In November 2022, during his Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi said that even though the Congress government had brought the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) to ensure the rights of Adivasis over the forest and land, it was not being implemented adequately in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled states. Jharkhand, however, is a prime example of the extent to which the law has been capable of ensuring Adivasi rights in a UPA-ruled state.
Jharkhand has had a coalition government led by the Congress and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha for three years now. In their respective manifestos, both parties had promised to grant as many forest land titles to Adivasis as possible.
The Adivasi-dominated Marda village comes under the Bhandaria block of the Garhwa district. Here, the Adivasis have been facing several cases filed by the forest department. Every month, they have to travel 70 kilometres from their village to the district court in Garhwa for the hearings, with the expenses having to be collected by asking for donations from each house. Why are these tribals, who survive on daily-wage labour and seasonal agriculture, forced to face this additional burden?
Gurudayal Singh Kharwar, 38, tells Outlook, “The forest department called us encroachers and asked us to remove our houses. They would come to our house repeatedly and ask us to vacate the village. When we opposed this and refused to leave, the department filed cases against us. Now many residents are having to make rounds of the court. Every month one spends about 1,200 rupees on the case.”
According to the available documents, four people from Marda have cases against them. Nine people have been named in a case filed on December 30, 2014, under Sections 33 and 63 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (Bihar Amendment 1989). On 11 March 2015, another case was filed with 15 accused. In cases filed on September 6, 2018, and August 18, 2021, seven and five people have been charged respectively under Sections 33(A), 33(1)(A) and 33(1)(C) of the Indian Forest Act. The offences in all the cases are similar – the villagers have been accused of illegally clearing trees or bushes on protected forest land and building huts or tilling the land for agriculture. Such cases can be found in almost all districts of Jharkhand.
In order to get rid of the court cases, the villagers of Marda filed a community claim for the forest title under the FRA of around 2,700 acres of land on November 7, 2019 at the Ranka sub-division. Although the attempts to evict them from the village stopped after this, there are no signs of the land rights being granted to them even three years after the claim.
Ultimately, did the government acknowledge the claim by Marda? The short answer is no because as per the monthly report available on the website of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the Jharkhand government had received a total of 1,10,756 claims until March 2019, including both individual and community claims. Till the time this article was written, the last report on the website was from November 2022 which shows that between March 2019 and November 2022, not a single claim was received by the Jharkhand government – the number of total claims remains unchanged at 1,10,756.
As per the website, the last time the number of claims rose in the state was in March 2019, and that is when the land titles were distributed last. The number of total claims rose from 1,09,030 in February 2019 to 1,10,756 in March of that year, while the number of titles granted jumped from 60,143 to 61,970. This means that 1,726 new claims were received during this period and 1,827 new titles were distributed. To sum it up, for the last three years, the government has neither acknowledged receiving a single claim, nor granted one.
One is forced to wonder, did the people even file a claim? The Marda village has around 300 houses. In October 2022, 24 individual claims on forest lands were also filed. Gurudayal Singh Kharwar is the secretary of the local forest rights committee, and also an accused in the encroachment cases. His village and community had high hopes from the current Jharkhand government, but now they are reduced to worry and disappointment.
“We had hoped that this government would grand forest titles. But after three years, we feel like even Adivasis have not got their work done. This is not a good government. We do not know if we will be granted the forest rights. We feel very harassed. We also went to the Ranka sub-division office to get information about the claim. We asked both the clerk and the senior official: when would we get the forest title? But they said their work was limited to forwarding the claim to the district, which they had done. Now they could not say what would happen next.”
Activist Rose Xaxa expresses similar frustration. Rose, who has been working on issues related to the FRA for the last 10 years, is raising awareness among villagers in the Gumla district about the law and the rights they are granted under it. The Jharkhand Van-Adhikar Manch (JVAM) activist says, “I have got community claims of 249 villages filed since 2019. All of these claims are filed at the Sub-division Level Committees (SLDCs). But these people have still not been given the land deeds. The people from these villages now phone me and ask why are they not being given the titles, and when would they get it. Their economic situation would have improved had the government granted the forest land documents.”
