Jungle Outreach

After the drastic drives of “evicting” the forest “encroachers”, when an expert team visited the communities living in the forest periphery, the residents opened up and shared their problems. Khalid Bashir Gura attended one such meeting between the experts and the residents in a forest to understand the issues and the remedies that the FRA suggests

People came in hoards to tell their story to the visiting forest committee from the Government of India. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

On a balmy April afternoon at Mujpathri, a high-altitude village in Budgam, people gathered to discuss the Forest Rights Act (FRA) with officials from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs who were at the hamlet to assess the implementation of the FRA. They were on their last leg of the tour. The expert group had already assessed the situation prevailing in Kupwara, Anantnag and Khansahib, another belt of Budgam.

Soon after repeated announcements, a pheran clad woman Rafiqa Chowdhary joined the gathering and urged the expert group to address the issues of forest dwellers.

Women Voices

“We cannot visit high altitude snow-clad mountains for cattle grazing,” she told the officials. “The lower areas have been fenced and rendered inaccessible by the forest department. The pastures should be accessible in low lands especially for collection of fuel-wood and grazing”. She explained the plight by offering firsthand experience while growing up in the Kashmir mountains.

As she finished, Mehmooda, a young girl came on stage to voice the collective problems faced by the forest inhabitants. “These are our forests. We will not leave them. They are our home, if we leave them where will we go? The forests feed us and they are a source of livelihood for us,” she spoke passionately in front of an audience of elderly men and women,” she said. “In times like these, we need unity”.

Haneefa Begum, a local sarpanch and social welfare forestry chairperson who was present there said that they have right over the forests and they won’t give it up.

She said that the hutments of the forest dwellers have fallen because of snowfall. “We are unable to fetch timber for construction from our own forests,” she said as the Forest Range Officer listened to her on the podium. “People from far off places and close to power are able to get timber and the poor man is not able to get it despite living in proximity”.

She appreciated women for turning up the first time at such a gathering.

Homelessness Fears

The women expressed themselves after the men had given vent to their apprehensions of being rendered homeless from their “ancestral jungle”.

According to them, their ancestors have been living in the forests even before the laws were made. Being seasonal migrants they are not now allowed to even construct the hutments at higher altitude which may have been damaged by snowfall.

A resident in a forest village explaining his point to the visiting forest committee from the central forest ministry. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

People who have traditionally been taking the herds for grazing during summers would usually construct temporary hutments for living and keeping eye on their herds. This is a practice that has been there for ages. Now, however, they allege they are being prevented from repairing these hutments. In most cases, their access to these hutments has been blocked. In a number of cases, the forest officials have demolished these hutments as part of their “eviction drive”. Some of these temporary constructions were as old as a century.

In winters, the community retreat to their houses in the plains and migrate to higher altitudes in summers but now they fear the pastures may be inaccessible and they may be evicted anytime.

“Our life is dependent on the forest for its various resources,” said Bashir Ahmad Bith, a teacher. “They are our source of livelihood. Where will we take our cattle to graze?”

All the nomadic tribes including Kashmiri herders traditionally live in a symbiotic relationship with the forests. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

The Forest Law

The Forest Rights Act (2006) was not applicable to Jammu and Kashmir for the last 14 years. After the reading down of Article 370, it became applicable to Jammu and Kashmir only after October 31, 2019. On November 18, the Jammu and Kashmir government announced that it would implement the FRA weeks after the government’s eviction drive against nomads.

When in early November, a video of a hutment being demolished in the hills of Pahalgam went viral on social media this created a fear psychosis among forest dwellers. In another video, officials from the forest department, along with the police, were seen removing fences and razing brick houses at the foothills near Pahalgam. The issuance of eviction notices and demolition drives only further reinforced the fear.

According to officials, the drive was launched in response to a July 2019 High Court order, calling on the administration to recover encroached forest land. Insiders in the forest department said the demolitions are just a routine in the Jammu region.

Demolishing Drive

The political class reacted to the drastic drive. Mehbooba Mufti had exhorted for the implementation of the FRA.  She also went to meet the affected communities.

“While hundreds of new provisions of laws have been introduced without any consultation with local stakeholders and mostly not beneficial to us, the few laws that could result in some benefit to the residents of the state are not being implemented,” she alleged. “One of them is the FRA, 2006, which could provide a legal framework for Gujjar and Bakerwal rights on forest land.” In certain areas, even the apple orchards were axed.

She, however, failed to explain why her government and that of her predecessor did not extend the FRA to Jammu and Kashmir and secured the rights of the vulnerable communities.

Expert Committee

After all these months, the central team interacted with the people who are dependent on the forests to frame guidelines. This was perhaps the first outreach from the official side to these people. The rights are of three types, the experts explained to people and officials. The first is about the land in possession of inhabitants, the second about the migratory routes and grazing and the third regarding minor forest produce and resources.

An birds eye view of the people living around the Kashmir forests. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

In absence of proper documentation of land records or the utilization pattern, there are apprehensions that those without any proof may be evicted from their ancestral lands. The tribals have to prove 15 years of being the dwellers or the users of the land and non-tribals 75 years till 2005.

The FRA was the outcome of a national movement for community control of natural resources. The Act was brought to address the conflict between the forest department, which considered forest dwellers as encroachers and forest dwellers who claimed that they have been living on the land for hundreds of years.

