Himachal undoes a pro-people Central law

A radical act was passed in the Parliament in 2006 which promised to undo the “historical injustice” that was committed on India's forest dwellers by the non-recognition of their rights on the country's forests.

Himachal undoes a pro-people Central law

The Chipko green squad opposing the cutting of apple trees in Khangteri panchayat in Rohru. The implementation of the Forest Rights Act has been rather slow in HP Tribune photo

Prakash Bhandari & Manshi Asher

A radical act was passed in the Parliament in 2006 which promised to undo the “historical injustice” that was committed on India's forest dwellers by the non-recognition of their rights on the country's forests. Himachal Pradesh is undermining this legislation.  

On April 6, 2015 the Himachal Pradesh High Court ordered the removal of encroachments on "forest land" in the state, within six months. This has triggered an eviction drive by the Forest Department. This includes serving notices for removal of encroachments, disconnecting electricity and water supply  provided to all "illegal" structures raised over encroached land and legal action in case of non-compliance. In upper Shimla, the Forest Department went to the extent of felling apple trees from orchards on "forest land". In Kinnaur, 60 such notices were served to so-called "encroachers". Fearing further action, the people of Kinnaur on July 25, 2015, organised a huge rally at District headquarters, Rekong Peo, questioning the manner in which the Forest Department is implementing the orders of the High Court.  

The order of the High Court is unclear with regard to the implications of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) in the implementation of its order. As a result, the Forest Department is conducting a blanket removal drive and not even excluding the areas that fall under the purview of the FRA. It is very important to understand, that the FRA has clearly provided those individuals who were regarded as "encroachers" under the previous legal framework, the right to claim titles in "Forest" areas occupied prior to December 13, 2005. The provisions of this Act are applicable for Scheduled Tribes and other forest-dwelling communities, which means almost the entire state. This is a special Act which supersedes all other previous acts related to forests like the Indian Forest Act 1927, or the Forest Conservation Act 1980, on this issue. It is a matter of concern that the state government failed to bring the issue of non-implementation of FRA to the High Court. 

The FRA implementation in Himachal Pradesh has been rather slow, mostly due to the lack of effort by the government. As per the Section 5 of Chapter III of the FRA, “No member of a forest dwelling Scheduled Tribe or other traditional forest dweller shall be evicted or removed from forest land under his occupation till the recognition and verification procedure is complete”. The State government has shown an absence of will to implement this Act. This, when the plan to regularise occupations on forest land dates back to 2002, when the erstwhile BJP government had announced that occupiers should to file their affidavit for regularisation. In a U-turn, this was not implemented by that or other successive governments in Himachal. However, the fact that from Kinnaur alone thousands of claims were filed in that year shows that the occupations date back to before 2005 and are thus eligible under the FRA, 2006. In a complete back-stabbing move, the government is using the information provided by the communities about their occupation of forest land to forcefully evict them. This has led to a complete loss of faith in the state. The entire basis of the eviction drive is questionable as it places “ecological concern” at the centre. There is a need to understand the fallacy of this argument. Firstly, as per the Forest Department of HP, there were in the year 2011-12, 8,598 cases of encroachments over an area of 15.87 sq km. This is miniscule compared to the total forest land in the state which is 37,033 square km. Compare this figure to the 1,100 sq km of forest land that the government has officially diverted for roads, hydropower, mining projects. Why is it that the ecological concerns do not come into play at this large-scale diversion of forests? Clearly, the forests are just a mere commodity that can be diverted for non-forest usage in the name of development. The entire state machinery works overtime to support the forest diversion process but the same machinery has no resources or will to ensure or facilitate the implementation of the Forest Rights Act. This shows the in-built anti-people bias in governance structures of the state.  

The state government has been promoting horticulture and off-season vegetable cultivation all over the state. In a state where less than 12 per cent of the area is under private ownership and 68.3 per cent of the farmers have less than a hectare of land, the availability of private land for such “land-intensive” farming is scarce. Thus, it was inevitable that horticultural operations would spill over on land under the Forest Department, which covers two-third of the total geographical area of Himachal. The political class and government departments, both revenue and forest, were well aware that this farming was being carried out on forest land and chose to remain silent about the same. Once communities have invested heavily in these activities, the government is now attacking the local livelihood source, which it first promoted. The government is spending close to 75 per cent of its budget on “salaries and pensions”, loans and interest repayment. This benefit is accruing to only 3.5 per cent households, with individuals in state government jobs. According to the 2011 Census, of the total work force in Himachal, around 62 per cent are cultivators and agricultural labourers. This means that a majority of the population dependent completely on farming as a livelihood, is not a beneficiary in the state budget allocations. This divide between the service class and the farming communities could ultimately lead to distress migration, visible in states like Uttarakhand.  

A little-known fact, reported recently, is that Himachal Pradesh had 28 cases of farmer's suicides in 2014, the highest amongst the North Indian states last year. An agrarian crisis may be brewing in Himachal as it is in the rest of the country. Moves like the eviction drive may just add fuel to fire. For a state that boasts of being good at taking care of its people, here is a matter than needs to be urgently redressed.  

The writers are members of Himdhara, Environment Research and Action Collective

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