Chhattisgarh, MP elections: Forest rights emerge as major issue

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As both Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh go to polls, the issue of land rights of forest dwelling communities has gained prominence.
As both Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh go to polls, the issue of land rights of forest dwelling communities has gained prominence.

As both Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh go to polls, the issue of land rights of forest dwelling communities has gained prominence.

In Chhattisgarh, where votes for the first phase are being cast today, organisations working for tribals’ forest rights have sent a people’s manifesto to all the political parties highlighting the promises and the potential of Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition Of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) and Provision of the Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA). Both these acts empower the tribal and forest dwelling communities by recognising their rights over land and forest produce.

The manifesto was released during the ‘Vanadhikar Jan Sammelan’ (People’s Convention on Forest Rights) held last month in Raipur. The event was organised by all the major tribal organisations of Chhattisgarh like Vanadhikar, Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan and Sarv Adivasi Samaj. Sarv Adivasi Samaj, the umbrella organisation of tribals in Chhattisgarh, has decided to take the people’s manifesto to every constituency, where tribals live and can demand the candidates to look into.

“The issue of FRA is very important in the first phase of the election as all the constituencies barring Dongragaon, are majorly covered by forests with potential for FRA implementation,” says Alok Shukla, convener, Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan.

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While there’s a lot of the potential land area to be granted to these communities under FRA, the scale of implementation is very low. According to data compiled and analysed by Vasundhara, a Bhubaneshwar-based non-profit working with the tribal communities, land titles under FRA have been given for only 50 per cent of the potential area. “In tribal areas, people aren’t happy with the government at all. The government has made a joke of the FRA provisions. The state has only given minimal individual forest rights and the part of the law which talked about democratising the forest governance has been ignored. Similarly, with PESA, the government, instead of empowering the gram sabha of the scheduled area, is supporting corporates,” says Shukla.

The potential FRA area is calculated using the data on the number of households that were living on a piece of forest land prior to 2005—the cut off date under FRA for staking claim on the land.

Similarly in MP, which goes to poll on November 28, organisations have sent their FRA related demands to major political parties. “We are trying to make political parties aware of the rights of the tribals, rights given to us by law. We have sent letters to both the BJP and the Congress telling them about the provisions of FRA and how the law’s implementation is inadequate,” says Sunderlal Ueke, secretary of the Samast Aadivasi Samaj Sangathan, based in Betul district of MP.

In the state, according to data analysed by Vasundhara, only around 20 per cent of the potential rights under FRA have been recognised. And there is a catch here too. According to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs’ latest monthly progress report on states’ FRA implementation, in MP, of the total approved claims for land under FRA, only around 40 per cent land titles have been distributed. The progress report looked at the implementation of FRA between January 2008, when the law came into force, and August 31, 2018.

Given the importance of FRA for tribal communities, the issue and its recognition by political parties will have a major impact on the outcome of the election results in these two states.

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