FRA: Gujarat government behaves irresponsibly and with high-handedness, arbitrariness

By Paulomee Mistry* and Hemant Shah**
The 21 March 2018 reply given by Ganpat Vasawa, tribal development minister, on Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2016, regarding cultivation rights given to tribals in the Gujarat Assembly is full of incorrect facts and half-truths. He gave misleading information on actual status of forest land entitlement. The implementation of the FRA in Gujarat is very pathetic and the state government behaves irresponsibly and with high-handedness and arbitrarily.
The actual situation in implementing this law in Gujarat is as follows:
Official information shows that, as on 30 November 2017, 1,82,869 individual claims were filed. Only 81,178 of these claims have been approved.
Tribal farmers have been given authority letters for 1,27,068.32 acres of land. This is 1.57 acres of land per forest land cultivator. Under FRA, tribal farmers have the right to claim upmto 10 acres.w But in reality, the Government of Gujarat gave them very less land, about one-tenth of their claims for land entitlement. In 99 per cent of cases, this has happened.
The Gujarat government has given the "right to ownership" documents to forest land cultivators, but such documents do not have any legal value. Instead of a land rights document, ownership by entitlement of land should be given. This is the most serious issue and it is necessary that immediate action is taken in this respect.
The website of the Government of India's Ministry of Tribal Affairs showed on 11 January 2016 that 7,224 community claims were filed in Gujarat, and out of these 4,597 claims were approved. However, fresh information provided on 30 November 2017 shows that 7,224 community claims were filed, and of these, 3,516 were approved. It means that the Government of Gujarat has revoked 1,081 community claims.
Community claims are not being allowed because the forest department does not want to allow forest land to go out of its control. If a community claim is approved, all land in the village would be owned by the village community. The ownership of all the resources in that village would also be owned by the village community. Hence, the forest department is not interested in providing community rights.
According to the information given on 30 November 2017, in the case of individual claims, the State of Gujarat is behind other several other states in respect to allotting land to the tribals. It includes Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Kerala, Odisha, Rajasthan, Telangana and Tripura. Even in the matter of land allotment under community claims, Gujarat is behind other states, not exluding Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
In Gujarat, a major issue has been that, after FRA began being implemented in 2006, many farmers were forced to leave land possessed by them and, instead, plantations were done on their land by forest department officials. Such land should be verified by concerned officials and ownership of such land should be returned to the forest land cultivators.
Another issue is that, while forest land cultivators may be having all the evidence required for the possession of forest land, still, the subdivision office takes the opinion of zonal forest department officials and rejects the claim applications. Such officers should be transferred or strict action should be taken against them.
According to provisions of FRA, if the claimant is in possession of land for residing or cultivation before 13 December 2005, and has the possession of land till 31 December 2007, such claimants should be given entitlement as soon as possible. And yet, such claimants are rejected under various pretexts. For instance, the claims of those who are pensioners is rejected. This should be stopped immediately.
Things are particularly bad in non-tribal talukas such as Modasa, Himmatnagar, Idar, Vadali and Malpur, where there is very little implementation of FRA. In such talukas gram sabhas should immediately form FRCs and claims should be invited.
In Sabarkantha's Khedbrahma and Vijaynagar talukas, forest department officials are found to be intimidating tribals by forcibly doing plantation on forest land even when there is standing crop, ready to be harvested. The government should take strict action against them. Things are particularly bad in Dholvani, Itvadia and Khervada villages. In Idar and Vadali talukas, no FRCs have been formed in villages. In such villages FRCs should be formed. In Poshina taluka, FRCs have not verified any land. In such cases claimed land should be verified.
The approved claims for applications in the form of cultivation rights documents do not have any signature or seal of concerned authorities. Many FRCs and subdivision officials have lost claim applications filed before them, hence verifications have not taken place. In such cases fresh forms should be filled up immediately.
In seven talukas of Dahod district, a total of 20,150 tribal farmers have put forward their claims, but only 3,162 have got cultivation rights.Rest of the 16,988 have not yet got cultivation rights.
In gross violation of FRA, the Dahod district subdivisional office does not consider the provision of two records and an elderly person’s statement and visual evidence to be taken into consideration for accepting the claims. This has led to massive rejection of majority of claims.
In Panchmahal district, on 31 December 2013, then Chief minister Narendra Modi gave away cultivation rights to 2,596 tribal farmers out of 9,939. Rest of the 7,343 farmers have been left out. While approving applications, only receipts given by the forest department are considered as proof. According to the law, elders' statement or panchanama should also be considered for verification, which seldom happens. Farmers have the right to possess land and have house as well where they can plant trees. Yet, their cultivation rights are rejected. Worse, often farmers are forced to pay up fines for cultivating on their land, as they have still not been given entitlements.
*Director, Ekalavya Sangathan, **Economist with the Gujarat University