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Justice at bay

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 may be one of the most democratic legislations in post-Independence India but its implementation leaves much to be desired, writes Soma Basu

Anthropologists say that there are 27 sets of relationships between a forest and a man and this was simplified by 57-year-old Rani Lodha, a saal leaf collector in Ambisole. When asked whether she had land rights, she replied: “What’s that? That’s not for us. The land doesn’t belong to us. We belong to the land.”
Anyone with the brief to assess the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 would certainly feel out of place in the forest villages of West Midnapore, where dwellers have always found themselves caught in the crossfire between Maoists and the previous ruling political party of West Bengal. Land rights was the last thing on the minds of people who feared for their life all the time.
The government of India has always suffered from two delusions ~ one, that forests are virgin and two, that tribals need to learn sustainable use of resources. Forests in India have always been a home to one sect or the other, one tribe or the other. The tribals and forest dwellers worship the forest and depend on forest produce. The land is like a mother to them and they would be the last to harm it. Their livelihood depends on sustainable use of resources and they know its indispensability. They hold the bond so sacrosanct that they not believe in the concept of land rights as their cultural sensibilities hold that the need for a legal paper must arise out of mistrust. But such sentiments are obviously not honoured and many a time they find the land they have been tending for ages claimed by some prominent man in the village ~ a fellow tribal or the flagbearer of the party in power.
Rani and other Lodhas said forest officials often arrested innocent tribals on charges of stealing wood from the forest. They have no idea of forest protection committees or that they are entitled to 25 per cent of all trees felled in the forests. They are not even familiar with the common faces of rural governance such as gram sabhas and panchayats as the Maoist scare has rendered such institutions redundant here. “Did you really expect to find gram sabhas and committees here?” posed an incredulous Lodha villager.
In 2006, the UPA government legislated the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. The Act provides for recognising 13 different rights that are central to the lives and livelihood of tribals and other traditional forest dwellers across the country. These include rights to land under occupation as well as customary land, ownership of minor forest produce, right to water bodies, grazing areas, habitat of Primitive Tribal Groups (PTGs), conversion of all types of forest villages/settlements to revenue villages, the right and power to protect, conserve and manage community forest resources. All these rights had been illegally and unjustly denied during the classification of land as government forests (both before and after Independence).
The Act sought to address the shortcomings of previous rights recognition efforts, particularly the guidelines issued by the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) in September 1990 and thereafter. The government guidelines were largely ineffective as they entirely relied on the forest department for verification, covered only land rights and lacked statutory force.
The new Act made the ministry of tribal affairs (MoTA) the nodal agency for recognising forest rights, in recognition of the fact that the forest department is an “interested party” which would have little incentive for ceding territory and control over forests to ancestral rights holders. It also provided a transparent and democratic procedure readily accessible to tribals and other traditional forest dwellers by making the gram sabha the fact-finding and verification authority as opposed to a government official accountable to no one. Two higher-level committees comprising officials of three departments and panchayat representatives were given responsibilities for collation and final approval of the claimed rights. The Act also safeguards against arbitrary eviction or relocation of tribals and other forest dwellers living in/dependent on protected areas. Finally, in its most significant and radical step, the law statutorily empowers gram sabhas to protect and manage the surrounding forests for sustainable use and for preserving the cultural and natural heritage of tribals.
However, a 20-member committee to look into the various issues related to implementation of the Act and sustainable forest management, constituted jointly by the MoEF and the MoTA in April 2010, observed that while MoTA had pushed states for implementation, its role had been found to be very inadequate in a number of respects. It has been found to be generally lacking in pro-activeness, issuing only occasional clarificatory circulars, merely designing faulty claim forms, possessing poor information gathering skills and not taking any initiative to monitor through independent evaluations or take action against those violating the Act. The MoEF too is guilty of not checking scrupulously if the Act has been violated or not complied with.
Although the 2006 Act is one of the most democratic legislations in post-Independence India, being the first genuine attempt to reverse the wrongs of centuries-old British colonial rule that had led to the oppression and marginalisation of a people who had preserved the country’s rich ecosystem for centuries together, it has many flaws and ambiguities too. And, these have seriously hindered the entire process of investiture of entitlement rights of the tribals and forest dwellers. Professor BK Roy Burman, ex-chairman of Planning Commission’s study group on land holding system of tribals during 1985-86 and former chairman, Committee on Forest and Tribals Backward Classes Unit, ministry of home affairs, (1980-82) has pointed out flaws time and again. In a March 2008 article in Mainstream, he sharply criticised the finalised rules as “half-hearted”. The rules, put into effect nearly 14 months after the Act came into being, have been conspicuously diluted.
