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UP's Sonbhadra killing of 10 tribals highlights 'failure' to implement Forest Rights Act

Counterview Desk
On July 17, as many as 10 people, including three women, were killed and 28 injured when a village head and his supporters opened fire on a group of tribal farmers in Ubha village of Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh. While the firing took place following a clash between over a land ownership dispute, it reportedly highlights failure of officials enforce Forest Rights Acts (FRA) and Survey Settlement in favour of tribals.
Such a situation, it has been suggested, emboldened the village head and his supporters, who were armed, reaching up to Ubha village to take possession of the land that has been tilled by the tribal farmers. A recent public hearing in Lucknow, the report of which has just been released, suggests what havoc the failure to implement FRA in Uttar Pradesh, or any other state, can cause.
The hearing took place before a jury consisting of former Supreme Court judge Justice BG Kolse Patil, human rights defender, educationist and Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) scretary Teesta Setalvad, social worker Sandeep Pandey, former DIG (UP) GP Kanaujia, senior lawyer of the Allahabad High Court Adv Farman Naqvi and Allahabad HC lawyer Adv Chau Dilnisar.
The hearing was organised by the Van Evam Bhoo Adhikar Abhiyan and the All-India Union for Forest Working People (AIUFWP). It deliberated upon, among other issues, atrocities committed by the forest department on forest dependent communities in collusion with the police.

Excerpts from the report:

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA, 2006) was passed in 2006 after a long struggle of forest dwelling communities.
UP has a forest cover that spans over more than 19 districts. In these forests, stay the forest dwelling communities who number in lakhs. UP has a vast range of different kind of forests.
For example, the khols of Van Gujjars, Goth, Vankathiya labourers’ forest villages, van/Tangiya labourers’ forest villages, forest villages comprising of those displaced by floods, fixed demand holding forest villages. And also conserved and reserved forests and nationals parks within which traditional forest dwellers have been in habitation for several decades. It is mainly, Adivasis, Dalits and other traditional forest dwelling communities who reside here.
Initially, the forest department had sent information on only 13 such forest villages to the (state) administration. However, the articulations and assertions as a result of people’s movements ensured the more accurate registration of the total number of forest villages, which was found, after meticulous corroboration with government records, to be at 89 in number.
The public meeting started with an observation that the Forest department remains hostile to implementing the FRA 2006 law because its enforcement would empower forest dependent communities towards a stricter vigilance over their lands. Moreover, at present, invaluable forest produce (worth crores of rupees) is presently under the control of the Forest department, despite provisions of the 2006 law. If this Act is implemented in its true spirit and entirety, the department will have to relinquish this hold.
Testimonials before the public hearing and interjections from the jury brought forth the fact that the climate of fear, generated by undue power and authority vested in the Forest Department, an authority that was not any more sanctioned by law had seriously jeopardised the lives of forest dwellers. There are several examples that point to this. Instead of an implementation of the law, false cases are being lodged on the people.
In Bijnaur, a false report was given by the Forest Department to the government erroneously stating that there were no forest dependent communities living in the area. Tiger reserves then began to be constructed in the forests of Pilibhit based on this falsified information. Besides, there have been brute and violent attacks on women in forest dwellers in Kheeri, Khatima and Sonbhadra.
Similarly repression was faced by those 16 Gram Sabhas which had filed community forest rights claims in Sonbhadra district headquarters at Robertsganj.
The grave situation of forest rights has been taken into account by the Allahabad High Co\\urt (HC) and in October 2018 it also ordered to process the claims filed as per the law. This order also states that while the claims are being processed, no atrocities should be committed on the communities.

Highlights from the testimonials:

