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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 29 New Delhi July 7, 2018

Tribals need Justice for Land and Forest Rights

Monday 9 July 2018, by Bharat Dogra

It is by now widely agreed that tribal communities in India have suffered in many cases from extreme injustice in most basic livelihood contexts of farmland and forest rights.

In a widely quoted paper ‘Review of land-reforms during 1950-95’ Sukumar Das, a senior government official, has written,

“.... Land legislation to protect the tribal people has failed to achieve its basic objective. In fact, more than 50 per cent of the total land allotted by the government has already been alienated. The State governments taken together have so far allotted 0.47 million hectares of vested land to 0.42 million tribal households, whereas 0.31 million hectares of tribal land has been alienated from 0.24 million tribals households of India.”

Despite the tribals bearing the biggest share of the burden of many-sided displacements and the high level of alienation of tribals from their land, there was a flicker of new hope when during 2005-2008 the Scheduled Tribes and Traditional Forest Dwellers Forest Rights Act (briefly called Forest Rights Act or simply FRA) was passed and its rules framed. This Act hoped to correct the ‘historical injustice’ that had been caused to the farmers. The background to this injustice was that in colonial times vast areas were arbitrarily declared as Forest Department land without any consideration for the rights of the people obtaining their livelihood from this land. After this these people were called encroachers on their land and subjected to all kinds of repression including imprisonments, cruel beatings and extortion of bribes. The stated aim of the FRA was to correct this injustice by devising a procedure for regularising the land holdings cultivated by tribals. The procedure provided by the law was that tribals and other traditional forest-dwellers would submit their claims, these would be examined and if found to be correct then legal entitlements will be provided to them. As the entire objective of this law was to correct the historical injustice, it was widely believed that the overwhelming majority of claims will be accepted and tribals/forest dwellers will be in a much better position by receiving entitlements.

But the real picture emerging from the implementation of the FRA so far has been different, First, the number of rejection of claims has been very high. Those whose claim was rejected were often not even informed about it. Secondly, a significant number of deserving allottees have been simply left out as they could not send their claims properly in time. Lastly, even in the case of those whose claims were accepted, often the acceptance was only for a small part of land being cultivated; hence even in acceptance cases the livelihood situation may have been actually eroded.

An immediate review of the implementation of the FRA should be taken up and corrections should be introduced so that the task of correcting historical injustice is achieved. More specifically, the high rate of claim rejections should be brought down significantly, the tendency to reduce land cultivated in most cases should be checked and those who couldn’t get the chance to present their claims should get proper help to present their claims.

If despite such a review several tribals and other poor farmers involved in disputes with the Forest Department are left out of the scope of this legislation, then in such cases efforts should be made to involve such people in tree-farming schemes so that the objective of increasing tree-cover can be reconciled with protecting the livelihood of these people and no evictions are necessary.

All cases to tribal land alienation should be resolved speedily so that the land of tribals is restored to them.

Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.

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