Has Farmers' March Impacted the Implementation of Forest Rights Act in Maharashtra?

The protest march has resulted in introducing a series of initiatives to upscale the implementation of Forest Rights Act. However, there is a huge gap in the intended intervention by the state government and ground realities across Maharashtra.

It’s has been six months since more than 30,000 farmers marched from Nashik to Mumbai demanding attention to a series of agrarian and forest rights related issues. The protest march, led by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) was called off only after the state administration promised that it will take steps to address all the demands of the protesters within six months. Some of the demands include:

Time bound implementation of Forest Rights Act
Damming of water of Nar Par, Damanganga, Vagh and Pinjal rivers
Transferring to actual cultivators the Devasthan (temple) land, Inam land, Benami land, Aakari Pad and Varkas lands
Total and comprehensive loan waivers to farmers
Procuring farm produce at prices recommended by the Swaminathan Committee (150% increase)
Implementing Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Yojana, Sharvan Bal and Indira Gandhi Old Age Pension Yojana and increase amount under these schemes to Rs 2000
Not to acquire the lands of farmers without their consent for the Samruddhi Mahamarg Bullet Train Projects,
Consent of gram sabha to be taken while acquiring the land under the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act
Compensation amount of Rs 40,000 per acre to be paid to farmers affected by hailstorm.

Our attempt and analysis here is limited to assess whether the assurance to recognise forest rights claims in time-bound period has been actualised or not. Have rejected and pending claims of forest dwellers been addressed? Where and to what extent the claims of forest dwellers have been recognised? Who are the beneficiaries? What strategies have been employed by the state administration to meet the demands of the protesters?

These questions are analysed by examining the status report of Forest Rights Act (FRA) from March-Septemebr 2018 obtained from the Maharashtra FRA cell along with empirical evidence from several villages across Maharashtra.

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Following the assurances given to farmers, the Maharashtra state government initiated a series of activities to address the pending forest rights claims, rejected claims and appeals filed by the claimants across the state. On May 11, 2018, an intensive study by the state government’s Tribal Research and Training Institute (TRTI) came up with fifteen major reasons for rejection or pending of claims and appeals. Some of these reasons include: lack of awareness and training among the implementing agencies about FRA, poor understanding and misinterpretation of the law and complete ignorance of various circulars of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

This resulted in evolving multi-pronged strategies to upscale the implementation of forest rights across Maharashtra. To begin with, a state-wide campaign known as Van Mitra Mohim was launched on May 11, followed by a series of training programs for officers both at the sub-division level committee and district level committee were organised to understand the nature and process of forest rights claim recognition. More than 150 forest rights coordinators were trained to facilitate filing new claims, review rejected claims, address pending claims and speed up the process to hear the appeals at different levels.

In May, to ensure time-bound implementation and better attention to FRA, the forest rights cell functioning from Nashik Tribal Commissionerate was shifted to TRTI in Pune. Also, to speed up the process of title recognition, digitisation of claim process has been initiated which will allow the future claimants and the district collector to know the status of filed claims and accordingly, take steps to address the pending claims. Many forest rights groups that we have interviewed to assess the impact of protest march at the implementation level have welcomed these procedural changes but want the state to produce results on ground.

Ground reality

The monthly status report of forest rights recognition before the protest march shows the total area and individual forest rights claim recognised across Maharashtra was 2,59,318.77 acres and 1,08,603 respectively and by the end of September, it was 2,66,329.866 acres and 1,14,216.

The above figures reveal that over the last six months, though 5,613 claims of forest dwellers over cultivation and homestead land have been recognised, the disturbing aspect is that the average forest land area recognised for forest dwellers/claimants has decreased. For example: till February 2018, the average forest land area that was recognised under individual forest rights in Maharastra was 2.38 acre, whereas the average recognised forest land area in the last six months has come down to 1.24 acre.

Section 3 (1) (a) of FRA enables forest dwellers to claim up to 4 hectares (10 acres) of forest land under individual or common occupation for habitation or for self-cultivation. Discussion with forest rights groups and activists from Murbad and Shahapur Talukas of Thane revealed that while several forest dwellers have received titles in the last six months, the recognised forest land area is 1/3 or 1/4 of the claimed area in several villages.

It is also important to mention that around 98% of the recognised claims in the last six months are for Scheduled Tribes only. As it happens in other parts of India, the rights of Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) have not been recognised. Out of 5,613 recognised claims, only 165 claims are for OTFDs.

One of the important assurances given by the state administration to the protest march representatives was to ensure that claims are not arbitrarily rejected on technical grounds. The available status report of September 2018 suggests that while rejection of claims reduced from 1.73 lakh to 1.70 lakh at the sub-division level committee (SDLC), it has gone up from 2,988 to 3,523 and from 51,888 to 51,940 at the District Level Committee (DLC) and gram sabha level respectively. In contrast to the rest of the country, where highest rejection is of OTFD claims, most of the rejected claims in the last six months in Maharashtra were claims of Scheduled Tribes. For example, out of 535 rejected claims at the DLC, 289 were of STs and 246 are from OTFDs.

When it comes to addressing pending claims, the state administration has not been effective, as the number of pending claims has increased from 11,645 to 14,653 and from 2,290 to 2,969 at the SDLC and DLC respectively from February to September.

However, the FRA status report reveals that both at the SDLC and DLC level, the number of appeals resolved over the last six months has increased. At the sub-divisional level, the number of appeals rejected has reduced from 16,924 in February to 12,118 by September end and the number of pending appeals has also reduced from 9,428 to 6,141 by September end. At the district level, the approved appeals increased from 45,787 to 55,609 by September end, but rejected appeals increased as well from 19,744 in February to 31,744 by September end. The number of pending appeals at the DLC has reduced considerably from 23,259 in February to 10,509 by September end.

