Surguja: “Jungle se ab nahi bedakhal (Now, forest-dwellers won’t be evicted from the jungle)”, declare billboards across Chhattisgarh’s Surguja, a district over 330 km northeast of the state capital Raipur.

The statement on the billboard is accompanied by Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s smiling face, and data: 500,000 forest-dependent families have been granted rights over land and resources spanning 9.6 million acre of forested area.

In preparation for the upcoming assembly polls, the Congress party has underlined its support for the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) as one of the major stilts of its re-election campaign.

The state public relations department on September 3 shared a news report stating that Chhattisgarh showcases the best enactment of FRA across the country. In addition to recognising rights for 500,000 families under the Individual Forest Rights (IFR) provision of the Act, 46,000 villages have been granted Community Forest Rights (CFR), “which is the highest in the country”, the report said.

The ground reality of IFR in Chhattisgarh, however, makes this pat on the governmental back seem premature. In a state with 30% adivasi population, a seemingly ubiquitous loophole in the implementation of IFR is the trend of claimants receiving ‘pattas’ or ownership certificates for significantly less land than they applied for, according to our analysis of government data. The issue of beneficiaries receiving less land than their claim is not new and is pervasive throughout the state, we found.

‘Barely enough land for a house’

The FRA was enacted to correct the “historical injustice” committed against tribal and other traditional forest-dwelling communities. IFR is the provision that recognises an individual’s ownership rights over forest land if they can prove occupation of the land before December 13, 2005.

Provisions like IFR, CFR and Community Forest Resource Rights (CFRR) seek to recognise the traditional boundaries of the village’s forest. The Act holds the gram sabha as the nodal authority over forests. In September 2012, an amendment to the FRA read down the stringent proofs required to legitimise an individual’s claim. Despite this easing of the provisions, it is alleged that the law is implemented only half-heartedly in most states.

The discrepancies in the area of land granted under IFR has meant that smaller farmers, who are cultivating about an acre or two, have received barely ‘10-12 dismil’, a local land measurement unit equivalent to about 50 sq yd. The unit that is recorded on the patta is in hectare.

To put this situation into perspective: 0.4 hectare (ha) is one acre and one acre is 100 dismil. Often, beneficiaries’ certificates read ‘0.020 ha’ or ‘0.050 ha’ for the area of land granted. This rounds up to between 5-12 dismil or 0.04 to 0.1 acre, which is roughly the area of a tennis court.

“That is barely even enough to build a house,” said Duharam Majhvar, a resident of the Kundeli village in the Mareya panchayat of the Udaipur block in Surguja district. The 60-year-old, whose family has occupied their land since his grandparents’ generation, has received 0.060 hectare or 0.1 acre (14 dismil), despite filling the form for 4 acre (400 dismil). A typical village mud house of an Adivasi family in Chhattisgarh requires about 5-10 dismil of land.

Duharam said that he has paid various people who promised to help him rectify the issue by filling new application forms, but the expense has borne no fruit. “I paid a total of Rs 1,500 but I still have only a fraction of my land on paper,” he said.

Bound up in red tape

Mistakes are a common occurrence in the claims process across the state. The stipulated list of documents that can be considered proof includes testimonies from village elders, satellite imagery, and preliminary offence reports that have been issued before December 13, 2005. Specifically in the context of individuals occupying forest land, a preliminary offence report, or POR, was filed by the forest department when a person was to be penalised for cutting trees for wood or clearing land for agriculture. This was prevalent before the FRA was implemented in 2006. The law then gave forest-dwellers rights over collecting dry wood from the forest floor and other non-timber forest produce. Today, a POR receipt works as a document of proof of occupancy before December 2005.

The Act states that authorities can use any two of the documents as proof. In the 2012 amendment, the stringency of the required proofs was simplified, instructing the forest and revenue departments not to insist on satellite imagery if the claimant is able to provide testimonies and proof of residence. Non-adivasi applicants have to prove settlement for 75 years.

The conundrum occurs when many families find that the documents have been misplaced or when they are uninformed about the exact proofs needed. Having to verify claims at different levels also assumes the capabilities of, for example, the village’s forest rights committee or panchayat functionaries, which makes the process highly subjective and dependent on the individual interpretation and awareness.

Duharam Majhva, a resident of the Kundeli village in Chhattisgarh’s Surguja, claimed individual forest rights over 4 acre. He received about 0.1 acre. He is seen here with this forest rights patta at a village meeting.

How and why is the discrepancy occurring?

The claims process, complex to begin with, is hobbled by the reluctance of authorities and severe ignorance of gram sabhas and the public. The cycle begins with verification efforts undertaken by the village-level forest rights committee and ends with the district-level committee ensuring that all the documents are in order. A vital step is the ‘mauka jaanch’ or spot inspection of the claimant’s land by either the forest or revenue department.

