POLITICS
12/12/2019 8:32 AM IST | Updated 12/12/2019 2:59 PM IST

Jharkhand: How The BJP Govt Put Thousands Of Adivasis At Risk Of Eviction

An affidavit filed in the Supreme Court by the state government shows that over 16,000 claims under the Forest Rights Act were rejected by Gram Sabhas while grappling with problems like unavailability of records and lack of documentation.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in conversation with Chief Minister Raghubar Das in a file photo.

NEW DELHI—The BJP-led state government in Jharkhand failed to resolve persistent problems in the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) over its five year tenure despite repeated directions from the Union tribal affairs ministry in the Narendra Modi-led administration. 

As a result, thousands of Adivasis and other forest dwellers—whose claims for recognition of rights under the FRA were rejected at the primary stage—are facing the risk of their rights being permanently denied or forceful eviction from their lands, official documents accessed by HuffPost India reveal. 

In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court in July this year, Jharkhand Chief Secretary Devendra Kumar Tiwari said that a majority of claims for rights filed by forest dwellers under the FRA were rejected by the village-level Gram Sabhas—the first level of screening of claims as per the law—for reasons ranging from improperly filled applications to ineligibility of applicants. 

Under the Forest Rights Act, each “claim” symbolises the rights of an individual or community to live, farm, or gather forest produce on a specific plot of forest land. As per the affidavit, of the total 19,559 rejected claims that the government examined, 16,540 claims were rejected at the Gram Sabha level while 2380 claims were rejected by the Sub-Divisional Level Committees and 622 were rejected by the Divisional Level Committees. 

As per the FRA, a claim is first made to the Forest Rights Committee of a Gram Sabha followed by the Sub-Divisional Level Committee, both of which evaluate it independently, before it is finally sent to the District Level Committee for approval. 

Thus, rejections of claims at the Gram Sabha level do not necessarily imply that they are false. In fact, in many cases examined by the Jharkhand government, it was absence of adequate documentation or lack of knowledge about drafting applications that led to the claims being rejected. In some cases, there may be wrong claims.

But the state government, Tiwari admitted in his affidavit, found it “challenging to review all the rejected claims due to unavailability of records at the Gram Sabha level and lack of documentation”. So he requested the Supreme Court to grant the state “additional time” till July 2020 to finish the review process since the officials were busy preparing for the assembly election. 

The Chief Secretary also conceded that, “the level of awareness on the rights and entitlement among majority marginalised community, especially ST is on the lower side” and thus, “it is challenging for the state of Jharkhand to make them aware about the procedure to get the rights and entitlement…” provided by the historic legislation. 

HuffPost India
Snapshot of the affidavit filed by Jharkhand Chief Secretary Devendra Kumar Tiwari in the FRA Case in Supreme Court on 16 July 2019.

Tiwari’s candid confessions about the “challenges” of implementing the landmark Forest Rights Act in a state with 26% Adivasi population, are in stark contrast with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim in a recent campaign speech that the state government was taking steps to “fast-track settlement of forest rights claims”. Tiwari’s admissions are also contrary to the spirit of Chief Minister Raghubar Das’s public claims about the creation of “e-villages” and a “Digital Jharkhand”. 

More importantly, they confirm that the current state administration failed to resolve the persistent problems of implementing the FRA in Jharkhand, which include the following: lack of awareness about the law among forest dwellers and government officials, poor capacity of Gram Sabhas to screen claims as well as the absence of documentary records in villages to help forest dwellers claim their rights and the administration to examine them. 

Resolving these problems is critical as they have a direct bearing on the ability of forest dwellers to make claims for rights. While the review mentioned by the Chief Secretary in the affidavit is predominantly concerned with finding encroachments on forest lands, “lack of documentation” and “unavailability of records” could have an adverse impact on the ability of genuine forest dwellers to claim their rights as well as put them at risk of eviction.

Resolving these problems is critical as they have a direct bearing on the ability of forest dwellers to make claims for rights. While the review mentioned by the Chief Secretary in the affidavit is predominantly concerned with finding encroachments on forest lands, “lack of documentation” and “unavailability of records” could have an adverse impact on the ability of genuine forest dwellers to claim their rights as well as put them at risk of eviction.   

These problems were repeatedly highlighted by the tribal affairs ministry under the Modi government from September 2014 onwards in writing to the Jharkhand state government, official correspondence perused by HuffPost India shows. 

A response from the Chief Secretary to questions about FRA implementation in Jharkhand was not available. This report will be updated if he responds. 

The Jharkhand government affidavit cited above was filed in the context of a Supreme Court case relating to the Forest Rights Act. It gained wide attention on 13 February 2019 when the Apex Court ordered the eviction of all forest dwellers whose rights claims were rejected, causing widespread concerns that an estimated 1.89 million forest dwellers may be forcibly evicted. According to one estimate, this number could swell up to 9.5 million forest dwellers. 

On 28 February 2019, the court put its order on hold and asked all relevant state governments to explain how and why the forest rights claims were rejected, and if the forest dwellers were given an opportunity to provide evidence to support their claims. It was in response to this order that the July 2019 affidavit was filed by the Chief Secretary.

What Modi Govt Told Jharkhand Govt To Fix About FRA

In September 2014, more than three months before the incumbent Raghubar Das-led government took over the reins, an official in the Tribal Affairs ministry wrote to his counterparts in all states affected by Left-wing Extremism expressing concern about high rate of rejection of claims filed by forest dwellers under the FRA. Jharkhand is one of the states to be strongly affected by Left-wing insurgency.

