How forest rights of tribals were restored in Kalahandi, Odisha, following NHRC intervention

kalahandi1By Manohar Chauhan*

While the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 stipulated cut-off date for the recognition of individual forest right (IFR), the Forest Department across Odisha has been trying to evict the eligible claimants. This story reflects the callousness at the administration level and loopholes in the recognition of IFR in Odisha. However, the success story of tribals of Hardaguda hamlet in Kalahandi district, who got IFR titles after NGO intervention of NGO and National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has once again brought a ray of hope amongst the forest rights activists.

The Hardaguda Hamlet

Hardaguda hamlet comes within the revenue boundary of the revenue village Sureli of Taljaring GP in the Junagarh Tahasil of Kalahandi district. As per the last 2011 Census there are 52 tribal households in the village having 195 populations. The hamlet is inhabited by Kandha tribes and is situated on the bank of river Sagada bordering to three panchayats, i.e. Chancher, Tal Jaring and Dedara, and two blocks (Bhawanipatna and Juanagarh). The village can be reached by walking five kilometres in the forest from Sagada GP through Labensar village of Bhawanipatna block.

Status of land in the village

As per the record of rights (RoR), the last survey end settlement of the revenue village Sureli under Juanagarh Tahasil was done in 1950s and the RoR and maps were prepared in 1955. In between, land had been distributed to the 53 tenants in the year 1999. Thus there are in total 17 (original khata and 53 by khata available in the village. Out of these four khatas (2, 3, 4 and 5) are community land (the so-called government land) in the village having 34 plots and 258.44 acres. Out of the total community land 10 plots (Plot no. 2, 3, 22, 34, 68, 3/1, 9/2, 22/158/2, 116, and 120) consisting of 120.65 acres is revenue forest land. Of these 10 plots, Plot No 2 consists of 45.38 acres in Khata No-5 (Abada Joya Anabadi), where 11 tribals of Hardaguda hamlet of village Sureli have been issued IFR titles under FRA,2006 after the intervention of NHRC.

The Violation Story

According to Sukru Majhi of the hamlet, their forefathers used to live in Hardaguda till 1922-23 and shifted to nearby place named Gudang village of Chancher GP in Bhawanipatna block due wild animals. In 2002 about 12 families from village Gudang and Sureli came to Hardaguda and cleaned the forest, constructed huts and turned the forest into cultivable area. They lived there for around 8 years with all difficulties, having no communication, safe drinking water facilities, etc. Since the area is closed to the Ghana reserve forest which comes under Talajaring forest bit of Juanagarh Forest Range, the Forest Department was always harassing them.

Many a time the forest department people threatened them and asked them to leave the forest. In October 2010, the forest department people (forester and forest guard) came and demolished and brunt their houses. They also beaten them, abused women and children.  After the eviction, they temporarily live under tree for some weeks and again reconstructed their huts.

Intervention by Asian Human Rights Commission and Antyodaya

However, the violation of the Forest Department came to the notice in 2011 when two tribal leaders, named Raghu Majhi and Gauri Sankar Tatra, shared the news outside. When Antyodaya, an active NGO based in Bhawanipatana working on land rights in three blocks (Juanagarh, Thuamaul Ramapur , Sadar  Bhawainpatan) came to know of the incident, it intervened on this matter. By this time the historic FRA, 2006 was in full swing of implementation.

Thus, along with Antyodaya, the Asian Human Rights Commission filed a petition before the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in June, 2011 demanding justice to the poor Kandha tribals as per FRA, 2006. Their main contention was, “Since the tribal families had occupation over the forest land before the cut-off date of 13th December, 2005, they are eligible to get title over those lands under FRA, 2006.”  The issue was also raised in the media. On 19th April 2011, the local daily newspaper the “Sambad” covered the issue entitled “Prabhabita lokanka thaithan dabi”.

Acting upon the petition filed, the NHRC vide case No.1572/18/6/2011 dated 3rd June 2013 directed the Chief Secretary and SC/ST Commissioner, Government of Odisha to inquiry into the matter and report accordingly. The NHRC noted that “the commission had carefully considered the material on record. The victims claim to be in possession of the forest land since prior to the cut-off date. Hence, they have to approach the competent authority for declaration of their rights to the land. The NGO Antyodaya can take the step on behalf of the victims. The Chief Secretary, Government of Orissa is also asked to get the matter investigated to find out of the tribals on the land in dispute and they should not be displaced till such investigation is completed or till the matter is decided by the competent authority”.

kalahandiEven Home Department, Government of Odisha, vide letter No 25223/C&HR dated 12th July 2013 wrote to the Chief Secretary to look into the matter seriously.

Thus, based on the direction of the NHRC and the SC/ST Commission, the Government of Odisha vide letter No 26820 dated 2nd August 2013 directed the district collector, Kalahandi, to investigate on the allegation. Accordingly, the district collector, Kalahandi, ordered the District Welfare Officer (DWO) to make an inquiry and submit a report. DWO made a spot inquiry into the matter and submitted its report to the district collector. In between, both the parties, the aggrieved tribals and the Forest Department also filed affidavits before the NHRC.

