by Yawar Hussain
SRINAGAR: The Jammu and Kashmir government has clandestinely constituted Gram Sabhas (village assemblies) across several Kashmir districts amid heavy snowfall to elect the Forest Rights Committees. These committees are crucial as they are the sole authority to adjudicate granting of the title of the land to forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006.
Informed sources said the exercise was carried out without informing the inhabitants in scores of villages from January 4 onwards when heavy snowfall engulfed the Valley. The heaviest snowfall after many years had immobilised Kashmir. Even for a day, most of the districts were inaccessible from Srinagar. Following this hushed up exercise, there have been protests by villagers leading to an emerging social discord in these areas.
As per the Panchayati Raj Act, the Gram Sabha can be organised only when 40 per cent of the population of a village above 18 years of age is present.
However, in many villages, the government hurriedly conducted the Gram Sabhas with just half a dozen people electing the Forest Rights Committees in closed rooms. The weather conditions did not permit any assembly anywhere, informed sources said.
As per the Forest Rights Act 2006, a Gram Sabha is mandated to elect the Forest Rights Committee in each block.
Mushtaq Ahmad, a resident of Bonen village of Surasayar belt in Budgam said a handful of people conducted the Gram Sabha in a room in connivance with the Village Level Worker of the Rural Development Department.
“They elected the Forest Rights Committee members on their own without the villagers voting or even knowing who the members are,” he said, alleging that some “vested” interests were behind the “conspiracy” to deprive the forest dwellers of their land. “They want to get in their own people while we are deprived of our land.”
The Budgam district was in the news recently as well, with scores of fruit-bearing orchards being cut down in many upper villages of the central Kashmir area.
In Jabbad village of Budgam district, Abdul Rashid said a Gram Sabha was organised in their village when most of the parts were cut off due to snowfall.
“It was pouring down heavily but some people organised the Gram Sabha on their own. They are self-styled elders along with our Village Level Worker. There needs to be a Scheduled Tribe member and a woman in the committee but the committee they formed had none,” Rashid said.
He said a fresh Gram Sabha was held on Sunday after protests by the villagers but it couldn’t yield any results as there was infighting.
“My forefathers have lived here. This is our land. The government, on one hand, claims that they will give us land but on the other, we are being deprived of membership in the committee mandated for it,” he said.
Similar reports of Gram Sabhas being conducted in a hush-hush manner have come to the forth from Anantnag and Kulgam districts as well.
Right to Information activist Raja Muzzafar Bhat said there was five feet snow and the night temperatures were as low as minus 10 degree Celsius in these upper reaches but the government still went ahead with conducting these elections with few people inside a room themselves acting as Gram Sabha.
“These Gram Sabhas weren’t to be convened to build roads or decide on water supply schemes. They had to form a committee to give land rights to the people who are being evicted,” he said.
He said that government has no role in this exercise barring the Village Level Worker (VLW) but the Sarpanches, Panches and VLWs on their own formed these committees.
“The government seems to be in a hurry to implement the Forest Rights Act but why are they in a hurry.”
Meanwhile, sources in the administration reveal the orders to hastily implement the FRA have come from the top level.
Eviction of forest dwellers has been in the news across Kashmir with people alleging that they have been issued notices to move out in violation of the FRA. In some instances, the Kothas (temporary hutments) of forest dwellers were even raised to the ground leading to hue and cry across social and political circles in the Valley.
Block Development Officer Budgam and in charge-District Panchayat Officer Afroza Bano said that they received complaints from certain villages in the district where they have ordered for fresh Gram Sabhas constitution.
“There were orders from above to conduct these sabhas in a time-bound manner. This is how the system works. We had a deadline and it was snowing. This is why there were such cases,” she said. She said fresh Gram Sabhas have already been ordered at various places.
Director Rural Development Department Kashmir Qazi Sarwar said the complaints have been received from various districts and directions have been passed to redress these issues.
“There was no deadline but allegations of Gram Sabhas being held in a hushed manner have come forth. There will be an investigation and fresh Gram Sabhas will be held,” Sarwar said.