CHENNAI: Tamil Nadu is the worst performer in the country when it comes to implementation of Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, which in short is referred as Forest Rights Act (FRA).
In the last 10 years after the Centre notified FRA, Tamil Nadu has not issued Title Rights to tribal communities, who are integral to the very survival and sustainability of forest eco-system. To a question by MPs Vijay Hansdak and Rabindra Kumar Jena in Parliament recently, the data put out by the Union Ministry of Tribal Welfare indicates that Tamil Nadu received 21,781 claims on forest land titles as on August 31, 2017 but not a single claim has been processed.
In comparison, neighbouring Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and even a smaller State like Kerala performed reasonably well. Telangana government issued 94,215 titles out of 1,86,534 claims received. Andhra Pradesh distributed 89,289 titles, Kerala 24,599 titles and Karnataka 13,049. Odisha distributed 4,12,871 forest land titles, which is the highest in the country followed by Chhattisgarh 3,86,432.
Under FRA, tribals who have been residing in the forests prior to December 13, 2005 and the non-tribals who have been residing in the forests for three generations i.e., for 75 years as on December 13, 2005 should be given Title Rights. Implementation of this law is monitored by the committees headed by Chief Secretary at the State-level, Collectors in the districts and Revenue divisional officer at sub-divisional level.
When contacted by Express, a senior official in Adi-Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department said that the data submitted by the ministry was not updated. The government has distributed 2,620 title rights and necessary action was being taken to distribute the rights to the beneficiaries in 12 districts.
The department’s policy note of 2017-18 says the process of distribution of titles could not be initiated in Tamil Nadu because of a stay granted by Madras High Court. The Director, Tribal Welfare, in 2015 filed an interlocutory application before the Supreme Court to vacate the stay and subsequently the apex court on February 2, 2016 vacated it. “Necessary ground work has been carried out for the distribution of title deeds to the claimants and based on Geo-referencing, individual rights and community rights have been taken up for distribution,” the policy note said.
However, tribal welfare activists disputed the State government’s version. “There was never a stay. It’s a lie. Always, this has been misinterpreted to delay the process. High Court interim order pronounced in 2010 didn’t stop the government from implementing the Act at any stage. It only says the titles should be issued after clearance from the court. The biggest problem in Tamil Nadu is lack of awareness about the Forest Rights Act amidst tribals and forest dwellers.
Other states have carried out exhaustive campaigning and training and even entered into an MoU with tribal organisations to make the target population understand the provisions of the Act and identify beneficiaries, but here I don’t see any such enthusiasm and commitment,” said C R Bijoy of Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD), a national forum for tribals and forest dwellers. Bijoy was also a former panel member of Union Ministry of Tribal Welfare.
Environmental lawyer B Nagasaila, who represented a tribal organisation in the case filed by a retired IFS officer V Sambasivam challenging FRA, said under the Act the first step is that the district administration and forest department should go and tell the people about their rights, survey the land and help them make the claims.
“Today, many of the tribal hamlets are part of town panchayats. So, they have to conduct hamlet level gram sabhas to identify the beneficiaries. The government has not initiated the process at all. Initially, a list of beneficiaries was submitted before High Court and when a file inspection was conducted, the forest department in some cases printed the claim forms, which defeats the purpose of the FRA. We objected it,” she said.