While the aggrieved tribals filed affidavits narrating their problem, alleging violation by the forest department people, the forest department officials filed affidavits alleging tree felling by the tribals. Besides, the NGO Antyodaya provided all necessary documents as evidence supporting the allegation against the Forest Department before the NHRC and also to the District ST/SC Atrocity Prevention Committee and demanded justice for the aggrieved tribals.

As per the direction of the NHRC, Antyodaya also facilitated the IFR claims of the tribals under FRA, 2006. According to Sanjiv Sathpathy of Anyodaya, who facilitated IFR claims in the hamlet, in total 23 IFR claims were filed in the hamlet over the forest land occupied by the heads of the 12 families in February 2015.

But at the end, the decision of the inquiry committee went in favour of the tribals and the district administration took decision in their favour.  Tribals won the battle against the Forest Department and, very recently, on 22nd August 2015, complying the NHRC direction, the Kalahandi FRA District Level Committee (DLC) issued IFR titles to 11 households of the Hardaguda hamlet. All these IFR titles have been issued over plot No 2 of the khata No 5 of the revenue village Sureli. IFR titles have been issued to Baru Majhi (1.96 acres), Gadu Majhi (2.10 acres), Kalu Majhi (1.66acres), Mangalu Kajhi (1.46acres) Maya Majhi (2.20 acres) Sripati (2.10 acres), Salami Majhi (2.10 acres), Sunanaga Majhi (1.74 acres), Sundar Majhi (2.00 acres) and Tuk Majhi (2.38 acres) etc.

The DLC has issued all these 11 IFR title under annexure–II of Forest Rights Rules 18, and the RoR were corrected by providing revenue title for the same land. Sanjiv says, “All these 11 titles have been issued haphazardly without ground verification and more 12 young families who had applied separately over their paternal share have not been issued IFR titles and we are processing their claims afresh.”

“By giving RoR as per revenue title, the district administration arbitrarily trying to establish that they have done ground verification which is totally false and”, he further said.

Issues in IFR Recognition in the District

According to Dillip Das, Chairman of Antyodaya, “Antyodaya is active in three blocks i.e. Thuamul Rampur, Junagarh and Bhawanipatna Sadar. We have facilitated around 7,000 IFR claims and 108 community forest rights (CFRs). We facilitated 2600 IFR and 29 CFR up to 2013, and 4400 IFR and 79 in post 2013 IFR. However,  1700 IFR titles and 32 CFR (all in annexure III) have been issued till date and the rest of the IFR claims have been either shown rejected or pending.”

According to him, most of the IFR claims were rejected showing the cause of Dongar Kissam of land while the community people do shifting cultivation over there, many IFR claims were rejected since they were of Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) and in many in areas i.e. Karlapart Sanctuary, no action was taken from the district administration showing the presence of ultra-Maoists.

The major issue he shared on the 1,700 IFR titles issued in his field area has been non- demarcation of the actual forest land in possession and claimed. “Even no demarcation has been yet done of the forest land before issuing 11 IFR titles to the Hardaguda tribals based on the direction of the NHRC”,  he said.

Conclusion

Thus it can be simply concluded that while Govt. of Odisha claiming to be No1 in issuing highest (3,86,588) no of IFR titles over 5,93,942 acres of forest land by August, 2016 in the whole country and Kalahandi FRA District Level Committee claims to have issued 10,563  IFR titles over 16,420 acres of forest land in the district, most of these IFR titles in the district and the State have been issued without ground verification.

On 29th November, 2011 a team of Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD), Odisha, visited revenue village Durmusi in Thuamul Rampur Block of Kalahandi district and also found that IFR titles have been issued over non forest land too in Kalahandi district http://kalahandia.blogspot.in/2012/02/fact-finding-report-of-csd-odisha-on.html. Thus, issuing IFR titles without demarcation has been a major issue in the IFR recognition across the districts in Odisha which needs to be taken seriously.

Without proper demarcation how the government will ensure RoR correction and consolidation of the forest land issued under FRA, 2006 in the State is a bigger question mark. Even it would lead to serious conflict in future within the community. Also, livelihood and developmental programme over IFR land would become problematic in future.

It seems the Government of Odisha has used the recognition Act as land distribution scheme. Even district administration did not care to do perfect work (demarcation of the claimed forest plots) while disposing of a direction of NHRC. Thus, this story reflects the callousness at the administration level and loopholes in the recognition of IFR in the Odisha. However, the success story of tribals of Hardaguda hamlet in Kalahandi district who got IFR titles after the intervention of NGO and NHRC has once again brought a ray of hope amongst the forest rights activists.

*Member, Campaign for Survival and Dignity, Odisha

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