Sonbhadra
Shyamlal Paswan from Sonbhadra district said, “Several false cases are imposed on us. Twice, cases pertaining to Goonda Act were lodged on me. Police threatens to kill us by naming us in history sheets. And even today there are so many cases against us, pertaining to Section 120B, Criminal Law Act, IPC Sections504,149,147,148,353 and 452 etc. – these serious sections are mentioned and then the villagers are exploited.” Paswan highlighted that he was sent to jail four times. “It’s tiring to keep fighting so many cases. How can we do that?”
Lalti Paswan, forest rights activist and Shyamlal’s wife said that though the FRA was passed, the people have experience enormous amount of atrocities. “I went to jail four times. Police beat me up and no medical was done. . Only when I went to the Mirzapur jail [did I received some treatment]. Till today no action has been taken. And when the administration got tired of charging us with false cases, they started targeting our children and their in-laws.” She continued, “We don’t even receive the summons, and directly get the arrest warrant.”
Shobha is a resident of Badi village which has about 100 households. The people here have claimed about 500 acres of land through community forest rights. Shobha gave an account of the attack that took place on her house in 2015 before the Jury that was conducting the public hearing. She spoke in detail of the nexus between the forest department, police force and local mafias.
Giving a detailed account she stated how the attack began with boulders being first thrown at her house, before it was set on fire. Many women were injured in this attack and yet no action was taken against those who had inflicted this crime. Instead false cases were lodged against Adivasi and Dalit women. She alleged that there are numerous and often repeated incidents of instigation of community women. Shobha faced sexual violence in 2006 and is still battling that case in court.

Bahraich: Smmari Yadav
Sommari spoke about the threats he received from Forest Ranger while he was returning to his village after the day’s work. The ranger threatened him, “One day we will straighten you out and even those who have taught you about your rights on forest.” Talking about the troubles of his community he noted, “On the one hand the government presents itself as promoting and protecting cow keepers and cattle stockers, on the other hand the life of forest dwelling cattle stockers are forced to get rid of their country cows.”
Located along the border areas of Nepal and India, forest villages have existed in the region since the time of British occupation, or even before. There are some forest villages and some Van Tangiya villages.
Van Tangiya villagers are made to work as begaar (labour without any payment of wages). The produce extracted or produced by forest working peoples like milk, curd, ghee, grains etc. is poached upon by the Forest Department. The department takes a share of everything from the villagers. For decades, forest dwellers from these villages didn’t have voting rights. It was only from 2005 onwards that they started getting forest rights, but exploitation by forest department increased from that date, as well.
He drew the attention of jury members to the supposed afforestation projects that subsequent governments keep promising of. He said, “So much money has been extracted in the name of afforestation projects. Akhilesh government said that they will plant five crore trees. Yogi government promised that they will plant six crore trees. 
"A while later they said that they will plant 11 crore trees. In three years, on papers, Twenty two crore trees have been planted. However, on the ground not many trees can be seen. The only trees that have survived are the ones that have been planted by the Van Tangiya community.”

Chandauli: Roma
AIUFWP general secretary and leader Roma said that FRA has not been effectively implemented in Chandauli. Only around 2010, for the first time, were Gram Sabhas formed and individual claims came to be filed. They were asked for proof of the last 75 years even though there is no such requirement under the FRA. 
On July 29, 2018, the villagersof Chandauli filed community forest rights claims. No sooner had they filed the claims, that the Forest Department along with the district administration came to the villages and allegedly destroyed the crops. Large ditches were dug up on land that was up for the claims process.

Rajaji Forest: Mustafa Chopda
Mustafa alleged that the Forest Department burns down forests, and then lets hunters enter the forests. He highlighted the important role of Van Gujjars in sustaining forests, “Van Gujjars peel off old barks of trees so that new supple leaves grow there. They store water for their animals, which the wild animals drink as well. Does anybody care about forests like that?” 

Saharanpur - Kaluwala Van Tangia: Chanuram
People who were working under the Tangia technique of cultivation were given some rights over the land. However, more recently, while doing surveys, Forest Department indicated the number of families to be far lower than the actual numbers. 
For example, between Nand Ram and Nadu Kaluwala, two brothers, one of whom, Nandu didn’t have any sons, the land should have gone to his nephew. But his names was struck off. People here allege that there is no specific procedure followed when granting revenue status to villages. In one such village with the name Bhatianagar, the police claimed that it was never populated.
However, the villagers alleged that forest departement’s own records contradict them. Chanuram reiterated what several others had already said, “Forest department doesn’t want us to continue living in the interior regions as that obstructs what they want to do.”
Chanuram noted, “Forest department lures us with bribes. They say that they will give us accommodation outside the forest. “In the 13 khole in the Shivalik range, as many as 4000-5000 families live. They vote. The sarpanch has even certified that they are the residents, yet the revenue department doesn’t give them Income certificate (aay adhikar) certificate.
In a case in which army went into the interiors of the forest to practise combat, a woman was shot dead. The Forest department didn’t show any sympathy or concern. In fact, it gave a no objection certificate to the army certifying that no one lives inside the forest.”

