About 100 people in four villages of Latehar district allege that the forest department is harassing them by filing frivolous cases, claiming some officials are working on the behest of local strongmen. All the villagers are from the Kope, Jerua, Jagthu and Lanka villages of Manika block.
The Indian Express has seen the details of 93 individuals, against whom at least 38 cases have been filed between 2007 and 2010. Most have multiple cases against them; they have been to jail for short periods. In all, the FD alleges they encroached upon nearly 600 acres of land. Apart from encroachment, people have been charged with stone mining and tree felling. The villagers deny all charges.
One of the 93 even alleges that he was jailed for 11 days even though the arrest warrant was in the name of someone who doesn’t exist. “The police came to my house asking for Korhi Bhuiyan, son of Tiru Bhuiyan. Tiru was my father’s brother but he died a few years back and had no children of his own,” said Amrika Bhuiyan of Jerua. Amrika produces notices from the FD and summons from a Latehar court he received in the name of the non-existent Korhi, accusing him of encroaching on four acres of forest land. “I never took those notices seriously. I kept telling the policemen that I am not Korhi, but they would not listen to me,” said Amrika, who is a Dalit and has Aadhaar, BPL, MNREGA and voters’ identity cards. All of the accused are adivasis, Dalits or Muslims.
The irony in the case is that the FD is now doing to these villagers what the Maoists did in 2011. In February 2011, the Maoists beat to death Jerua resident Niyamat Ansari, accusing him of helping villagers encroach on forest land. “The same contractors who encouraged the Maoists to go after Niyamat and me are now getting Forest officials to trouble us,” said Bhukan Singh, who used to work with Ansari on MNREGA and who was also a target for Maoists. Villagers say there is a caste divide to the antagonism – upper castes who have secured MNREGA contracts have been opposed to their claim to more pay.
There are 11 active cases against Bhukan now – Niyamat too, had been an accused in all of them at the time of his death. In all, the FD alleges he is part of encroachments amounting to 129 acres. “Tired with all of us shuttling between our village and the courts, I once told policemen to just jail us all for once. They laughed and said there is not enough space for us all,” he said.
All the cases this newspaper has seen were filed between 2007 and 2010. None of them have been dropped despite a Home Department circular in January 2010 which asked Divisional Forest Officers to recommend petty cases that could be dropped. Encroachments, stone mining and tree felling figure among the charges that the circular considers petty.
Latehar DFO Mamta Priyadarshi promised to take a look into all the cases. “It is possible that cases were filed after their claims for land titles were rejected. However, 93 seems like a high number. We will consider sending special summons to all the aggrieved parties,” she said. Villagers said their claim for titles had indeed been rejected, but that was done only after mid-2013; the cases were active much before that.