In West Bengal, despite the rules requiring that all members of the Forest Rights Committee to be villagers, government officials have been appointed members instead, practically turning the Act into a device in the hands of the ruling party to manipulate the weak and the vulnerable. The government of West Bengal even issued a circular stating that a Forest Rights Committee would be appointed by a sub-committee of the panchayat and would include a forest guard and a revenue official. Till date, save areas where grassroots movements are active, Forest Rights Committee members do not know what their responsibilities are and, in many cases, are not even aware that they have been made members.
Statistics available on the MoTA website show the number of titles distributed in West Bengal till April 2011 as per provisions of the Act as 27,773 (27,665 individual and 108 community) and 2,192 as ready for distribution. The number of claims rejected is staggeringly high at 79,457. The state government sought more time to complete the process as most of the claims had been filed in four districts ~ West Midnapore, Bankura, Purulia and Jalpaiguri ~ where it cited law and order problems. In reality, it was the 2011 Assembly election that had caused the delay. A visit to the districts just ahead of the polls substantiated this.
Even though the former chief minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, had kept on insisting in his campaign speeches that the Left Front government had secured the land right of tribals in the state, the government had, in fact, kept the distribution of titles in the tribal belt on hold. Almost all members of the tribal community and forest dwellers interviewed by the author while touring the tribal belt ahead of the Bengal Assembly poll said that Left Front candidates had promised them titles only if voted to power.
Current chief minister Miss Mamata Banerjee began her 13 July, 2011 Junglemahal rally by handing land pattas (title deeds) and forest land pattas to a number of tribal families to underscore her government’s development initiative to counter the Maoists who have been lying low in the villages of West Midnapore since the polls. The government may have the best of intentions but it needs to understand that mere distribution of pattas wouldn’t necessarily translate into securing the rights of tribals. Even Mr Bhattacharjee had distributed pattas to forest dwellers during his much hyped election rally in Salboni. What had escaped the media at that time was the fact that most of the land distributed then was less than what the allottees had claimed. There have been instances where forest dwellers who had claimed land, found that the area mentioned in their pattas comprised either a water body or worse, a single tree!
Whatever little reporting has been done on the tribals of Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia has suggested, as have a number of NGOs, that most of the Primitive Tribal Groups (PTGs) of Junglemahal had moved out of the area. This is but a figment of imagination.
The PTG population of Lodha and Sabar ~ the traditional dwellers of the deep forests of Nayagram, Keshiary, Narayangarh, Jhargram, Salboni, Binpur-I and Binpur-II ~ has not depleted. It is the community of Mahato ~ a class of affluent landowners ~ other than Santhals (tribals who have long graduated to agriculture and professional job from their traditional dependence on forest produce) who have fled the region. The PTGs ~ at the bottom of the pyramid ~ had simply nowhere to go and stayed back. Since the tribals have to venture deep into the forests to collect minor forest produce (MFP), they are subjected to frequent harassment by Maoists who use the deep forests to take cover. If that wasn’t enough, they are also beaten up by police bent on extracting information about Maoist hideouts. A major chunk of the population of Santhals and Mahatos have definitely shifted to the forest periphery and now regularly go to Burdwan and Bankura ~ towns reeling under a labour crisis ~ in search of work. But then, unlike the PTGs, they had seldom been entirely dependent on the forest and its produce for their sustenance.
Patta (title deed) distribution in Khajra, near Narayangarh, has created an unbridgeable divide between the Lodhas and the Santhals. The usually submissive Lodhas are angry over the fact that most of the Santhal (whom they consider representatives of a higher class) residents of the villages of Kharika, Ambisole, Rangiyam, Panchkahaniya, Chhota Khagri, Lokhiyasole, Mohul Danga and Palasia had been given pattas while their land rights have been ignored.
Lodhas have been in the focus of anthropologists and social activists. During the early days of colonial rule, the British government in India oppressed the tribals of Junglemahal, who were traditionally dependent on the forests for a living. Having been deprived of their livelihood and left without any alternative, they took to criminal activities and were subsequently branded a “criminal tribe”. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1952 repealed the notification but despite such denotification, communities of Lodhas and Birhors continue to be ostracised.
Panchu Bhokta, a member of the Trinamul Congress, had been particularly agitated when interviewed a month before the April-May 2011 Assembly election in West Bengal. He said: “The government has given pattas to Santhals who already possess large tracts of land. We have seen our ancestors toiling on the fields owned by Santhals for a handful of rice. Now, when the time has come for us to gain equality, the Santhals have yet again conspired to keep the powers to themselves.” He said both CPI-M and Trinamul candidates for the Assembly constituency had promised land rights to Lodhas, albeit to bag votes. “But we now know it was a lie. We had submitted claim forms but they were rejected. We do not know on what grounds,” he said. In Lokhiyasole village served by the Khajra gram panchayat, there are 75 families. Twenty-five families had submitted claim forms but only one claim was settled. The family that got the patta was close to the local CPI-M leader. The National Committee on Forest Rights Act, headed by Dr NC Saxena, reported cases wherein claims made by Lodhas in West Bengal were found to be mostly pending or rejected.
