Maharashtra farmers' march: Implementing collective forest rights more important than individual claims to land

The Adivasi farmers' recent stir at Azad Maidan on Monday was centred around a common demand from the Maharashtra government — to regularise forest farmland policy and transfer ownership of the land to the farmers, thus securing their means of livelihood.

The Adivasi communities living on these forest lands have been cultivating it for decades without the legal land rights as described in the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Recognition of the legal rights of those dwelling on the protected forest land would aid the Adivasi communities by providing them with the basic infrastructure required for farming and sustaining – currently, they cannot construct any water pipeline or reservoir to get or store water.

Fiel image of the Maharashtra farmers protest in Mumbai. PTI

Fiel image of the Maharashtra farmers protest in Mumbai. PTI

According to Section 35 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, there is a provision to convert lands not under cultivation and use, which are barren on the mountains and forests. But there is no scope to say that this section has been used and interpreted properly in this case. The Adivasi communities have been using the lands for many generations. This begs the question: What did the government achieve by converting these lands into forests and prohibiting the Adivasis from using it?

The theory that the move was aimed at sustainable development of the ecology or protecting the land would hold true had there been businesses or other intense activities on the lands. Especially, since the Adivasis only use the natural resources of the land for farming purposes. So, what is the virtue in restricting 1,000 hectors of land, that is just laying there without any use?

Merely declaring the land as forest on the 7/12 extract (an extract from the land register of any district in Maharashtra, which gives complete information about a particular piece of land) and prohibiting non-forest activities is not sustainable development. Presently, the land is sitting idle – awaiting plantation, forestry and other plans. Since the enactment of the Forest Act, it is neither being used by the forest department nor being handed over to the Adivasi inhabitants.

In 2006, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act was passed, allowing the tribal people residing in the area to establish their right to record their name in the 7/12 extract of the land. The Act dictates that after the report of the village Gram Sabha about possession and use of land, an Adivasi person can file a claim for the establishment of forest rights to the sub-divisional level committee.

But, since the introduction of the present law, till January 2018, the state government has only approved only 54,614 of the 3,64,313 claims received. A study of the rejected, pending claims reveals one of the following reasons:

1) Failing to produce a receipt of the penalty from the forest department as evidence of use and possession of the land.
2) Exclusion of land above four hectares in area.
3) Removal of encroachment by forest department while the claim is pending.
4) No actual site inspection in the presence of forest committee.

Now, the government has assured to settle these claims after protests by the farmers and tribals. But when the assurance will translate into actual claim settlements remains to be seen. But, until then, it would bode well to try and understand what exactly forest rights entail.

The Forest Rights Act is one of the laws on the sustainable management of the ecosystem of India and the natural resources of local communities. The official name of the act is Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (acceptance of forest rights) Act 2006 and rule 2008, 2012.

The livelihood of more than 50 percent of those dwelling on land with forest cover and of 15 to 20 percent of those in backward areas is traditionally dependent on livestock. Such tribal communities have been given personal and collective rights of the forest through this Act. In a booklet published by the government, the background and main objectives of the legislation – which can provide a broader vision for implementation – are given as:

  • This act has been designed for Scheduled Castes and Traditional Nonsensities, whose residuals are not recorded for any rights of theirs, despite the fact that they are still living in forests for generations. The Act provides the right to record ownership and to ensure the nature of various evidence required for it.
  • Disqualifications include the right to use resources for sustainable use. In order to protect the biodiversity in the area and to maintain ecological balance, the Act has strengthened the development process of the forest area by giving the rights to the community.
    At the same time, the Act provides for the protection of the local population and food security. The Scheduled Tribes and other traditional Nunavik have historically faced injustice on their traditional land and inhabited terrain due to the settlement of the British in the colonial period and in the post-Independence period, and due to non-compliance with other policies.
  • It has become necessary to properly address the insecurity of the long-standing rights of such issues. The purpose of the law is to provide justice to those who have been displaced from their livelihood areas forcibly due to the development schemes of the central and state governments.

The main aim of resolving this injustice by giving due recognition to the rights of forest dwellers, due to their lack of historical rights, has been explained by the above proposal. The sustainable livelihood of Gavasamajas, traditionally inhabitants of forests, and their development is dependent on collective resources that are traditionally used.

Therefore, implementing collective forest rights is of greater importance and priority than individual human rights. But, unfortunately, the entire emphasis of the people and the government machinery is on the individual land (lease) claim.

The best way to generate awareness about such areas and ensuring the involvement of more people is to make everyone familiar with the tenets of the law – on how to set up an area of collective forestry, get the necessary information and documents to create a claim, preparing a study group and starting the process of reading all the revenue/forest records.

The author is an advocate and director of VK Group, an environment and forest consultancy.

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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2018 15:58:46 IST

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