Tribals In Jammu And Kashmir: A Need For Forest Rights Act
By Zubair Nazeer
13 August, 2015
There has been a longstanding demand of the tribal communities of Jammu and Kashmir and their leaders for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 or an identical Act in the State. J&K’s Minister for Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution & Tribal Affairs Chowdhary Zulfkar Ali reiterated this demand on 7th August , 2015 at a programme organized by Forum of SC & ST Legislators & Parliamentarians of India at New Delhi. In the past as well, there have been agitations and protests to press this demand. Why are tribals demanding the extension of the Forest Rights Act to the State? The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act was passed in 2006. The Act sought to address the issue of historical injustice towards the tribals by providing various kinds of rights to the tribals in India. The Act provides ownership and access rights to forest dwellers. It gives them a right to live in forests with freedom to carry out their traditional occupations for livelihood; the rights of ownership, access to collect, use and dispose of Minor Forest Produce (MSP); conservation and management of forest resources; and the right of access to biodiversity and community rights. The Forest Rights Act, therefore, ensures both rights to the tribals and conservation and management of forest resources. However, the Act is not applicable to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Tribals in J&K demand extension of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 to the state so that they too can enjoy rights on forest land as are available to the people belonging to Scheduled Tribe communities across India. Tribal communities by demanding the Forest Rights Act are basically asking for two kinds of rights- the ‘title rights’ and ‘use rights’. These demands are not unjustified as a large chunk of tribals, especially Gujjars and Bakerwals are landless and have been dependent on forest resources for centuries for livelihood. These communities basically want to be treated at par with other scheduled tribe communities in India. They demand that every family of tribals and forest dwellers in Jammu and Kashmir, as per the Forest Rights Act, should be allotted four hectares of land with ‘use rights’ to grazing areas and pastoralist routes, etc. The Forest Rights Act is not all about ‘title rights’ and ‘use rights’, it would also provide development & rehabilitation rights and forest conservation rights. It would seek to ensure basic amenities in forest areas and also rehabilitation in case of illegal eviction or forced displacement. It would also ensure protection of forests, wildlife and biodiversity which is very significant for this Himalayan State.
The State government should formulate its own act keeping in view specific demands and needs of its tribal communities. There is no need for extension of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 to the State. The formulation of its own act would provide an opportunity to the state government to address any apprehensions that it might have with regard to the Act. It is also important to have its own act because the State government in the past has been seeking a review of all Central laws extended to the State after 1952 to strengthen autonomy of the State. While formulating the Act, there lies an opportunity to involve tribal communities, forest bureaucracy and civil society to ensure an effective piece of legislation. Since there is now Ministry of Tribal Affairs in place, it can been given the responsibility to come up with the State’s own Forest Rights Act. The Minister for Tribal Affairs, Chowdhary Zulfkar Ali, has made an attempt in the past to introduce a private bill on J&K Forest Rights Act. Now, as minister, he should be able to convince his government to pass such an act.
There is no debate about the fact that there should be a forest rights act in Jammu and Kashmir. But there are certain critical issues. First is the issue of identification of the forest dwellers to grant the ownership rights. It involves the question of the cut-off date to identify forest dwellers, who resided in or were dependent on forests for three generations up to that day. The Forest Rights Act 2006 provides and recognizes forest rights of those forest dwelling scheduled tribes and other forest dwellers who had occupied forest land before the 13th of December, 2006. In Jammu and Kashmir, some people have suggested 2009 as a cut-off date. Even if this date is taken as a cut-off, it would be a big challenge. There has been an illegal occupation of forest land by non-forest dwellers and this practice continues. Will a cut-off date provide them ownership rights? A number of forest dwellers have been displaced and illegally evicted from their traditional forest areas, how will they be provided with the title rights? These issues will be central while formulating the State’s forest rights act. However, before that becomes a reality, encroachment of forest land has to be stopped, illegal occupants, especially non-forest dwellers evicted and forceful eviction of tribals stopped. If all this is not done, even a forest rights act can’t address the issue of historical injustice towards tribal communities in Jammu and Kashmir. There has to be coordination between the Forest Department and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in the State. In May this year, there was news that Gujjars and Bakerwals are being evicted from their Kothas in Kalakote in Rajouri despite them having been using these kothas for the last four decades. Even if the Forest Department is keen on evicting these landless people, the State government must have a rehabilitation policy in place for them. The rehabilitation can be meaningful only through a Forest Rights Act. The Forest Department has not shown a similar urgency to evict encroachers from Forest Land in Janipur, Roop Nager, Gandhi Nagar, Digyana. The story is no different in the Kashmir Division.
There is apprehension that the Forest Department is against the ownership rights to the tribals since the officials feel that as permanent settlers and owners, they would raze down trees and go for cultivation. However, this apprehension is misplaced. The Forest Rights Act can provide a suitable mechanism something on the lines of Joint Forest Management Committee to ensure effective management of forest resources. Participation by the locals in conservational efforts is the most viable option of conservation and it is a fact that tribal communities understand the importance of forest resources more than any other community. They have made their own efforts but can’t take a larger role because protection of forests by any community is illegal in J&K. This is something that needs to change and the enactment of the Forest Rights Act is a way out. The Act can involve forest dwellers in protection of forest resources on which their livelihood depends.
There is definitely a need of Forest Rights Act in Jammu and Kashmir. It is one step in the development process of tribal communities in the State. However, tribal communities and their leaders have to realize that just a mere enactment of an act won’t suffice. In India, despite the Forest Rights Act, not much has changed. There is a need for a broad tribal policy to ensure development of tribals in Jammu and Kashmir. There is also a need for proper implementation of existing policies and programmes for tribal development.
Zubair Nazeer is a Junior Research Fellow and teaches in Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is currently working on tribals in Jammu and Kashmir firstname.lastname@example.org
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