Faced with a poor track record, the Maharashtra government has decided to do away with land measurement while settling claims under the Scheduled Tribe and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

The fifth meeting of the State-level monitoring committee on the implementation of the Act, held on April 8 this year, decided that the forestland was not required to be measured, in the beginning, at the village level on receipt of claims.

The meeting, chaired by Chief Secretary J.P. Dange, decided that the forestland could be measured if the claim was recognised by the district-level committee, which takes the final decision. For taking quick decisions, the sub-divisional level committee (SDLC) could do a summary enquiry and dispose of the cases.

In addition, the claims that need to be processed by the statutory committees — the gram sabha, the sub-divisional-level committee and the district-level committee — should not be sent to the tehsildar, the Range Forest Officer or any other Forest Department office.

This decision comes after the Forest Department has been accused of not cooperating in the implementation of the Act.

Speedy disposal

Tribal Welfare Secretary P.S. Meena said the decision was aimed at speedy disposal of claims. “We have to do a site visit and put up a rough map indicating a rough area. The actual measurement can be done later.”

However, the decision not to measure land till a later stage has met with a lot of protest. Ulka Mahajan, an activist of the Jagthikaran Virodhi Samithi, reckons that the decision will affect small landholders even more. It is more dangerous to measure land after the claim is decided. “We agree that settling claims is a time-consuming process, but let it be done properly,” she opines.

The official position is that the settling of claims was stuck because of the land measurement, and now it has become faster to take decisions. However, the risk is that the land allotted may be forestland, and sometimes the extent of allotment is not clear till much later. With satellite imagery available, it is simple to compare claims and settle them. However, this method is not being followed.

The web site of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs points out that the main problem is the large number of false claimants. The State has a poor record in implementing this Act, with a mere 3.3 per cent claims having been decided as of February 28, 2010. Of the 3,17,322 claims filed, only 15,745 made it to the district-level committee. Of these, 11,367 were approved for titles, 7,480 were distributed, and 422 were rejected.

While people have protested the decision not to measure land till later, it has found support in some quarters. In Nashik for instance, official sources say that of the 50,000 claims received in the district, 25,000 were decided and 7,000 claims were eligible. The remaining 25,000 will be decided by June 15. This was possible because land was not measured. First, the claim is verified based on the existing information, and the measurement will be done later. To measure land for all the claims will take a year or so, the sources say. Once the claim is found eligible, the person will be given a temporary document, and the measurement will be done in due course.

Evidence

Two days before the State-level meeting, Ms. Mahajan and other activists and representatives of forest communities met Forest Minister Patangrao Kadam to plug the loopholes in the implementation. It was decided that of the nine types of evidence needed to support claim to land under the Act, even two types can be given due weightage. Even in the absence of documentary evidence, a claim has to be accepted and decided with oral and circumstantial evidence alone.

The meeting also decided that all letters, orders and government resolutions passed by both the Forest Department and revenue officials that contradicted the spirit of the Act be verified and declared invalid. For example, at one point, the Forest Department had said a list of claims prepared in 2002 based on the 1978 records must serve as the basis for distributing the titles. This was contested by the activists and people.

It was decided that the GPS machines be given to the members of the forest rights committee (FRC), and not the Forest Department. The meeting noted that the undue interference by the Forest Department and revenue officials resulted in land not being measured and felt a re-verification could be done.