AS THE Maharashtra government races to review and clear lakhs of claims made by tribals for land rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), it will next week undertake a pilot project that aims to digitise and automate the process, making it possible to track every one of the nearly 3.72 lakh claims filed till date for individual and community rights over forest land.
With the software also automating the process of verifying claims, once the entire process is digitised, it will be impossible for claims to be rejected on technical or incorrect grounds.
This March, after nearly 40,000 tribals participated in a ‘long march’ from Nashik to Mumbai seeking resolution of long-pending claims or appeals under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis promised that the process of resolving these would be completed within six months, or by mid-September.
The tribal development department subsequently launched the Van Mitra programme to first train officials on the law and then to clear or reopen tens of thousands of pending or erroneously rejected claims and appeals.
“The digital platform we are testing is part of the Van Mitra Abhiyaan,” said Kiran Kulkarni, commissioner at the Tribal Research and Training Institute (TRTI), Pune. The pilot project will be launched on June 25 in two districts, Nandurbar and Pune, he said. Laboratory tests of the software are underway.
Until now, more than 62 per cent of all claims received since 2006 from tribals for individual land titles in the state have been rejected by gram sabhas, the sub-divisional level committees (SDLCs) and the district level committees (DLCs), according to data compiled till March 31, 2018. Over 53,000 appeals are pending.
“The target of the Van Mitra programme is to achieve 100 per cent resolution of all FRA claims over three phases of the initiative. The first phase that has already begun is to reconcile and resolve existing claims pending in the system. In the second phase, we will reopen old cases, including rejections that were not in keeping with the law or on technical grounds. And in the third phase, we will, along with local administration and civil society, draw in unclaimed cases from those who are eligible but have not registered a claim. This digital platform will, additionally, give the process transparency and make it possible to track every single claim,” said Ayush Prasad, joint director of the TRTI.
The software was designed pro bono by Pune-based Maharashtra Knowledge Corporation Ltd (MKCL). “Every existing claim received by every SDLC will have to be manually uploaded, and then every case carefully reconsidered. Once a claim is logged in the software, it cannot be rejected with any arbitrary remark — if it’s a rejection, the SDLC has to select from a dropdown menu of permissible reasons for rejection,” said MKCL senior general manager Sameer Pandey.
A time-bound resolution of every single case is also mandated by the software. Senior bureaucrats can review cases that do not progress within a stipulated time period.
The software will also resolve many common complaints with the process. For example, one of the most common complaints by adivasi claimants has been that difficulties in scheduling a joint physical inspection of the land by officials of revenue and forest departments is a cause for long delays. The software now schedules the inspection, mandates officials’ attendance through a geo-tracker system, reschedules a visit if the first inspection date is skipped, and then goes on to automatically declare the claim as “deemed to be physically verified”. The system can also customise how many days every claim can remain pending at every level.
However, many challenges remain. The sheer number of claims to be uploaded (3,60,066 Individual Forest Rights claims by the end of April 2018) and reconciled will make this a laborious process especially where SDLC members are ill-equipped or poorly trained or if there are data connectivity glitches in the more remote areas. The onset of the monsoon also means more delays in scheduling meetings and inspections.
Further, the digital initiative will first take up Community Forest Rights claims, seen as low-hanging fruit — of 12,009 CFR claims received till date, 7,359 claims are already accepted, or 61.27 per cent.
Meanwhile, under the Van Mitra programme, the TRTI has also developed a layout plan for an integrated complex that every gram sabha can build on land granted to tribal communities under CFR. Such a structure would include all public services under one roof, from a police station, ration shop and health centre to a cooperative credit institution’s office, post office and veterinary clinic.