Lakhimpur Kheeri
Seventeen villages in Lakhimpur Kheeri had claimed their rights on forest produce as per the FRA. Section 3(1) of the Act gives the forest dwellers the right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage any community forest resource which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use. Later, 23 villages in the area claimed community resources rights.
Though the officers there assured forest dwellers that their claims will be processed within two months at sub district level and forwarded to the district level committees, not much has happened. Even until 2016 the claims were un-processed and thereafter the files were misplaced. Later, the files were made available by the Pariyojana (Project Officer) office. 
Through all this, SDM was transferred. Then the villagers protested in their thousands on December 28, 2018 in front of the SDM office. The SDM assured action. However, the village level revenue officer, Lekhpal started processing the claims merely on the basis of claim forms. Again, the forest dwellers had to object and they highlighted that Parivar Suchi (family register) of families was an important document) and was relevant for verification.

Jury spoke:

Human rights defender, educationist Teesta Setalvad, who is also CJP secretary and has been closely working with forest rights movements, outlined three key issues for the political parties. She said, “We should demand that the parliament should have a three day special session on FRA, so that the parliamentarians can understand how this law should be implemented and that its implementation itself is converted into a political program.”
Adv Farman Naqvi said that it was very important to make this into a political issue and to urge the political representatives to take up the matter of implementation of FRA to the political representatives. Adv. Naqvi had fought Sokalo’s case in Allahabad HC last year when she was illegally arrested from Chopan station in Sonbhadra.
Empathising with those present there, Justice Patil pointed out repression going on in other states. Justice BG Kolse Patil said, “Democracy needs numbers, for people to come together. Today, we need that people should come together in large numbers. I want that Dalits, Muslima, Adivasis, everyone should unit and they take up your issues.”
Ashok Chaudhary highlighted the importance of the law, FRA 2006. He said, “Though there was a lot of exploitation under Modi government, they couldn’t touch the FRA. Even the tribal ministry has sent a circular saying that an SDM doesn’t have the right to reject any claims. 
"And yet, the Forest Department is interfering with the law and it is ignoring the Forest Rights Committees (FRCs). On the other hand, at the ground level, the Gram Sabhas aren’t totally aware of the rights granted to communities under FRA. You will have to educate the people in your respective areas [about the Act]. This law [FRA] doesn’t give anyone rights to reject claims. In fact if you’ve claimed land then nobody has the right to remove you.”
Activist Sandeep Pandey pointed out a very interesting fact from the region. He said, “When I came here, I saw shining lights in Renukoot, even though traditionally UP is known for not being industrial. I saw that companies have got huge plots of land. Another organisation, Vanvasi Seva Ashram has land, on which schools and colleges are built. So, companies have got land, schools, colleges have got land, organisations have got land. But the rightful owners of forest land have not received land, instead those who shouldn’t have got the land, have captured it.”
He highlighted the fact that as, in the course of the hearing of the petitions around the Right to Food campaign, the Supreme Court has appointed Special Commissioners, whose role was to go to every state and see if the law had been implemented properly, such an option could be explored in the case of implementation of FRA. 
He also highlighted the issue of rejection of claims, and allotment of lesser land than requested if claims were approved. He said that this trend needs to be done away with and only the fact that a particular community stays in the forest village should be proven.
The broad themes that emerged from the public meeting were those of severe repression from the Forest Department on the forest dwelling communities. The communities themselves are diverse in nature and are engaged into a diverse range of activities, right from community farming, to nomadic lifestyle, to cattle stock takers, to keepers of trees and more.
It was also felt that the communities have a positive impact on the sustenance of the forests. However, not only do they face repression, there is inexplicable delay in the processing of their claims. Even when their claims are processed and accepted, the land they receive is lesser in area than what they had claimed.
Unless there is a strong pressure from the communities, many files of claims keep lying in faraway offices of the administration and eventually get misplaced. A scientific survey or assessment of the lands has not yet been taken up. There also appears to be many malpractices and incidents of misappropriation of money going on. Jury members highlighted the importance of this issue as a political issue.

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