Himachal Pradesh government flunks forest rights subject

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Several projects including World Bank funded Luhri Hydropower, controversial Renuka Dam and Bajoli-Holi Project are facing local agitations or have been challenged in courts by affected people. Photo Courtesy: himdhara.org

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, or Recognition of Forest Rights Act – commonly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was passed by Parliament in 2006 to address historical injustices meted out to a large community of forest dwellers. Rights over forest lands were taken away since notification of forests under colonial Indian Forest Act (1927). A process of alienation continued in the name of wildlife conservation, forest management and development, shrinking survival spaces of forest dependent people each time. It is only logical to assume that this piece of legislation is extremely relavant for Himachal Pradesh, where 67 percent of the total land area is under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department.

In Himachal Pradesh, 13.65 percent of the total geographical area is under Wildlife Sanctuaries and National Parks where community rights have been restricted. This is more than the percentage of total net sown area of the state. According to the Forest Department’s own data, from 1981 to 2012, more than 10,000 hectares of forest land on which people had user rights, have been diverted for hydropower, mining, roads and other projects. This does not include the thousands of hectares of forest lands diverted towards projects like Bhakra Dam before 1980. Close to 30 percent of the forests have been converted to Chir Pine monocultures, thereby displacing the grazing rights of several communities like the Gaddis and Gujjars. There is no quantitative assessment of the impact of loss on people’s lives. Displacements due to construction of the Bhakra Dam did not result in adequate rehabilitation, and the displaced do not have clear titles still. Thousands of Gaddis from Bharmour, who settled at the base of the Dhauladhars in Kangra are now facing a threat of eviction due to a High Court order in 2012. The communities impacted by the Great Himalayan National Park have challenged declaration of the Park as a heritage site, unless they get the benefits of tourism. People of Kinnaur continue to agitate against hydropower projects that have destroyed the precious Chilgoza pine forest.

With Himachal being a ‘number-one-pro-people-state,’ the state government should have made its best effort in ensuring implementation of the Forest Rights Act. The BJP led government in 2008 decided to implement the Act only in select areas, namely the scheduled areas of Kinnaur, Chamba, Lahaul and Spiti. According to data provided to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, only seven land titles were issued out of 5,409 individual claims in the last five years. However, the cause of worry is not so much the dismal performance, as is the fact that till date the State Government has not made its official position on the FRA public.  On one hand, early in 2012, the BJP government notified that the Act would be implemented in the state, while on the other – it was seeking waiver from implementing the provisions of the Act from Ministry of Environment.

Back in August 2009, to strengthen compliance to the FRA provisions, the Forest Ministry issued an advisory that before recommending clearances to diversion of forest lands for any project, no-objection-certificates (NOCs) from the Gram Sabha or general body of the affected villages were mandatory. The circular also asked for proof whether proceedings under FRA 2006 had been complied with in the villages. Since most forest diversion proposals are received by the Ministry’s recommending body, Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) ignored the August 2009 circular in April 2012. FAC stated that the 2009 circular would have to be complied by State Governments. This was also specifically stated for hydropower and dam projects from Himachal seeking forest clearances. Some of these projects included the World Bank funded 775 MW Luhri Hydropower, the controversial Renuka Dam and GMR’s 180 MW Bajoli-Holi Project which were awaiting forest diversion clearance. It is important to note that all these projects are facing local agitations, or have been challenged in courts by affected people.

Due to delay of the project’s clearances, in September 2011 and later in April 2012, then Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal wrote letters to Jayanthi Natrajan stating that rights of the forest dwellers have been ‘settled’. The letters also suggested that a certificate issued by the District Collector stating there was no FRA compliance issues would be submitted by State Government, instead of the mandatory NOCs. On 20 September 2012, the MoEF wrote to the Principal Secretary of Himachal Pradesh stating that the conditions ordered by the Ministry in relation to FRA compliance before according forest clearances to projects would be waived for the state. Certificates of ‘no pending claims under the FRA 2006’ issued by the DC, are now officially recognised by Ministry of Environment and Forest. This means that the MoEF completely bought into the Himachal government’s stand that all forest rights in Himachal were settled during the 1971 Forest Settlement.

It is true that the Forest Settlement process in Himachal Pradesh was effective in putting on record several of the community user rights which are locally known as bartandaari, but these are not the same as ‘forest rights’ recognised by the FRA that include both community and individual rights. Firstly, as far as community rights are concerned, forest settlement process gave ‘concession and privileges’, and not ‘inalienable rights’. Following the principle of ‘eminent domain’, these customary rights were taken back by the state without following any legal procedure or paying compensation to the affected. More importantly, the Himachal government’s argues that there is complete denial of several thousand families that have individual claims over forest lands since they have been either living on the land or practicing agriculture on it. The Bhakra Dam oustees or the Gaddis settled in Kangra are prime examples.

So why did the Himachal government announce implementation of the Act when it was convinced that there were no forest rights to be regularised? Why did it not approach the Tribal Affairs Ministry with the same position as it did with the Environment Ministry? The Congress government that recently came to power continues to be focused on speeding up clearances which are being held up because of the want of NoCs. Clearly there seem to be no such compulsions whatsoever in regard to implementation of the Forest Rights Act.

Manshi Asher is a member of Himdhara, an environment action group based in Himachal Pradesh

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