“We have nothing to eat, no other land to stay. I’ve come here to pray to the officials to not evict us from our homes,” said Dhira Padhi, a 45-year-old woman who was part of the long queue of forest dwellers at the District Level Committee (DLC) for Forest Rights Act (FRA), where cases related to rejected Individual Forest Rights (IFR) claims were being heard on 26 June at the District Collectorate, Khurda.
It is important to mention that the government of Odisha, along with those of 20 other states, have been relentless in their pursuit to reject as many IFR claims as possible, before submitting an affidavit to the Supreme Court, which will decide the fate of the forest-dwellers on 24 July.
What Are The Bases For Rejections Of Claims To Land?
Dhira is a daily wage labourer belonging to Dalua village inside the Chandaka reserve forest in Khurda district. She had lost her husband 15 years ago. She added, “All hell broke loose when I heard from my co-villagers that we may have to leave our land.”
Manika Mahanta, another widow, was directed to a woman official. The official asked for her name, age, and evidence justifying her 75 years stay on the claimed land. Mahanta was not even sure of her age, and neither was she fully aware of the reason for her presence there. She couldn’t provide any evidence to prove her claim.
Mahanta’s land at Gangapatana (under Bhubaneswar block in Khurda), where she lives with her only son, has been inhabited by her family for generations.
“I received the notice a day prior, and my co-villagers asked me to get ready in the morning to visit the District Collectorate where we can get pattas (ownership documents),” she recalled. However, the notice issued to her mentioned that her claim under the FRA was rejected on the grounds of “multiple claimants”. As per the notice, she was present there for a review of her case, as she wasn’t satisfied with the rejection order. However, she was unaware of the technicalities around the notice.
No Way For Tribals To Prove Ownership of Land
Gobinda Majhi (40), a farmer from Dalua village, ekes out a living by growing crops on his one acre land. The notice he was holding mentioned the lack of a caste certificate and written evidence of land occupation, as the reasons behind the claim’s rejection. Gobinda claims that he is a member of the Shabar community but cannot produce a certificate to prove it. His family has been staying at the place for generations, but it wasn’t possible for him to provide a written justification.
Gobinda is going to lose his one acre land, and the same fate awaits Dhira and Manika.
Their claims are among the 13,851 claims that the state, according to the affidavit it has submitted to the SC, has listed to have attained finality for rejection.
A Mass Eviction Drive
This figure – 13,851 – is a sharp increase from the figure submitted by the state a year ago – 2,216. Thus, the lives and livelihoods of 62,329 forest dwellers are at risk if we consider the average size of a family as 4.
According to the data, 5,373 claims filed by the Scheduled Tribes and 8,478 claims by Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) have been rejected in Odisha.
Why Were Tribals & Forest-Dwellers Not Given Mandated Time?
These villagers had to travel miles by hiring auto-rickshaws and skipping their day's work. It became an immense financial burden on them. It is a violation of Rules 14(2) and 15(2) of the FRA, if the hearing takes place in a place other than the one inhabited by the petitioner, said Gopinath Majhi, State Convenor, Centre for Survival and Dignity (CSD), a national-level forum of the forest-dwellers.
Besides, Section 6(2), Section 6(4), and Rules 12(3) of the Act makes it mandatory to provide at least 60 days to the petitioners to appeal against the decisions.
In this case, the claimants were not given even a week to appear in the DLC for the next hearing, added Majhi, who has been closely observing the rejection cases across Odisha.
Disposal of a petition without giving reasonable opportunity to the petitioner to present anything in support of their claim is also an offence under Section 7 of the Act. The villagers were only asked their name, age and whether they have any evidence. While clause 11 of rules 12A of FRA mentions that insisting upon any particular form of documentary evidence is an offence, the officials were quite insistent, pointed out Majhi.
According to Sandip Patnaik, an Odisha-based analyst, “The FRA rules say that the nature of evidence required should be explicitly mentioned in the notices issued to the claimants. But nowhere in the state it’s been done.”
Implications Of Displacing Real Guardians of the Forest
It is not possible for forest-dwellers, often falsely called ‘encroachers’, to get an immovable property that is required for availing a caste certificate. In 2008, the State Level Monitoring Committee for FRA authorised the gram sabhas for issuing caste certificates for the recognition of rights under FRA. In such situations, rejecting a case without looking into the gram sabha resolution is an offence, Patnaik added.
Noted water and climate expert Ranjan Panda feels that the very case against which the Supreme Court has given an eviction order is a ‘conspiracy’ by some hardcore wildlife protection groups who believe in a ‘colonial forest control regime’.
In a country like India, it is because of the protection offered by indigenous communities that the forests and wildlife are alive.
Against a narrow timber value attached by the forest department and such wildlife activists, the local and indigenous communities in most parts of India consider forests as their family, attach spiritual value to it, and derive multiple benefits while protecting the resources.
Evicting them from the forests is like eliminating the real guardians of the forests. It would also stand against India’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. The state governments must ensure that these people are not evicted from their rightful land.
(The author is a Bhubaneswar-based climate and human interest story-teller. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)