Baiga adivasis march protesting displacement and denial of forest rights. Credit: Harshit Charles

The Forest Rights implementation status report of September shows that the number of new claims has gone up in the last six months. However, this was not true of all districts in Maharashtra. The figures in Tables 2-4 reveal that out of the total recognised 5,613 claims in the last six months, around 91% claims are from Palghar and Raigad districts only. The recognised claims of the last six months also suggest that most of the recognised claims for STs are from Palghar and Raigad Districts and recognised claims for OTFDs are from Kolhapur District.

Surprisingly, there is no effective implementation of FRA in Nashik District – the starting point of the protest march. The submission of new claims and recognition of existing claims is also not significant in Nashik district.

AIKS president Dr Ashok Dhawale said this represented a complete disrespect and violation of the assurance given by the state administration. “If this is the scenario in Nashik, then one can imagine the status of implementation of FRA in other parts of Maharashtra,” he said.

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Similarly, out of total 6,190 new claims filed by gram sabhas in the last six months, around 97% of new claims are from Palghar and Dhule district and remaining 3% claims are from Nanded, Vardha and Nagpur (Tables 5-8). Not a single new claim is filed in more than 20 districts in the last six months at the gram sabha level. While the highest number of new claims from STs are from Palghar, most of the OTFDs claims in the last six months are from Kolhapur. As in other parts of India, OTFDs continue to face hurdles in getting their claims recognised across Maharashtra.

Despite the Ministry of Tribal Affairs’s interpretation and clarification that Section 2 of FRA doesn’t require that the OTFDs and their ancestors have to prove that they live in the same village for 75 years, the claims of OTFDs are rejected by the SDLC and DLCs for this very reason. It is also found that there is no significant progress at the district level to prepare record of rights once the forest dwellers’ claims are recognised over forest land. In the amended Rule 12 (a) of FRA, it is mandatory that the record of recognised rights needs to be entered into government books under the relevant state laws or within a period of three months, whichever is earlier. In its absence, boundary maps, surveys and khata numbers, title-holders find it difficult to invest capital and labour in their recognised land.

Concerns about the efficacy of implementation have been raised by various forest rights groups across Maharashtra, and not without reason. Many forest rights group are of the opinion that campaign-mode implementation strategy of the state administration without effective coordination and understanding of the law among the SDLC and DLC members will not be effective. For example, many claims in Shahapur Taluka of Thane have been rejected on the grounds that there was not enough evidence of bona fide livelihood dependence of forest dwellers, even though the claimants produced fine receipts issued by the forest department in 1990s. There is nothing wrong in implementing forest rights in a campaign mode, but the quality of rights recognised and process should not be compromised, says Nancy Gaikwad, Raigad based forest rights activist.

Many forest rights groups are also puzzled at the state government’s choice to ignore community forest rights claims. The focus has remained only on individual forest rights. The number of community forest rights claims recognised during this period has increased from 7,286 to 7,619, which is marginal. It is worth mentioning that the recognition of community forest rights is crucial in improving the livelihood condition of forest dwellers as the FRA recognises rights of communities to access, use and dispose minor forest produce. Several studies have found that most of the vulnerable, landless and marginalised communities in rural areas of Maharashtra are dependent on forest resources for their subsistence and livelihood. Majority of forest dwellers are dependent on firewood to meet their domestic energy needs, get cash income by selling minor forest produce and also use forests for different agricultural activities.

It is also observed that the AIKS, one of the popular and vibrant unions working for farmers and working class rights across India, couldn’t sustain the momentum and remain vigilant in the post-protest march phase to get its demands implemented.

To conclude, it can be said that the protest march has resulted in introducing a series of initiatives to upscale the implementation of FRA, especially recognition of individual forest rights. However, there is a huge gap in the intended intervention by the state administration and ground realities across Maharashtra. Barring few districts, there is no significant change in the status of implementation of forest rights. There are procedural changes in addressing the pending, rejected and appeals of forest dwellers’ claims but no substantive impact at the grassroots level.

In such circumstances, the state administration, especially the Tribal Development Department, the nodal agency to implement FRA, needs to revisit its strategies to address pending and rejected claims. Attempts should be made to orient the DLC and SDLC members not to insist on a particular type of evidence to be produced to recognise the claims. Efforts should also be made to ensure better coordination among the revenue, forest and tribal welfare department at the SDLC and DLC level to understand the technical and legal aspects of the forest rights claim.

Involvement and discussion with local farmers’ association, forest rights and conservation groups working with local communities should be initiated to speed up the process of settling forest rights claims. The forest rights coordinators, who are very unique in case of Maharashtra to facilitate between gram sabhas, SDLC and DLC in addressing pending, rejected and processing new claims, should be given in-depth orientation about the procedure of rights recognition so that they can draw the attention of state administration in a speedy manner.

The current data entry and monthly progress report on forest rights recognition needs to be streamlined to avoid any confusion and overlapping of community forest rights, community forest resource rights and development rights. Finally, it is also very crucial on the part of representatives of the farmers protest march to follow up with the administration in getting things done. The leaders of the protest march need to be more vigilant and engage with the state administration to ensure the implementation of promises that were made to call off the strike.

Paul Fernandes is pursuing a masters degree at TISS, Mumbai. Bikash Kumar Sahoo is pursuing an MPhil at the School of Habitat Studies, TISS, Mumbai. Geetanjoy Sahu teaches at the School of Habitat Studies, TISS, Mumbai.