She narrates examples from several districts, which show that villagers have been filing claims regularly.
The Forest Rights Act of 2006, came into effect across the country on 1 January 1 2008. Under this law, the Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) have to submit proof of having resided in the village and used the forest land for three generations or 75 years. Meanwhile, the Adivasis, or Scheduled Tribes, have to submit similar proofs dating back to before the deadline of 13 December 2005. Under the FRA, the applicant first submits the documents and proofs related to the claim to the FRC constituted by the gram sabha, which is tasked with verifying the documents and forwarding them to the SDLC. Until this point, the entire process is monitored by the gram sabha.
The applicants and other relevant figures linked to the above-mentioned claims insist that they have filed their claim following all the conditions laid down under the FRA, 2006. As per the law, the SLDC –chaired by the sub-divisional officer– would investigate the claim and, if approved, it would be forwarded to the district-level committee chaired by the collector. It is the district committee that issues the land title. An applicant can claim up to 10 acres of forest land under the individual claim, while there is no limit on community claims.
The Jharkhand Jungle Bachao Andolan (JJBA) is an organisation working among the Adivasis and OTFDs to ensure their forest rights for a long time. Its founder, Dr Sanjay Basu Mallick, says that the current government appears even more anti-Adivasi with regard to forest titles than the previous one.
He says, “They have not distributed a single title in the last three years, be it individual or community ones. When the organisations working on FRA in the state started speaking out on this, the government called a major meeting in December 2021, inviting all the groups. Many officials of the department were present during the meeting. Instructions were given during the meeting that both the long-pending and new claims should be processed rapidly.
“They even promised to process all the pending claims by March 2022. However, March passed and now it has been a year, without any title being granted. We have asked the department from time to time: What happened to the deadline? They keep saying, yes, we are working on it. I fail to understand what the government wants. If their intentions were good, they would have at least granted some claims. We are tired of urging them to do so repeatedly. There is no action. This government claims to be a messiah for the Adivasis but I dare say, it is not as much as a helping hand for them.”
The Hemant Soren-led UPA government is in its fourth year. When asked why not a single forest title has been distributed, JMM general secretary Supriyo Bhattacharya says, “Forest land comes under the ambit of the central government. In 2021, the central government brought a proposal under the Forest Conservation Act. Due to this, the Centre is not allowing us to release forest. Until forest land is released, we cannot grant forest titles. The Jharkhand government has opposed the proposal and chief minister Hemant Soren has also written a letter to the Prime Minister in this regard. We have demanded that forest land be released.”
Then, how are the other states granting these titles and what was the state government doing since the UPA came to power in December 2019? Bhattacharya responds: “Land is being released to the other states, and as far as 2019-20 is concerned, no work could be done in this period due to Covid. This is not limited to Jharkhand but the entire country.”
Sudhir Pal, the convenor of JVAM, believes that the number of title-holders in Jharkhand is minuscule compared to the vast amount of people and communities that should come under the ambit of FRA. The JVAM carried out a survey in collaboration with the Indian School of Business ahead of the 2019 Assembly elections. As per the survey, 14,850 of Jharkhand’s 32,112 villages are adjacent to forests, with an area spread over 73,96,873.1 hectares. These areas have 18,82,429.02 hectares of forest land with a possibility of being claimed under the FRA. The population of this area is 2,53,64,129, spread among 46,86,235 families. The populations of Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes were registered as 75,66,842 and 30,98,330 respectively.
Meanwhile, the JJBA insists that more than 1 crore people in the state are directly or indirectly dependent on forests. If this is so, why have so few claims been approved? Dr Mallick responds: “Firstly, the Adivasis of the state are not as aware about filing the claims as they should be. Secondly, many claim forms have ‘disappeared’ from government offices. Since 2012, claims are being filed regularly; my own organisation has filed around 1,500 community claims. If you go back to 2008, this number crosses 2,000. We have the receipts for all these village claims. If the government has lost the claim or it has been devoured by termites, the JJBA is ready to furnish all the receipts.”