“Delayed Justice” poignantly captures how the Forest Rights Act, in spite of being a radical one on paper, is seriously flawed in implementation… Filmmaker Shriprakash talks about his documentary to Meena Menon.

At the end of award-winning filmmaker Shriprakash's documentary, one of the adivasis interviewed makes a simple demand, “I want my patta (title deed),” he says, before setting out into the deep forest. “Delayed Justice” is more than a film on the implementation of The Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006. It gives you an idea of the life of the forest dwelling communities, in this case in Andhra Pradesh, and their alienation from the rest of the world.

The purpose of the film was to document how the Act is being implemented. The Act is a radical one in Indian history and the film tackles how it is being implemented in all the regions of Andhra Pradesh (AP). “I chose AP because on the surface it had a pretty good track record,” says Shriprakash. Made in 2009, it is part of an ongoing research on the Act and produced by the University of East Anglia. “I thought AP is one of the few states where there is some governance but I found in the remote areas where I filmed, Marripalam for instance, things are the same,” he says. “If this Act cannot be properly implemented in a state like Andhra I wonder what is happening to it in the rest of the country,” he adds.

The law is tough and is the essence of democracy but the film exposes how the Panchayat Raj institutions are not doing their job. There is no confidence among the adivasis that they will be the rightful owners of their land. The forest tribes find themselves in a curious position. Till yesterday they were vilified for destroying the forest, and hey presto, now there's an act giving them land titles.

Stark portrayal

The film shows how the letter and spirit of the Act may never be fulfilled. The Act could impact future land allocations and community rights, feels the filmmaker. But is allotting forest land to the adivasis the only way out? They have been denied so many basic amenities, they are all unskilled in the real sense of the word and how can they fit into the global economy? Giving rights is not the only answer, one of the government officers says in the film, unless it is backed by other facilities like education.

The plight of the Chenchu and Gonds is enunciated in a simple sentence. One of the villagers says he doesn't even have a cot to sleep on. In some cases, land claimed by the people has plantations by the forest department over their traditional graveyards, and now the government is refusing those claims. “Things have not changed, the system always finds an excuse,” remarks Shriprakash. In one part of the forest in a tiger reserve near Pedacheru, local people caught poachers who trapped a tiger. “Did the forest guards catch them? No we did and they can't give us a small piece of land which is rightfully ours,” says one angry man. Chenchu women stand on the road for hours selling wild honey and they trudge for miles to collect forest produce.

The Chenchus of the Nallamalla forest of Rayalaseema climb steep rocks to hunt for honey, sometimes after two hours they return empty handed. They are a people still using bows and arrows and surviving off the forest. Government officials explain how the adivasis have been cut off from their own lands due to the exigencies of the market and timber smuggling. The sense of community ownership is strong among the adivasis and Sedam Arju, a Gond intellectual, lists out nature's treasures and how his clan tree is teak and how it is worshipped. “The Aryans ruined our culture,” he says. The Gonds, like most tribes, are animistic, they worship nature. Villagers in west Godavari live off hill brooms, grass and shikakai which the forest provides them. “We pray to the forest deities before our work,” says one man.

The usual impediments

The implementation of the Act seems fraught with red tape. A series of committees starting from the village level have to be formed to accept claims and process them. The Forest Rights Committee (FRC) needs to know the Act which as the film shows is not always the case. Some government officials seems meticulous, some are clueless. In some villages people are vague about the Act and what they are entitled to. The “social mobilisers” appointed to inform people about the Act have no rapport with locals. Illiterate adivasis are roped into a mire of form filling, submitting claims, and relying on the forest department to survey their land, which may not always be accurate.

In some places the surveyors are adivasis, so that there is no injustice. The film also raises questions on people who have been displaced for an irrigation project over 30 years ago from a village called Pedacheru in Prakasam district. Though they have been rehabilitated elsewhere, over 70 Chenchu families who could not survive there came back to stay there. The government says these people have been rehabilitated once, so the Act cannot apply to them and now they face dislocation again. So many Chenchu have died as a result of this back and forth movement.

In Marripalam village, which is six km from a road-head into the forest, the head of the FRC is confused about the number of claims from the area. Forest officials caught on hidden camera clearly voice their opinion against the Act and also add that the department is involved in large-scale timber smuggling.

Till the middle of 2009 the people of Marripalam were still struggling for their rights, while the people of Pedacheru face another displacement. The government received over 3.2 lakh claims of which the bulk was rejected. However, till August 2009, 1,24,652 titles were distributed.