OVER a decade since the law was enacted, government officials and other stakeholders in Maharashtra will undergo training on implementation of the Forest Rights Act, with a special focus on lower level bureaucracy including those in the sub-divisional and district level committees where large numbers of appeals and claims remain pending for years.
To be launched under a campaign titled ‘Van Mitra’ or ‘friends of the forest’, the training module designed by the Tribal Research and Training Institute (TRTI) in Pune will kick off in the first week of May. Early in March, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis assured nearly 40,000 tribal farmers who participated in a 180-km ‘long march’ from Nashik to Mumbai seeking, among other demands, the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, that the problems of pending claims and appeals for land titles under the law would be resolved within six months.
The Forest Rights Act, 2006, is actually the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, a legislation that grants forest-dwelling communities Individual Forest Rights (IFR), or legal titles to land they have been tilling since before 2005, as well as community rights to ensure their control over forest resources. At the CPI (M)-affiliated Kisan Sabha’s long march to Mumbai this March, nearly 90 per cent of the participants were from tribal regions of the state. Mostly landless tribals, they were seeking implementation of the FRA and resolution of their long-pending claims or appeals for land titles under the Act.
As the government prepares to reopen tens of thousands of IFR claims and appeals that are either pending or were rejected on technical grounds, the Tribal Development department will now train officials across all districts on how to process these claims. According to data from the department, as of February 2017, of 3,52,989 IFR claims received, only a little over 15,000 were pending. However, with nearly one third of claims rejected (2,30,027), thousands of appeals remain pending.
A very large number of rejected claims will have to be re-opened as well, officials said.
Now, the Tribal Development department will institute a system of regular reporting and reviews from all districts, once every 15 days, to ensure that the pace of implementation of the Act improves.
When the training kicks off in May, officials who are members of the Sub Divisional Level Committees and District Level Committees will be a special focus area, with even senior officials conceding that awareness of the law remains poor among the lower level of bureaucracy, leading to large numbers of claims being rejected on technical grounds such as a map not being attached, or fresh evidence being disallowed during appeals.
One hundred resource persons are currently being trained, including 50 government-appointed FRA coordinators across Maharashtra. These resource persons will then facilitate training sessions for lower rung officials at district centres. A master handbook on FRA and additional reading material for various groups of stakeholders are currently under preparation.
“The process of implementation of the Forest Rights Act, for Individual Forest Rights and also for Community Rights, will now be undertaken on mission mode following directives from Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. The training module that will roll out by late April or the first week of May will include not only aspects of the role of the SDLC, DLC and others but will also train officials on the spirit of the law and on empowering the Forest Rights Committee,” said Manisha Verma, Secretary, Tribal Development department.
The government has already set up a Forest Rights Cell for implementation of the Act, also including consultants and experts.
TRTI Commissioner Kiran Kulkarni said the institute is designing a strategy to train various stakeholders including the tribals themselves. “Awareness of the law is a special part of the training, which will be different for different stakeholders,” he said.
While Maharashtra has actually shown the best performance on implementation of the FRA, a long way ahead of the other states that have fared moderately well including Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha, according to a November 2017 report by the Community Forest Rights — Learning and Advocacy Group Maharashtra, disparities in the implementation are wide. According to the report, 21 districts have near-zero recognition of Community Forest Rights, while there is over 60 per cent implementation in districts such as Gadchiroli.