|Rahul Gandhi with Virbhadra Singh|
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi is learnt to be unhappy with the party’s Himachal Pradesh (HP) government, led by chief minister Virbhadra Singh, for its “failure” to implement the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, in the state, even as declaring occupiers on forest land as encroachers.
Keenly aware of how it would erode Congress base in a state still under Congress rule, Gandhi told a delegation consisting of several civil rights organizations, which met him, that it is “totally wrong” on the part of the HP government to declare all forest rights claims in the state were settled even before the FRA, 2006 came into existence.
Asking senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, former environment minister, to immediately look into the matter, Gandhi was quoted as saying that the Congress is “fully committed” to implementing FRA, 2006, and there “there cannot be any laxity” about it.
The delegation – which consisted, among others, of Guman Singh of Him Niti Abhiyan; Jiya Lal of the Him Lok Jagriti Manch; Devi Gyan of the Lippa Sangarsh Samiti,; R Sreedhar of Environics Trust; and Ashok Shrimali of Mines, Minerals and People, Ahmedabad – told Gandhi that the HP government is “misleading” even the High Court about the process of implementing the FRA.
In its representation, the delegation said, in HP, out of total geographical area of 55,673 sq km, 66.52% comprises of forest land – 37,033 sq km”, adding, while most of the forest land is “unculturable and snow bound”, 13,907 sq km, roughly one fourth of the total geographical area “is culturable and is under traditional access of local communities.”
“Approximately 95% of the state population lives in villages are dependent on these forests for various livelihood needs”, the representation said, adding, it is this section of society falls in the FRA, 2006.
It adds, these people come other the category of other traditional forest dwellers (OTFD) and schedule tribes forest dwellers (STFD) “living in the Schedule 5 areas of Lahaul Spiti, Kinnaur and Pangi-Bharmour and are eligible for the recognition of community forest resource rights and Individual forest land rights.”
Pointing towards how the HP government “from very beginning has tried to evade implementation of the FRA, 2006”, the representation said, in fact, it has gone so far as to claim that the “rights have been settled by the British through the imperial settlement process and hence recognition under FRA is not necessary.”
It further said, it was only under the constant pressure of the local communities and Ministry of Tribal Affairs that the “state government started the process in 2008 in tribal region and in 2012-13 in the non-tribal regions.”
Yet, no claims of forest rights under FRA have not been verified and recognized, said the representation, adding, “All filed claims are pending with sub-divisional level committees and district level committees till date”, with some of them having been “sent back to forest rights committees by raising objections without following the procedures laid down under FRA rules, 2012.”
Meanwhile, the representation said, the forest department, on the basis of a High Court order, “pressurized dwellers not to file claims”, going so far as to file “FIRs under HP Public Premises & Land (Eviction & Rent Recovery) Act, 1971” calling occupiers of the forest land as “encroachers.”
“The forest dwellers are helpless”, the representation said, asked Gandhi to personally impress upon the state government to “implement FRA in letter and spirit and build a fearless atmosphere so that tribals and other forest dwellers are encouraged to file claims under the Act.
“Gandhi directed Jairam Ramesh to ensure that the state government clarifies the situation in the High Court and appeals in the court to implement FRA and not victimize forest dwellers”, Guman Singh ,who led the delegation to meet Gandhi, told Counterview.
“Congress will take all measures for strengthening gram sabhas and ensure that governments don't side step the processes mandated under the Indian legal system and FRA”, Gandhi added.