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Gujarat salt cultivators' forest rights in Little Rann of Kutch not recognized: Agariyas tell Indian People's Tribunal

By Pankti Jog*
Disappointed with the Gujarat government’s reluctance to recognize their seasonal user rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, over the Wild Ass Sactuary of the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK), agariya salt cultivators of the region have strongly represented their case before the Indian People’s Tribunal, which took place in New Delhi on December 15-16, 2016.
Held to mark 10 years of the enactment of FRA, 2006, the tribunal was organized by the Human Rights Law Network in collaboration with 50 other organizations working for the rights of tribals, nomadic and denotified tribes to hear the cases of violation or denial of land rights of communities.
The jury panel was chaired by Justice Suresh, former chief justice of the Bombay High Court.
Salt cultivators told the jury that they have been farming salt in the LRK for the last nearly six centuries, and they have historical documents to prove this. Yet, they contended, the Gujarat government never surveyed LRK to mark their presence.
While LRK was declared as Wild Ass Sanctuary in 1973, no survey was carried out see who all were residing on this 5,000 sq km wide area, they pointed out.
The agariyas recalled that soon after Independence, the Government of India issued notification saying salt farming below 10 acres would not require lease. The average land use by each salt farmer, however, is just about 4 or 5 acres, they added.
“We do not use more than 3% of the total land of the sanctuary. We also know that fishing and pastoral communities too are depend on LRK for their livelihood. Along with us, they too should get seasonal community user rights”, said an agariya representative.
An agariya representing to the tribunal
“Our demand will neither require conversion of any land into revenue land, nor will it divert any land from protected forest area. Ours is a most reasonable demand, leaving no reason for the government to deny it”, the agariya added.
Along with agariyas of LRK, 60-odd community groups from Rajasthan, Maharastra, Chhattisgadh, Orrissa, Jharkhand, Uttrakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka and West Bengal gave their testimonies before the tribunal.
Cases represented included delay in disposing of claims of community forest rights to outright denial of habitat rights to nomadic and denotified tribes, to diversion of forest land for industrial purposes underming FRA, 2006, and forceful eviction of communities by mining and hydropower projects.
Soon after the hearing, the jury came up with a note, saying, “Even after 10 years of enactment of FRA, 2006, the forest departments across the country act as 'lords of the land' and do not want to understand that they do not have the power to reject the rights of the tribal and other forest dwellers.”
“We are surprised to see that the government has failed to act on FRA, 2006. In the case of nomadic and denotified tribes, it has not even initialised the procedure of FRA, 2006, which is unacceptable”, the note regreted.
The jury of the Indian People’s Tribunal on FRA would be sharing its interim report with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Government of India.
Poining out that this would give the government “fair chance” to respond on each of the testimonies presented to the tribunal, Justice Suresh remarked, “If the government does not say anything in justification, the Indian People's Tribunal will publish its final report with the jury’s remarks.”
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*With Agariya Heetrakshak Manch, Gujarat

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