In move expected to benefit traditional forest-dwellers in the State such as Cholanaikkans, Kadars, and Kattunaickans, the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs has directed the Chief Secretary to convert all ‘tribal-dominated’ forest villages to revenue villages under the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006.

In a circular issued on November 8, Ministry Joint Secretary Sadhana Rout reminded the State government that the conversion constituted a key portion of the forest rights Act. Kerala was yet to identify traditional forest villages or old habitations of tribespeople to be converted as revenue villages. The conversion would enable the administration to adopt development measures such as setting up of schools, dispensaries, and other such facilities in these villages, the circular said.

“Last year, the Union government had asked State governments to convert ‘tribal dominated’ villages to revenue villages in a time-bound manner. It was also clarified that the conversion would include the actual land use of the village in its entirety for current or future community uses such as building schools, health facilities, and public spaces. But very slow progress has been reported,” the circular said.

“The directive is applicable to all major States including Kerala which has done nothing to change the status of forest villages. While some villages were set up in remote and inaccessible forest areas during the British era to provide regular manpower in forestry operations, others were occupied by traditional forest-dwellers generations ago. Groups such as Cholanaikkans still lived in core forest areas while several others lived in areas with no forests. Some of these areas were still classified as forests,” C.R. Bijoy, a tribal rights activist, said. “Despite a change in land-use pattern, many tribal hamlets in the State continued to be forestland as per the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980,” he said.

As per the new directive, the Forest Rights Act will supersede the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980. The conversion will not require the consent of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. “The State will be able to take comprehensive steps improve infrastructure in terms of healthcare, education, drinking water and power supply, sanitation, and livelihood support,” Mr. Bijoy said. “Secondly, in revenue villages, the villagers are conferred with heritable but inalienable rights over the land, which have manifold benefits. The villagers can use this land as a guarantee for seeking bank loans to engage in any vocation,” he said.

“It is a welcome relief. Hope the State government will act soon,” M. Geethanandan of the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha said.

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