What has been decided?
A meeting chaired by Chief Secretary of J&K, B.V.R. Subrahmanyam took place on 18 Nov to review the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act and Rules. This Act is known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 grants & safeguards the rights of forest dwellers. After the abrogation of Article 370 & split of the State of J&K into 2 UTs, the Act became applicable in the UTs.
The forest rights committee is to complete the survey of claimants by January 15, 2021. They have to assess the nature & extent of rights claimed at the village level. The survey has to be further submitted to the respective sub-divisional committees. They shall complete the process of scrutinizing the claims & preparing the ‘record of forest rights’ by or before Jan 31, 2021. The district-level committees have to consider & approve the records, thereby granting forest rights by March 1, 2021.
The spokesperson said that the department of tribal affairs & forest, ecology & environment has already started working in the direction of its implementation in Oct, this year. Forest-dwelling STs & other traditional forest dwellers are provided with other rights over the forest lands. These rights include using the forest lands for habitation or self-cultivation. Besides this, rights like livelihood, ownership, access to use, collect & dispose of minor forest produce & entitlement to seasonal resources among others are granted. The rights provided under the FRA, 2006 are however heritable & not alienable or transferable. Hence, people are not allowed to gain from the sale & purchase of the forest land.
The Chief Secretary has given deadlines to constitute a four-tier committee immediately. They are to settle the claims of tribes of J&K. The committee will include, state-level monitoring committee, district-level committee, sub-divisional level committee, forest rights committee. They will implement the Act in the UT. The forest department is also asked to devise a review mechanism along with a monitoring format. This will be suitable for the periodic review of the process & procedures associated with this Act.
Who are forest dwellers?
Forest dwellers are persons who primarily live in forest or forest lands. They are dependent on forests or forest lands for livelihood. These self-sustaining people, also indulge in self-cultivation for livelihood. They voluntarily protect the forests for afforestation activities. They also prevent the illegal cutting of forests or timber theft. However, a person must qualify as a forest dweller to claim the rights under FRA. First, that person must be a member of ST. In case the person fails to prove that, he/she must show continuous residence for 75 years in the forest. Out of the billions of people who inhabit India, seventy million of the total population consists of tribals. They are scattered throughout the country. They have always been dependent on biodiversity for their survival.
Forest Rights Act, 2006
The Act was enacted on 29 Dec 2006. FRA provides for granting of rights to forest dwellers & known communities attached to forests across the country. The Act became applicable after the revocation of special status for J&K under Article 370. The rights of such dwellers & communities are recognized for the first time after 14 years. The dwellers in J&K will now be entitled to various rights. The Act provides for the use of one hectare of forest land on the recommendation of the respective Gram Sabha. The dwellers are not expected to live in a primitive type of isolation. For this, they can use the land to develop government facilities like schools, roads, hospitals, minor water bodies, etc. They are also enjoined to protect the wildlife, forest, water source, biodiversity, etc besides ensuring the preservation of forest-dwelling STs & other traditional forest dwellers.
Criticism of the decision
The kutcha houses belonging to Gujjars & Bakarwals communities were razed down a week before this decision. In the remote areas of Pahalgam, the homes of nomads were demolished. Authorities were issuing notices to people asking them to clear the land. According to the authorities, people were occupying those lands illegally. Mehbooba Mufti has also condemned this move of evicting the Gujjars & Bakarwals. She calls this a part of BJP’s larger policies of changing the demography of the Muslim majority region in Kashmir. She even accused the government of putting J&K on sale. Dr. Raja Muzaffar, chairman of the RTI movement has said that the Forest Department officials are issuing eviction notices under section 79-A of Forest Act, 1927. He criticized the decision of implementing FRA, 2006. He said that if the government has plans to extend this law to J&K, then why are they harassing the forest dwellers.
Empowerment of STs after implementation of the Act
While some are criticizing the decision of implementing FRA, 2006 in J&K many are appreciating the move. Dr. Javid Rahi, a tribal scholar welcomed the decision. He expressed his gratitude in a meeting of tribes. The implementation of the Act will develop a sense of confidence among the forest-dwelling communities. Especially Gujjars, Bakarwals who were suppressed for a long time will now be empowered. Its implementation will end the discrimination & injustice among the tribal people & forest dwellers. They can now manage the forest lands independently within the village boundaries. This will protect Gujjars, Gaddis, Bakarwals against the forced displacement & eviction from forest lands.
Forest dwellers who are recognized & cherished as “keeper of forests” have been neglected in Jammu & Kashmir for several decades. People of J&K were not entitled to the benefit of laws when the Act came into force. Even after the abrogation of Article 370, they were struggling to claim their forest rights. After this decision, people expect that the government will implement the Act as quickly as possible. It will help the tribals & forest dwellers to protect & preserve their rituals, traditions & culture. This drastic change in the attitude of the authorities to stop treating the forest dwellers as “deemed homeless” was the need of the hour. This historical move will end the age-old discrimination & injustice which the forest dwellers & tribals were a part of.
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