Himachal tribals’ forest rights “rejected” despite assurance in state assembly

Dec. 20 In what is being interpreted as a “clear example” of how the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, is being flouted despite political assurances, official members of a district level committee under FRA have rejected claims of tribals of Lippa Village, Himachal Pradesh.

In  a joint statement issued by Subhash, Forest Rights Committee president; Tashi Chewang, secretary, Paryavaran Sanrankshan Sangharsh Samiti (PSSS); RS Negi, Him Lok Jagriti Manch, and Jiya Lal Negi, Zilla Van Adhikar Samiti, Kinnaur district, they have asserted that doling out forest land to company is easy, but officials are in a denial mode when it comes to individual forest rights
“Empty promise on FRA have been made in Vidhan Sabha”, they add.

Text of the statement:

Barely few days after tall promises were made about implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in the Himachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly by the Tribal Minister, the District Level Committee (DLC) at Rekong Peo has rejected Individual Forest Rights claims of 47 tribal claimants of Lippa Village in Kinnaur District. The order of the DLC, which was not signed by three non-official members of the committee out of six, was termed as illegal and unjust by the Lippa Forest Rights Committee.

“We condemn this order led by the Deputy Commissioner because the arguments for not recommending the 47 claims are totally baseless. It is clear that the officials are ignorant about the provisions of the FRA 2006. The DLC has just blindly accepted the incorrect decision taken by the bureaucratic members of the Sub-Divisional Level Committee, where as we have provided the DLC detailed objections to the same, based on the provisions in the Forest Rights Act 2006”, said Subhash Negi of President of the Forest Rights Committee (FRC), Lippa.

The order of the DLC dated December 17, 2018 gives three arguments for not recommending the claims. The first is that the claims are not from ‘unsurveyed villages’ but from revenue villages. The second argument is that the evidence submitted by the claimants does not provide proof of three generations. And the third is that the Act was only for those who are primarily residing in forests and dependent on forest land, implying that the claimants were not eligible.

As per the FRC as well as the written objection submitted by the Individual claimants, all three arguments have been legally countered. This Act is not just for ‘unsurveyed villages’ but is also applicable to revenue villages with residents who are dependent for their ‘bonafide livelihood’ needs on forest land. This has been adequately clarified by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in a circular dated  JUNE 9, 2008.

“This argument by the officials that claimants from revenue villages are not eligible is ridiculous because all 17,503 FRCs in Himachal are formed at the revenue village level. If we go by their argument then the FRA, 2006 cannot be implemented in Himachal at all since there almost no forest villages here. The FRA 2006 is applicable where ever people depend on forest land”, said Prakash Bhandari, of Himdhara Collective advocating for the implementation of the Act.

Secondly, the Act requires the three generation evidence clause only for non-tribal people (referred to as Other traditional forest dwellers in the Act), whereas the applicants in the case of Lippa are all belonging to the category of scheduled tribe (ST).

Thirdly, the SDLC and DLC have both recommended the community forest rights for the Lippa village without any objections. “This is s a partial reading of the law. While issuing the CFR title we are considered as ‘primarily residing in forest, forest dwellers’, while considering the individual claims wont the same criteria apply? This shows that the officials do not have even basic knowledge of the act”, added Negi.

It needs to be noted that individual claims can be made, as per the law for both housing as well as land being cultivated. The Gram Sabha of Lippa has recommended all 47 claims almost six months ago.

The decision of the DLC is also contentious because the forest land under Lippa Village was leased out to Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Limited for the Kashang Stage 2 and 3 hydropower projects by the State cabinet on 0ctober 13, 2018.

The Paryavaran Sangharsh Samiti, Lippa, which has been opposing the forest clearance to the project has objected to the cabinet decision taken on the grounds that it “is a clear violation of not only of the PESA, FRA, 2006 and the National Green Tribunal (NGT) judgment dated May 5, 2016 but also the state’s own legislation”. In 2016 NGT had ordered that the forest rights of the communities be settled as per provisions of the FRA and only after that the project proponents could approach the Gram Sabha for no-objection certificate (NOC).

The lease order was made under Himachal Pradesh Lease rules, 2013 for an underground area of 06-03-20 ha, situated in Up-Mohal Lappo of the Lippa Village. According to Tashi Chewang, Secretary, Paryavaran Sanrakshan Sangharsh Samiti, “Rule 11 sub rule 2 (iii) of the Himachal Pradesh Lease Rules, 2014 clearly states that “In Scheduled areas the Sub-Divisional Officer (Civil) shall also refer the lease application to the concerned Gram Sabhas for consultation. He shall proceed further only after obtaining the Gram Sabha’s resolution in this regard.”

But during the whole process of leasing out land to HPPCL, neither the SDM has ever approached or consulted with the Lippa gram sabha nor the Gram Sabha ever passed any resolution in this regar”.  The Vanya Prani, Van Evam Jaivividhta Sanrakhsan Samiti formed under rule 4(E) of the FRA 2006 by Lippa Gram Sabha has issued a legal notice to the Chief Secretary and six other high level officials challenging the lease order.

The people of Lippa village for the last ten years have been struggling against the projects because of the havoc that diversion of the Kerang Khad would cause. Kerang is a perennial stream that flows adjacent to the Lippa village and it helps in flushing out the huge silt and debris that come towards the village from another stream called the Pager Khad. “If the Kerang is diverted by the project then the Pager khad will destroy the village”, added Chewang.

“The Chilgoza forest and other biodiversity on which the livelihood of locals is directly dependent will also be impacted by the forest diversion and construction”, said members of the Paryavaran Sanrankshan Sangharsh Samiti.

“Our struggle is for our day to day survival and livelihood using every law that is available for protection of tribal rights. But when the State is violating all these constitutional laws and provisions, what is the community to do?”asks RS Negi leader of the Him Lok Jagriti Manch, Kinnaur, a platform for tribal rights in the district. (Image: BloombergQuint) Credit

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