What has hurt the traditional forest dwellers most is the rampant destruction of forest cover, thanks to camps set up nearby by armed CPI-M goons when the Left Front was in power. Sunil Nayek and Benu Bhokta of Lokhiyasole, Khajra Gram Panchayat, said that no forest cover worth mentioning was left in the Khajra beat anymore. “Outsiders destroy our forests in connivance with the beat officer who is on the payroll of a sawmill located near the Keleghai river. The beat officer is also a CPI-M man. Even though a forest protection committee has been formed, it has never met. There have been incidents of violence when we tried to stop illegal felling and transportation of timber,” Sunil said. Benu said the patch of forest adjoining the Khajra beat office had been destroyed by the beat officer himself who facilitated the transportation of timber to his favourite sawmill. The head of the Bholabera gram panchayat in Belpahari and a CPI-M member, Nityanand Sabar, said: “We do not get any share of the trees felled in the forest. Every day, we see forest department officials ferry out saal timber by the truckful. We don’t know where the wood goes. We are not permitted to ask questions.”
Tribals living near the Jhilimili forest in Bankura, served by the Kathalia gram panchayat, said that forest department officials had promised all right to give them their share of 25 per cent of all trees felled in the forest but that was two years ago. “No one has visited us since. Once we petitioned the panchayat for a tubewell and the members called us Maoists,” said Kabu Munda, a resident of the village that survives on forest produce.
Long before the Peoples War Group (PWG) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) had merged to form CPI (Maoist), Maoist extremists tried to gain control of the tribal belt by demanding a raise in the minimum support price of minor forest produce such as saal leaves, kendu leaves, sabui or babui grass, mohua, to name a few, on which the economy of the region depends. Babui grass was sold at Re 1 a kg till 2004 when Maoists set afire a godown full of babui to create a crisis and ramp up the selling price. It sells for Rs 4 a kg now ~ still a pittance. The selling price of kendu leaves ~ used to wrap bidi ~ is a similar pittance of Rs 7 per bundle.
There are 21 large-size multipurpose co-operative societies in Midnapore West that deal with collection and marketing of non-timber forest produces (NTFPs), formerly known as minor forest produces (MFPs). Even though the co-operative system has largely weeded out middlemen and brokers, the fixed price of the produce remains low. Most of the times, the forest produce is procured from tribals at a very low price fixed randomly by contractors. When Mr Jairam Ramesh was the Union environment minister, he said that fixing a minimum support price (MSP) for minor forest produce such as bamboo and tendu or kendu leaves would wean away tribals from Maoists as it would give them more economic independence. He said an MSP would put an end to the widespread exploitation of tribals. Mr Ramesh said that since the educational and economic interests of the tribals fell in the purview of Schedule V of the Constitution, the Centre had the power to step in and introduce MSP for minor forest produce. The minister had even promised to take up the matter with Union finance minister Mr Pranab Mukherjee. But before one could hear more on that, Mr Ramesh was replaced by Mrs Jayanthi Natarajan.
Experts have pointed out that one of the “confidence building” measures adopted by Maoists was to negotiate with private contractors for “higher” selling price on behalf of tribals. Except, the “higher” price was nowhere near the respective minimum wages fixed by states. But, even then, the slight improvement in earnings ensured that the tribals felt “indebted” to Maoists. Some experts feel that Maoists used the opportunity to work out a deal with the contractors, thereby securing a revenue stream for themselves. While an MSP for minor forest produce could make a dent on this steady revenue stream, it has to be keenly administered.
The picture is different in the hilly terrains of Banspahari and Belpahari. Bablu Sabar, a resident of Pataghor, Belpahari, said that Maoists no longer “allowed” villagers to enter the forests to collect, like they have done for centuries, sabui grass, mohua and kendu leaves. He said, three years ago, when the villagers were on their way to the forest one morning, they saw posters written in red with the legend: “Do not dare to enter the forests”. Maoists have shut the villagers out as they use the forests to hide. But, if that is the case, why is indiscriminate mining allowed in the depths of Belpahari forests? In Khodra, Shorshabasha, Simulpal, Machkhadna, Godari, Bamundiha and Bamundiha, marble is extensively mined, mostly illegally. Owing to such widespread illegal extraction, subsidence and injury are reported frequently. Interestingly, in villages which enjoy a good rapport with Maoists, residents have free access to forest timber and MFP. In Moniati, Midnapore West, a known Maoist stronghold, most of the houses were stacked with timber. No claim forms had been submitted from these villages and the tribals seemed least bothered.
In West Bengal, survey of land and demarcation of boundaries is currently done by district-level committees and not the local gram sabha/forest rights committee as mandated by the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. This practice, which has no basis in law, lends itself to massive manipulation and denial of rights to the PTGs and traditional forest dwellers of India.

The writer is on the staff of The Statesman and has written the article under the aegis of a CSE Media Fellowship

Soma Basu

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