Apprehensions

According to Dr Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, an RTI activist, the people expressed fear about the lack of documents with the tribal ministry officials. People have been living on the land for centuries without any proper documents and they fear eviction by authorities in future in the absence of legal papers that can render them homeless.

However, there is a possibility of reprieve for forest dwellers if the following three committees acknowledge their claims: The village forest committee nominated by Gram Sabha, the block forest committee and the district forest committee, which will be nominated by the recently elected DDC chairman. The documentation will be approved after the proper screening of all three committees.

“That’s where we fear that government wants the forest dwellers to be evicted by abusing the law,” said Sheikh, adding that why the government needed so many committees if the Gram Sabha is empowered. “Else the higher committees should have representatives of the forest-dwelling community”.

In the FRA, the forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers will be provided with the rights over forest land for the purpose of habitation or self-cultivation, livelihood, ownership, access to collect, use, and dispose of minor forest produce, and entitlement to seasonal resources among others.

“This law (FRA) is to undo the historical injustice to the forest-dwelling communities and ensure land tenure, livelihood and food security of the forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers”, explained Satyam Srivastav, one of the expert members of the central committee. “The forests department’s role will be less as it will be now the responsibility of forest dwellers to utilize and preserve forests. Now the forest department has to seek your permission if they need anything”.

Srivastav, however, added that the rights conferred under this Act shall be heritable but not alienable or transferable.

Senior Officer in the Ministry of Tribal affairs Priya Tayde urged the formation of Gram Sabhas to address the apprehensions arising due to lack of documents. As the process involves conferring rights, she underlined the necessity of participation by every individual, especially women. The forms are of three types which the forest dwellers have to submit on the basis of which rights will be conferred on the forest land.

The non-Scheduled Tribe who may not have certificates will need the approval and testimony of Gram Sabhas as proof of inhabiting the area for centuries. Tayde also said that the meetings and official procedures should be expedited.

“Rights will come with responsibilities,” she said, adding that the forest will be accessible to dwellers and the fencing will be removed.

Gujjar hutments, locally called Kotha’s demolition in interior Pahalgam. Some of these temporary structures predate partition. The photograph shows credits of Aamir Reshi.

The Act also provides that on the recommendation of the Gram Sabha, forest land up to one hectare can be diverted for the purpose of developing government facilities including schools, hospitals, minor water bodies, rainwater harvesting structures, minor irrigation canals, vocational training centres, non-conventional sources of energy, roads, etc. It also empowers the holders of forest rights, and Gram Sabhas to protect wildlife, forest, biodiversity, catchment areas, water sources and other ecologically sensitive areas besides ensuring that the habitat of forest-dwelling STs and other traditional forest dwellers are preserved.

“Nine people have FIRs registered against them by the forest department for trying to fence the community graveyard but in community forest land they can do so,” said the activist Ghulam Rasool.

Forest Officer Speaks

Tariq Ahmed, Forest Range Officer said that people think that the forest department is anti-people in this Act.

“In my range 2500 individual applications,  92 community claims have been received,” he said while dismissing claims of pastures being made inaccessible. “There has been deforestation at many places and the department has launched an afforestation drive to restore the green gold. The forest department will have no right over resources. We are trying to learn and get trained about this new law”.

Earlier, on March 30, an expert group of four members had also visited Khansahib area of Budgam district and the same team also visited Kupwara.

The four-member team led by V Giri Rao and Priya Tayde held a public hearing at village Watrad. The local ST population and other traditional forest dwellers (OTFD) and Chopan community representatives were also present.

The meeting was facilitated by Jammu and Kashmir RTI Movement in association with the Rural Development Department.

Experts Speak

V Giri Rao, the expert group member of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) said that mass awareness is needed in Jammu and Kashmir to ensure the FRA is implemented in letter and spirit. He said that mistakes committed by other states and UTs in the FRA implementation can be rectified by Jammu and Kashmir Government as the law has been extended to UT of Jammu and Kashmir very recently.

Dr Raja Muzaffar, Chairman RTI Movement, said that the FRA was not a land distribution law but it has been enacted to give genuine rights to STs, Chopans and other forest dwellers who were deprived of the same for more than a century.

According to Dr Muzaffar, these public hearings bring good governance and strengthen grassroots democracy. The interaction with representatives of various communities and officials have enabled the clearing of many misconceptions regarding the Act and helped create awareness.

“Article 370 was never an impediment in implementing the Forest Rights Act as many central laws were extended to the present UT of Jammu and Kashmir even before abrogation of Article 370,” he said.

Theatre Gets In

In order to transmit the messages clearly and in a local dialect, ever since the Forest Rights Act was rolled out in Jammu and Kashmir, Rayees Wathoori, 28, a young theatre artist has been trying his best to make sure that the Scheduled Tribes, pastoral communities and other traditional forest dwellers become aware of this law.

The Gujjar huts in forests are temporary. In areas where there is snowfall, these are mostly thatch-roofed that can be undone within minutes.

“The stakeholders are unaware of the law. There is a need for awareness programmes. Keeping the literacy level of the community in consideration the message needs to be transmitted through folk theatre to keep comprehension in consideration,” the activist said.

Using Bhand Pather as a medium of communicating the distress forest dwellers are facing, the young theatre artists staged plays.

“We will ask the government to give us our rights.  We will tell the government to not send its officers with eviction notices,” Wathoori said. “Our ancestors are from here and we have lived all our lives here. We will not leave our homeland. We will die but not leave. We will ask the government to treat us like human beings”.

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