In “campaign mode” since April this year, when the Prime Minister set a December deadline for settling claims under the Forest Rights Act, the Tribal Affairs Ministry has now warned state governments against riding roughshod in their hurry to meet the target.
“It is emphasised that the (earlier) request of the ministry that the states implement the Forest Rights Act in a proactive and time-bound manner should not be interpreted to mean bypassing the requirements of the said Act and Rules in any manner,” the ministry wrote in a directive issued on August 10.
It went on to caution that “the Forest Rights Act implemented in haste may lead to perpetuation of the historical injustice against forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers which the Act seeks to correct”.
At the second PRAGATI (Pro-Active Governance And Timely Implementation) meeting on April 22, PM Narendra Modi had said that “vesting of forest rights on tribals and traditional dwellers is a critical step for empowerment and progress” and the “ministry and state governments need to work in campaign mode to cover those still deprived of their rights”.
On April 28, the then MoTA secretary wrote to the states expressing hope that the process would be “completed within the current year”.
Under the FRA, three types of rights — individual, community forests (CF) and community forest resources (CFR) — are settled. Since 2008, CFR rights have been vested in only 2,148 cases — less than 2 per cent of the potential claims. While rights were granted in over 16 lakh individual cases till May 2015, over 18 lakh were rejected. Overall, ministry officials admit, more than 50 per cent of potential claims are yet to be filed and a target to achieve in seven months what could not be achieved in seven years is unrealistic.
“We are aware that the CFR process cannot be completed this year. But it defeats the purpose of the Act if settlement of claims goes on forever. So this push is necessary to accelerate the process,” Arun Jha, secretary MoTA, told The Indian Express. “The focus is on training and awareness generation. As such, there is no deadline for filing claims and no deserving claim can be ignored.”
Since May, the Ministry has charted out a phased course of action to meet the deadline. It has held consultations with the states to monitor progress and address problem areas. It also accepted requests of a modified deadline — April-May 2016 — from states such as Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
What prompted Monday’s cautionary letter was an order issued on July 27 by the Chhattisgarh government, instructing district collectors to place the issue of whether vesting of rights was complete before the gram sabha meetings scheduled for August 15.
The MoTA, in its letter, reminded the additional chief secretary of Chhattisgarh that the completion of the process of recognition and vesting of rights could not be rushed as it involved a number of steps, including communication of reasons for rejection, exhaustion of appeals, creation of records with clear demarcation of forest land boundaries, etc.