Land rights researchers and experts have expressed concern over the state government’s directive to settle within three months all claims under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) made by forest-dwellers living inside 55 declared protected areas. While the three-month deadline could lead to a hasty rights recognition process, many said the larger issue of how to deal with land rights claims inside critical wildlife habitats (CWHs) that are to be identified and declared within these 55 protected areas is still to be finalised.
Citing a Bombay High Court order dated December 18 directing that claims under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Protection of Rights) Act, 2006 filed by forest-dwellers residing in the protected areas be tackled within three months, the government last week had issued directives asking officials at the sub-division and district levels to undertake the process on mission mode.
Dr Sharachchandra Lele of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) said the tribal development department and its field staff lack the capacity to complete the process of rights recognition for communities living in at least 500 villages across 55 protected areas within three months.
“Many would not be aware of their rights and would not have filed any claims, and the process would have to start from the grassroots. As stated in the government resolution (GR), the process would have to begin in some areas with making people aware of their rights, forming village-level committees and training their members. This is something the state has not managed to do in 10 years and is now proposing to do in three months,” he added.
According to the GR, the details of the area of villages located within protected areas, their population and the number of resident families are to be handed to officials of the village, sub-division and district administration within 15 days, by the forest department. Villages that do not have a forest rights committee will be assisted to form such a committee and its members will be provided training. The gram sabhas in these villages then have to be informed about filing claims under FRA.
Meanwhile, as the government facilitates new claims, the claims pending with gram sabhas or sub-divisional level committees or district level committees will also be processed and appeal cases decided on
Geetanjoy Sahu, associate professor at School of Habitat Studies, TISS, said the state’s directive is unclear. “The GR says the government will facilitate claims wherever these may have not been filed yet, but it is unclear who will actually do this. It is only where civil society organisations are present that such awareness can be created at the grassroots.” He also pointed out that the harvest of the rabi crop having begun, the coming weeks are not an ideal time to attempt a grassroots awareness drive.
Villages displaced and relocated earlier when forest areas were declared protected may also require to be revisited to initiate or complete the process of filing and verifying claims, a point not addressed in the GR.
Additionally, on the issue of declaring CWHs in the protected areas, which will follow the rights recognition process, there are two major concerns, Dr Lele said. One, the court has directed that a set of scientific and objective criteria be developed, at the state level, for declaring an area within a protected area as a CWH. These criteria are yet to be formulated and discussed among stakeholders.
“Two, we will require specific criteria to identify areas where co-existence of forest-dwellers within a CWH is possible, with or without modification of their rights under the FRA. Only in those cases where co-existence is proven to be impossible can resettlement be considered,” he added
Activists also expressed concern that the GR appears to suggest that the principal chief conservator of forests (Nagpur) has notified 55 CWHs across the state. In fact, committees to decide on CWH within each of 55 protected areas have been formed, and these committees’ deliberations are still underway. Also, while the HC had previously sought for a clear list of “scientific and objective criteria” to be used while declaring a certain area as a CWH, these criteria themselves have not been circulated among stakeholders.
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