The implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act in Maharashtra has dismayed Adivasis and activists alike.
Even the State government is painfully aware of its slow progress. With only 1.19 per cent of the 2,39,542 total claims under the Act received till May 2009 being disposed of, the Union Ministry of Tribal Welfare gives the State a “very poor” rating, in its status report on the implementation of the Act till January 2010. The number of claims jumped to 3, 03,960 by the end of January, while only 2,453 titles have so far been distributed, says the report.
At a public hearing organised last week by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), the Committee against Globalisation and the Jungle Adhikar Sangharsh Samiti, no government official turned up despite invitations. After being pulled up by the Centre on February 4, the Principal Secretary, Tribal Welfare, issued a note to the Collectors urging the speedy issue of pattas or title deeds to Adivasis. The Collectors of districts that are slow in the implementation of the Act will have adverse remarks in their confidential reports as per the Chief Secretary’s decision, the Principal Secretary said.
Kishore Dhamale of the Satyashodhak Gramin Kashtakari Sabha, Nandurbar, said such a target-oriented programme was dangerous. Now officials were not even measuring land but were instructed to hand over title deeds to those who were in the past called “encroachers.” The Act, which seeks to redress a historical injustice to the traditional forest-dwellers, is bogged down in red tape, and a marked reluctance on the part of Forest Department officials and the bureaucracy to give title deeds.
Ironically, the government has made a promotional film, Soma’s Dreams on the Act, but as Brian Lobo of the Thane-based Kashtakari Sanghatana pointed out: “Instead of a dream, it is a nightmare for the Adivasis who are running around dodging the red tape. The Maharashtra government has not understood the crux of the Act, which has to be implemented through the involvement of gram sabhas. The government thinks it’s a land distribution programme, which is decidedly not.”
Manish Bhalerao and Heeru of the Jagrut Kashtakari Sanghatana from Raigad district said that contrary to the Act, the Forest Department was appointed as the nodal cell for the implementation of the Act in his area. “The gram sabhas approve the list of people entitled to rights, but the Forest Department reduces it. The Forest Department does not even acknowledge the Act. Who comes first, is it the people or the Forest Department,” asks Mr. Bhalerao.
In the Akkalkuwa taluk of the Adivasi-dominated Nandurbar district, the Forest Department does not take part in the joint surveys; the lack of roads makes it difficult for the people to trudge around surveying disputed land. Akkalkuwa sees a lot of migration for work, so sometimes people are not present during surveys, and they are not notified either. Bhanudas Vadvi from the Lok Sangharsh Morcha , Nandurbar, said that to expedite the distribution meetings were called at the block level instead of at the village level.
Furthermore, the gram sabhas were not convened as stipulated, said members of the Satyashodhak Gramin Kashtakari Sabha. In the Navapur taluk, gram sabhas were held only in four villages as per the rules, and in the rest of the places, it was all fake. The village-level forest rights committees were not involved in the decision-making. The GPS machines for land survey were with the Forest Department, and it decided the measurement of the land, which was often wrong.
In places such as the Palghar taluk in Thane district, the land surveys only took into account paddy areas and not the other crop areas, according to Rambhau Wadu. The forest rights committees were not recognised, and local revenue officials often bullied the Adivasis. “No one knows what the Forest Department is doing, and we fear most of the claims will be rejected,” he said. In some other places, the people did not even know they were on the forest rights committee. Claims made by the Katkaris, a former hunter-gatherer tribe, were often whittled down or rejected, according to the Shramik Mukti Sanghatana.
Things seem to be worse in Jalgaon district in Chopda, where there are no forest rights committees, and no importance is given to gram sabhas. Dilip Kothari of the Kashtakari Sanghatana said the forest rights committee in the Dahanu taluk of Thane district refused to accept the claims of villagers because of local politics. The committees did not know the law, and in places such as Murbad the presence of non-Adivasis on the forest rights committee created hostility.
Sushilabai from the Karjat taluk said that despite the Act, cases were being filed against people for encroaching on forest land. This was a way of intimidating people not to stake a claim to their ancestral rights. Vishwanath Janu of the Bharat Jan Andolan, Gadchiroli, said the government did not recognise community rights granted under the Act. In addition, the villagers to be shifted out of the Tadoba Andhari tiger reserve were refusing to leave till they got their rights.