Recognition of Rights
Incomplete verification of rights under FRA fail to redress the historical injustice meted out to forest-dwelling communities
The Supreme Court, while hearing a petition on February 13, 2019, by wildlife organisations and retired forest officials, asked authorities of 21 states to file affidavits explaining why evictions, wherever ordered, have not taken place. This created a brouhaha once again over forest conservation, climate change and social justice.
Justices have since acknowledged that processes followed by the implementing agencies could be at fault and has stayed its previous order. They instead asked state governments to review their processes of recognition of cultivation rights over forests by claimants. But how does the state even perceive the "historical injustice" that the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 seeks to correct?
Following procedures that are incomplete at most stages of the verification process, fail to redress this historical injustice meted out to some of the most disempowered, disenfranchised and deprived communities of India – Adivasis.
Even if the state agencies – in this case, the tribal departments – review a new process of claiming rights, what will continue to be missing from the picture is the fact that Adivasis' way of life and mode of cultivation in the forests are unable to be recognised by the bureaucratic mindset of the state government agencies.
Agencies lack an understanding of how Adivasis historically "tilled" their land and survived in the forest. Right from colonial times, the "strange and unconventional" Adivasi way of cultivating and living, often nomadic and temporary, was not legally acknowledged even by the meticulous records of the British.
Consequently, state agencies responsible for correcting the historical injustices to these Adivasis end up glossing over this unjust past, not realising that these communities have been where they are due to the non-recognition of their way of life by the colonial state authority. This misconception has been carried over to the post-independent state agencies, evident in the manner in which they have dealt with the recognition of rights of genuine claimants.
Take the example of Somanna and Maadamma (names changed), aged 74 and 67 respectively. They are Soliga tribals living in Kanchagalli grama in Kollegal taluk at the edge of the forests of Biligirirangana Betta of Chamarajanagara district in Karnataka. For outsiders, it is Biligirirangana Tiger Reserve.
When they learnt about FRA and applied for cultivation rights over their tiny patch of forest land deep in the tiger reserve that was part of their haadi's gadi (traditionally demarcated tribal village boundaries), they had hoped that, finally, their way of life was being recognised and acknowledged by the officialdom of the Indian state. But, two months down the line, to their dismay, they were informed that their claims had been rejected.
For them, it was a pattern that was oft-repeated from their grandparents' time. However, the FRA had raised their hopes for a life of dignity that was long denied to them. There are many such Adivasi hamlets across Mysore, Kodagu and Chamarajanagar districts – Jenu Kurubas, Yeravas, Betta Kurubas, Soligas, Hakki Pikkis – who share a similar history of displacement and denial of their existence in these forests.
This injustice stems from the fact that while verifying claims of cultivation rights – Individual Forest Rights (IFRs) – the law demands that a joint survey by the Forest and Revenue department along with the claimant and a member of the village Forest Rights Committee be carried out to check the veracity of the claim.
In reality, because the claim over land lies in what is now a legally protected area, only the officials of the Wildlife Wing of the Forest Department are directed to verify if claimants have been tilling that land or not.
As expected, these officials, ignorant of the fact that these Adivasi communities have been thrown out of their forests during the notification of the protected area and whose access to their traditional habitat and cultivation areas have been long denied, submit a report stating that there is no one currently living or cultivating the land that has been claimed for under the FRA. Either such lands were taken over by the forest department for plantations or regenerated naturally to become part of the surrounding forest.
This misconception stems from the fact that long before independent India's Forest Department took over the reins of forest governance, and the reserved forests (which have now become part of the PA) were notified during the colonial period, these "wild jungle tribes" were only acknowledged in the forest settlement records as having rights to their village site – about a quarter of an acre, their burial ground – which was also about a quarter of an acre,
their shrine and access a water resource through forest path described in detail.
However, these settlement records nowhere acknowledge or describe how these "wild jungle tribes" can access their sources of food and nutrition. How does a human being, given rights only to their hut, a water source and a shrine survive without food?
If the argument is that they lived on what they collected from these forests, then why was that not recorded? When even the paths to access a shrine or a temple, connect one place to another or take cattle to graze has been described meticulously in these records, why were the "wild jungle tribes" way of cultivating land and collecting food from the forest not recorded at all?
Our lawmakers, apprised of this injustice, sought to correct this through the enactment of the FRA. Yet, during the process of recognition and vesting of such rights, these same omissions have not been taken into consideration.
One could argue that these tribal communities have been relocated outside the protected area with suitable compensation. Simple logic tells us that we are compensated for what has been lost to us. And to understand what has been lost or forgone, we take stock of what we first had.
The recognition of rights and usage of the forest by these communities, whose natural existence in the forest is what has helped retain these forests for us to enjoy today and which we seek to protect for future generations, is the first step in compensation.
Without first carrying out that step with due diligence, we cannot claim to have compensated these communities adequately. Worse still is the claim that due process was followed in the recognition of claims of forest rights under FRA and equating all rejections as illegal encroachments.
(The author is a PhD student in conservation science and sustainability studies from ATREE, Bengaluru. The views expressed are strictly personal)