Eviction fear haunts tribal habitations in Telangana

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Telangana is using brute force and dispossessing tribals from their forest land occupations without recognising their preexisting forest rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006.

Telangana is using brute force and dispossessing tribals from their forest land occupations without recognising their preexisting forest rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006. The fear of eviction looms large over several tribal habitations in the erstwhile Khammam, Warangal, Adilabad and Mahaboobnagar districts affecting nearly one lakh tribal families.

The Forest Rights Act 2006 recognises and vests diverse pre-existing rights of STs and other traditional forest dwellers who have been residing in such forests for generation but whose rights could not be vested. The intendment of the Act is to undo historical injustice done to tribals and other forest dwellers.

The Supreme Court (SC) stayed its order of eviction in 2019 modifying its earlier order of evictions in rejected cases in the matter of Wildlife First & Ors Vs. Ministry of Forest & Environment &Ors. The modified order now requires completion of the process of re-verification of all the rejected claims and serve the reasoned orders for rejections, on unsuccessful claimants. Evictions have been kept on hold by the SC.

The claimants and the concerned Gram Sabhas ought to have been informed of the rejections by the Gram Sabha/Sub-Divisional Level Committee/District Level Committee as the case may be. Proper reasons for rejection are to be provided in writing so that the claimant is enabled to file statutory appeals to the appropriate adjudicating body. However, defying the orders of the SC, the Government of Telangana is resorting to eviction drive for eviction of tribals from over 3.3. lakh acres by using coercive methods. Both the forest department personnel and tribals have been at loggerheads.

The Government of Telangana reported to the SC in July 2019, that of the total individual forest land claims 2, 03,976,( 6,95,892 acres) received, 94,774 claims (3,03,970 acres) were approved while 89,956 (3,27,880 acres) were rejected. However, as of July 2021 the number of rejections has further increased to 91,942 (3, 33,837 acres) against the total individual forest land claims 2,04,176 (6,96,016 acres) received for recognition of individual forest rights.

Decisions for evictions questionable

Most of the claims were rejected reportedly in Bhadradri Kothagudem district (21,952), and Mahabubad (12,720) followed by Adilabad district (8,426). The reasons shown for the rejections of claims before the SC are questionable. The high rate of rejections of 30,601 (50 per cent) claims is attributed to claims on forest land after cutoff date of December 13, 2005 stipulated by the law for recognition of forest rights. The sole basis for these rejections is satellite imagery evidence. Forest Rights Act Rules (11) (2) says the Satellite imagery and other uses of technology may supplement other form of evidences and shall not be treated as a replacement of the evidence themselves. In 2013, the Gujarat High Court held that satellite imagery cannot be made a mandatory requirement for recognition of forest rights. Rejections should be based on the field inquiry reports of the Forest Rights Committee where the forest officials are expected to attend.

Around 12,819 claims (21 per cent) were rejected ascribing the reasons that the claimed land is not in actual cultivation. In fact the word 'self cultivation' used in the FRA includes the lands kept fallow and also used for allied activities to cultivation. Nearly 6,641 (11 per cent) claims were rejected for the reason that there was a lack of sufficient documentary evidences. The law actually requires the Sub-Divisional Committee to suo-moto provide all pertinent official and non-official records to each Gram Sabha.

The District Level Committee is to ensure that this indeed has been carried out. This is to ensure that the Gram Sabhas and the claimants have complete access to all the records, denied until now, that could be used as evidences. As per the FRA Rules, the Sub Divisional or District Level Committee shall remand the claim to the Gram Sabha for reconsideration instead of rejecting it for want of additional information or if the resolution is incomplete. The definition of forest land adopted by the FRA is in accordance with SC ruling in Godavarman case in the widest possible sense to entertain the claims on forest lands irrespective of ownership.

Around 4,096 claims were junked on the ground that the claimed land is a non-forest area. Furthermore, 1,873 (3 per cent) claims were shown as rejected on the ground that the claimed land fell in the area accessed by Van Samrakshana Samithies of the Forest Department. Section 2(d) of FRA Act defines the term 'forest land' as land of any description falling within any forest area. Ministry of Tribal Affairs issued instructions to the State Governments not to deny forest rights to families, merely because one of the spouses is holding government job. But in Telangana claims in respect of 30 families were rejected on a ground that the member of the family is a government servant.

It is pertinent to note that there is no procedure prescribed under the FRA and its Rules to evict the unsuccessful forest land claimants. Moreover, until the entire process of rights settlement is complete, the FRA protects against dispossession and eviction under Section 4(5).

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