or habitation.

This created confusion because many of the state governments at the time wrongly equated the term ‘habitat’ to mean providing housing facilities under schemes shelter-related schemes of the administration, like the Indira Awas Yojana under the UPA, a notice by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs said.

"The right to community tenures of habitat and habitation over customary territories used by PVTGs include not only habitation, but also social, economic, spiritual, sacred, religious and other purposes," the notice added.

Habitat rights, FRA, and LWE insurgency

The Chhattisgarh government's move to kickstart the process of granting habitat rights in the epicentre of the troubled Bastar region, which has been rocked by armed violence against the State for decades now, is a step forward in tackling the insurgency. The Central government's — across the UPA and NDA's tenure — "strong-arm" approach to the militants, along with excesses on the civilian tribal population in mineral-rich areas like the Dantewada and Sukma areas, have strengthened the armed rebels over the years.

Livemint notes, "Companies find it easier to pay off politicians and bureaucrats to secure their projects rather than genuinely winning the hearts of people, something that is anyway increasingly difficult with the mechanisation of working methods. The Maoists also gain as they get a steady stream of recruits from people fleeing the excesses of the government."

However, the report adds, the influence of the insurgents has also been weakening as social services have begun to reach communities living in isolates areas and the "charm of modern society and education are exerting a pull on the youth, including members of the Maoist cadre."

One of the most significant operations against the insurgency in Chhattisgarh was 'Salwa Judum' under the UPA's tenure in the early 2000s. The violence that was caused by the operation saw thousands of families fleeing from their homes in 2004-05. It was the FRA that provided for those who migrated to Andhra Pradesh and Telengana during that time to claim rights to their original land in the state.

"Section 3 (i)(m) of the FRA provides for recognising the land rights of forest dwellers who were evicted or displaced before they could get land titles under the law," Down To Earth reported.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Aug 28, 2019 18:29:30 IST