Restrict officials from unwarranted interference in determining tribal rights over forest lands

tribal-apBy Dr Palla Trinadha Rao*

No one can be judge in his or her own cause, is a popular principle of judicial conduct in dispensation of justice. But, this cardinal legal principle is ignored in giving a berth to  forest officials in the statutory adjudication bodies constituted under the Forest Rights Recognition Act (FRA) 2006 for recognition of the preexisting forest rights of tribals. The Gram Sabha, Sub Divisional Level Committees (SDLC) and District Level Committees (DLC) are adjudicating bodies constituted under the FRA to recognise the forest rights of individual or community over forest lands. The FRA was enacted a decade ago to correct the historic injustice perpetrated by the colonial forest legacy. Unfortunately the implementation of the FRA is presently under the control of the very forest department to ensure rights over forest to individuals or communities.

A deeper probe into the reasons being shown by the forest officials for the rejection of tribal forest land claims in the tribal tract of Visakhapatnam district in Andhra Pradesh (AP), unmasks how weird the objections are. About 4381 podu land claims of tribals covering an extent of 10,653 acres were rejected by end of 2016 in the name of double or multiple claims. Contrary to their claim, the field staff reports of SDLC reveal that the partial portion of the claimed land was only allowed by the forest officials, against the total extent of legitimate claim of the tribals. Thus, the tribals are under compulsion to make claims afresh for the recognition of their rejected claim of land, which are regarded as double claims.

The AP government issued operational guidelines for implementation of the FRA (GO Ms No 102) recommending survey of forest lands preferably with Global Positioning System (GPS) gadgets.  But the forest officials are ignoring the field reports and forcing the SDLC or DLC to accept the satellite forest images and maps as if they are the only permissible evidence. In fact, the FRA provides 13 types of evidences to prove the occupation of the claimed lands and any two of such is sufficient to seek recognition of forest land rights.

The former Sarpanch Paliki Lakku of the Modapalli GP in Paderu Mandal said that he raised coffee plantation in podu lands of 8 acres prior to cut off date 13th December, 2005 and his claim was allowed only to the extent of 16 cents and forest officials objected for the rest of the land saying that satellite images are showing the greenery instead of bald patches of podu lands. The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Prl.CCF) rejected 1612 claims of of 3690 acres in Paderu Revenue division on the basis of satellite images. During the 3rd phase of the implementation of FRA, the chairperson of  SDLC, Paderu forwarded  149 claims of Paderu, G.Madugula and GK Veedhi mandals  for satellite imagery confirmation to the Prl.CCF office. The Prl.CCF held ( File No 9641/2016) that the claims cannot be verified, because forest maps were not available, which is unjust and untenable. The fate of the tribal claimants in these mandals is at the mercy of the forest officials.

The untenable objections serving vested interests of the forest officials are depriving the tribals to secure access to forest land titles. The podu land claims of 10162 covering an extent of 19087 acres were unilaterally rejected by the forest officials, on the pretext that the claimed lands fell under the area Vana Samrakshana Samithis (VSSs). In fact the FRA ensures the recognition of forest land occupation rights of tribals in any category of forest lands. Against the provisions of law, community rights over forest lands were conferred on 196 VSSs over 64282 acres of forest land instead of community or gram sabha.

On the other hand the SDLC or DLC are not applying its judicial mind in disposing of the claims and remain as mute spectators to the unfair and unjust objections of the forest department. The Rules 6 and 8 of FRA provide the functions of SDLC and DLC and obligate them to examine the papers and hear the objections from the concerned parties. Thus the objections of the forest officials cannot be the sole basis to judge the veracity of the claims before it.

In fact, the tribal land claimants and the rival claimant, i.e. the forest officials, are the key parties to the proceedings before the adjudicating bodies. However, as a sitting official member of the SDLC or DLC, the forest officials are unjustly rejecting the claims of the claimants on the basis of instructions of their higher bosses or request of the subordinates. The Statutory bodies headed by Sub Collector (SDLC) and District Collector (DLC) are simply relying on the forest officials’ oral objections and dismissing the forest land claims of tribals even without passing any reasoned order. Therefore, there is urgent need to bring amendment to the FRA Rules 2008 for recusal of the forest official members in the adjudicating statutory Bodies and restrict their unwarranted interference in determining the rights of tribals over forest lands and ensure fair play in the legal process.

*Tribal rights activist, lawyer and researcher based in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh

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