Dodgy forest land claims eating up wildlife sanctuaries: Experts

Encroachers favoured, say activists; Supreme Court hearing tomorrow.

Written by Vivek Deshpande | Nagpur | Published:November 14, 2016 4:18 am
forest encroachment, supreme court, public works department, forest encroachment in wildlife sanctuaries, wildlife sanctuaries, forest encroachmen SC, national park encroachers, india news Cultivation on forest land in Yawal, Jalgaon.

THE SCHEDULED Tribe and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006 was designed to undo “historical injustice” by offering a one-time settlement of individual and community claims over forest land. But 10 years later, forests and wildlife sanctuaries face a severe threat of encroachment, with individual claims continuing to pour in.

Experts and activists say that many of these pleas — under the Individual Forest Rights (IFR) category — do not stand the test of scientific scrutiny of being pre-2005 claims as stipulated by the legislation. And, they say, with political pressure in favour of virtually every IFR claim being approved — and review of rejected claims — more land pattas continue to be granted.

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Then again, experts say, the Act does not stipulate a deadline for making IFR claims and gram sabhas are empowered to extend the 90-day window for such pleas. The result: those indulging in fresh encroachments get away with illegal possession of forest land because no action can be taken while the claim is being assessed.

For instance, attempts by forest officials to evict post-2005 squatters in districts such as Jalgaon and Amravati in Maharashtra have failed, with the district administration allegedly not supporting their move.

To top it all, state governments continue to push three-tier scrutiny apparatus — gram sabha level committee (GSLC), sub-divisional level committee (SDLC) and district level committee (DLC) — to reconsider the rejected cases despite the lack of any credible evidence from the claimant or scientific evidence to fulfill the pre-2005 criterion.

In many cases, claimants have moved the High Court against the DLC decision, which is considered final. For example, 11 encroachers from Tarubanda village in Melghat Tiger reserve have moved the High Court to stop the Forest Department from evicting them.

Until August 31, 40,97,352 IFR claims were raised across the country. Of them 16,50,867 claims, or 40 per cent, were granted and roughly 18 lakh rejected. The rest are pending. So far, 55,35,898 acres of land have been granted under IFR in 19 states. Another 47,52,780 acres have been granted in CFRs to 20,191 claimant communities. While CFRs aim at conserving forests, IFRs sanctify agriculture on allotted land.

“Compare this with 1.23 lakh hectares diverted for various developmental projects since 1980,” says Kishor Rithe, environmental activist and member of the Critical Wildlife Habitat committee under the Forest Rights Act and Critical Tiger Habitat committee under the Wildlife Protection Act of Maharashtra.

”What is, however, worrisome is that those implementing FRA subvert the Act by not accepting the provision of rejection of claims. Governments are perpetually pushing for revisiting the rejected claims,” says Rithe.

What keeps the window open for claims is the power granted to gram sabhas to extend the 90-day deadline. “This provision is used by illegal claimants to indulge in fresh encroachments and put up a claim. The rules of the Act provide for not taking any action against the claimant till the pendency of his case,” says Rithe, whose Satpuda Foundation is one of the petitioners in the Bombay Natural History Society and others vs Union of India in the Supreme Court — the next hearing is on November 15.

The Supreme Court, in an order dated January 29, had taken serious cognizance of rejected cases and directed states to file affidavits within two weeks about action initiated against illegal squatters. But many states haven’t communicated the status on the ground.

Besides, says Rithe, despite the Act calling for settling wildlife rights in addition to IFRs and Community Forest Rights (CFRs), IFR claims are being made and approved without the wildlife claims being decided upon.

Rithe and other petitioners, including Tiger Research and Conservation Trust (TRACT), Wildlife First and Wildlife Trust of India, are worried over the “short shrift” being given by governments to the provision to declare areas as Critical Wildlife Habitat (CWH) to settle wildlife claims.

“The Act provides for declaration of CWHs to keep wildlife areas inviolate but even after 10 years of the Act coming into force, this stipulation has been given the short shrift. What’s more, IFR and CFR claims are now also being made and granted in wildlife sanctuaries, brushing aside objections by forest departments,” says Rithe, citing examples from Melghat Tiger Reserve in Amravati district and Yawal sanctuary in Jalgaon district.

“At least 53 claims have been granted on 230 acres in Melghat and 45 claims have been granted on 160 acres in Yawal,” says Rithe.

Letters sent by Maharashtra’s forest department to district collectors in the state and outside pointing out wrong settlements and seeking eviction of encroachers have elicited no response. ”National Parks and sanctuaries constitute only four per cent of India’s total forest cover so why insist on regularising encroachments there, too, when the Act provides for settling wildlife rights in inviolate areas? People are ready to relocate voluntarily outside these areas,” said Pravin Bhargav of Wildlife First, a Karnataka-based NGO.

The Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs has directed all states to expedite clearances of claims and expressed concern over “large number of rejections” due to lack of evidence or “incomplete evidence”.

“If people are filing claims, we must try to help them… there is a general concern over high rate of rejections. So we need to relook such claims and hence the instruction to that effect. It is part of the project to review progress from time to time,” Union Minister for Tribal affairs Jual Oram told The Indian Express.

Strangely, however, while stressing on the use of technological evidence in terms of Geo-Information System (GIS) and satellite imagery, the ministry, in a letter dated July 27, 2015 to chief secretaries, says such evidence should not be used to replace other evidence, which will result in the rejection of claims or reopening of accepted claims.

According to the Act, evidence to be considered for accepting claims includes: a supporting statement from a village elder; proof of village residence; proof of occupation before cut-off date of December 13, 2005.

”If scientific evidence shows forest on patches claimed for pattas in pre-2005 images, how can the claim be not rejected?” asks Rajendra Nannaware, an environmental activist from Yawal.

The Maharashtra government, incidentally, had sought a report from The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) that provided satellite images of hundreds of land patches where forest cover existed prior to 2005 but appeared flattened later — this covered claims made up to 2011 on 14,668 hectares.

”The government should write to MoTA for revisiting the process of rights recognition on 14,668 hectares, which have been recognised against the FRA provisions,” it recommended in 2014.

Besides, according to a Gujarat government document with the tribal affairs ministry, the Bhaskaracharya Institute for Space Application and Geo-Informatics in Gandhinagar came out with data in 2012, which revealed that 80 per cent of IFR claims in the state were bogus.

When contacted, a government official told The Indian Express: “The forest department has no say in the implementation that is in the hands of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. The department’s members on the claim-scrutiny committees cannot veto any decisions. The FRA further provides for invocation of the SC-ST Prevention of Atrocities Act by evicted encroachers. Finally, the state-level monitoring committees headed by chief secretaries repeatedly direct the DLC to reconsider rejected cases.”