Citing findings of a study undertaken by his ministry with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and consultations with state governments, the official mentioned some key reasons why forest dwellers’ claims for rights are rejected in high numbers in areas affected by insurgency. Some of these were repeated in the Jharkhand Chief Secretary’s affidavit filed in the Supreme Court. 

Among the reasons mentioned by the tribals affairs ministry official were: a) appropriate procedures for filing were not followed due to lack of awareness at the Gram Sabha level. b) Documentary evidence was not available with the claimants, c) the officials/frontline functionaries were unable to undertake wide awareness campaign and capacity building programs on FRA due to security threat, c) other reasons such as non-possession of land claimed, duplicate claims leading to the inflated number of claims received and the number of rejections.   

The official concluded with a list of solutions to be implemented to address these problems. 

HuffPost India
Excerpt from Tribal Affairs Secretary Arun Jha letter on FRA to Jharkhand Chief Secretary Rajiv Gauba. "...a lot still remains to be done in some of the states, including yours," he wrote.

Another instance relates to a letter written by union Tribal Affairs secretary Arun Jha on 10 June 2015— six months after the Raghubar Das-led government took over—to  Chief Secretaries of nine states including Jharkhand which was identified as one of those “lagging in implementation” of the FRA. It said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had personally reviewed the law’s implementation and wanted it implemented in a “campaign mode” to ensure rights under the FRA are recognised in a “time bound manner”.  It emphasised on “training and motivation” of field-level functionaries involved in implementation of the law to build their awareness and skills.

A few weeks after Jha’s letter, during a review meeting about the FRA held between Tribal ministry officials and states responsible for implementing the law on 2 July 2015, Jharkhand government officials spoke about the “challenges” of implementing the law in their state. Some of their submissions echoed what the Chief Secretary wrote in his affidavit. 

“From the presentation of Jharkhand it was evident that lack of awareness is the main cause for low filing of claims and overall poor implementation of FRA in the State,” state the minutes of the meeting. During their interaction, the Jharkhand government officials assured the union ministry officials that they have started undertaking measures to improve awareness, one of which was a “special drive campaign on gram sabha”. 

Put together what these three instances cited above point towards is the fact that the state government in Jharkhand was repeatedly told by the Union tribal affairs ministry to address persistent problems in the implementation of the FRA for several years. But as the Chief Secretary’s affidavit makes it clear, the state government failed to resolve the issues. 

Why Jharkhand Govt Is Failing To Implement FRA Well

The Forest Rights Act is important for Jharkhand since it has a large population of forest dwellers.  But successive governments have been loathe to implement the historic legislation ever since it was brought  in force in 2008. 

This is evident in the fact that, despite having 86.45 lakh strong Adivasi population, the total number of forest rights claims received by the state authorities till March 2019 was only 1,10, 756, according to the Union tribal affairs ministry’s annual report. Of these, 90, 077 were disposed off with 28, 107 claims rejected and 61, 970 accepted. 

These numbers show the consequences of a lack of awareness about the law among people and officials both.  This is notwithstanding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s direction in 2015 to the officials to implement the law in a “campaign mode”. 

So why has Jharkhand failed to implement the FRA well?

One of the reasons is that the state government officials, including Tiwari in his affidavit to the Supreme Court, argue that there are older local laws such as the Santhal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) Act, 1949 and Chota Nagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act, 1908 and Khunt-Khatti Right Under CNT Act, 1908, among others, which recognise the rights of forest dwellers, especially Adivasi communities, in the state. 

In response to this, the Union tribal affairs ministry directed at its 2 July 2015 meeting that, “ States not to deny valid claims for additional plots under FRA to those who may have received their rights previously under other tenancy Acts of various states, for e.g Jharkhand’s Santhal Act of 1946 and the Chhota Nagpur Act, 1908.” It is unclear if this direction has had any effect in improving the FRA coverage in Jharkhand. 

But there are other, more familiar reasons for the poor implementation of FRA in the state. According to Sreetama Bhaya Gupta, who was a Forest Rights Consultant with the Union tribal affairs ministry until recently, “State government of Jharkhand had largely been inactive around FRA upto the year 2012. It was only when MoTA started regional consultations and pushed for implementation that there was some movement on the ground in Jharkhand.” 

But even during this time, the process of claims generation from forest dwellers was slow. Why? “There was also understanding within various groups in Jharkhand that SPTA and CNTA are much stronger than FRA,” she said.  

However, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over the reins, however, there was faster movement for some time again. 

“After the review meeting as part of Pragati in April 2015, Hon’ble Prime Minister directed that implementation of FRA is taken up on a campaign mode, that claim generation process picked up pace. It was also during this time that the joint initiative between the Government of Jharkhand’s Department of Welfare, PACS and Jharkhand Van Adhikar Manch led to generation of claims from the ground. However, the process was hasty, system and evidence was not properly collected, there were lacunae in documentation and even the administration was not fully aware of the processes,” said the long time FRA watcher who is presently with Oxfam India.  

She cited data from the Monthly Progress Reports of the Union tribal affairs ministry to show that even this brief improvement in implementation was short lived. “During 2014-15, around 39,000 claims were generated and 26, 704 titles were distributed, which is around 68%. But after that again, there has been a decline in the process of implementation by 2018. Between 2016-18, 105363 claims were files and 58053 titles distributed. The rate of recognition is around 55%,” Gupta pointed out.