Experts point to the mauka jaanch as the chink in the armour.

Ideally, the spot inspection is supposed to happen in the presence of the claimant and a few witnesses--they can include members of the village forest rights committee, people occupying land bordering the claimant’s, and village residents who can corroborate the claimed boundaries. The forest ranger or revenue officer will then pass the application to the panchayat, which will then go to the sub-divisional office, and on to the district.

An expert who has worked on forest rights in the district for almost two decades and who wishes to remain anonymous said that in reality, many applications are passed on without the mauka jaanch. In a study conducted by an independent Surguja-based researcher of rejected claimants in February 2021--which IndiaSpend has accessed--only 39% of 529 respondents said that a spot inspection had been conducted for their application.

“In other cases, the forest or revenue official does visit the site but makes note of the area of land as per their ‘convenience’. Through FRA and now PESA [Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996], the ownership of the forest is to be transferred to the gram sabha, but in our experience, authorities still try to maintain control,” he explained.

Sub-divisional magistrate of Udaipur block P.R. Khande defends the officials, saying that they are “duty-bound to record what they see”, which means that the area of land that a person is actively cultivating on the day of the visit is recorded. “If the official is seeing that the claimant is cultivating 50 dismil, or has built a house and has a kitchen garden on 50 dismil of land, then isn’t it logical that that is what they will record, or will they accept their claim of five acres?”

On being asked whether the official takes into account the ‘testimony of elders’--which is one of the easiest and more accessible legal proofs--to grant IFR, Khande said that “weightage is given to how much land looks occupied during the physical inspection”.

Baldev Paikra, former panchayat secretary of the Mareya panchayat, echoed Khande’s statement, but in a bemused tone. “It seems like the land approved is based on the area that the claimant is farming on at that moment, regardless of the area claimed.” Paikra points out that if a person claims five acre land in his application filed in June and a spot verification is happening in July, when maybe only an acre is sowed, then the officer will only approve one acre of land. This goes against the essence of the law, the expert added.

D.P. Nagesh, assistant commissioner of the district tribal development department, put the onus on the village forest rights committee and local revenue and forest department officials. He said, “At the district level, it would be difficult for me to pinpoint how or why the discrepancy is occurring.” On being asked whether the district has instructed officials to only record the area of land being farmed at the time of the mauka jaanch, Nagesh said no such direction has been given. “The mauka jaanch is supposed to confirm the veracity of the individual’s claim of occupancy as per her application without any additional conditions,” he added.

IndiaSpend also reached out to the relevant department in the state government for an input on October 25. We will update the story when we receive a response.

Sukhsay Kanwar, president of Mareya’s forest rights committee, is dealing with the same problem for his own land. Kanwar had filed a claim for 2 acre and received an ownership certificate for 0.070 ha (or 17 dismil) in 2017. He alleges that he had also paid Rs 500 to forest officials, but no mauka jaanch was conducted for his application. As a result, despite the post he holds, he has not received the full area of land he applied for.

Kanwar’s case is not an exception. The FRA relies on the village forest rights committees for the crucial step of verification and corroboration of an individual’s claim. Based on the committees’ recommendation, the application is raised in the gram sabha for approval by the village. In reality, with committees being incapable of following through on their role and the mauka jaanch being skipped, government officials are free to record the area of land as they see fit. It is their record, and not the individual’s originally claimed area of land, that is presented for consideration before the gram sabha, thus undermining the gram sabha’s authority.

Mareya FRC president Sukhsay Kanwar has also received the incorrect area of land compared to his claim.

Discrepancies in data and disruption in livelihood

Official data show that discrepancies play out uniformly at the block and district-level. People have received less land than they had claimed.

The Chhattisgarh tribal affairs department’s data, as of 2020, display a list of 7,469 claimants in the Udaipur block (40 km from Ambikapur, the district headquarters of Surguja), who have claimed less than or equal to 10 acre or 4 hectare, as is provided for by the FRA. The average area of forest land claimed across the block’s 51 panchayats is 2.29 acre. In contrast, the area that has been approved is 1.27 acre, on average.

At the district level, which is seven blocks, the same 2020 data set lists 27,250 people and the average claimed area as 1.63 acre, while the average area approved is 1.17 acre. The picture stands as such in whole figures--a total area of about 45,000 acre was claimed for IFR as of 2020. Three years later, as per government data accessed by IndiaSpend in August 2023, rights over 35,036 acre have been recognised. Hence, based on official data, the discrepancy plays out uniformly at the block and district-level too. There is a discrepancy of about 10,000 acre of land between what was claimed and what was approved.

This author spoke to around 45 such applicants in villages across the district between July 2021 and September 2023. Particularly in Kundeli village, the frustration over being excluded from public welfare schemes that are available to people who have certificates for an acre or more was palpable.

The situation of IFR in the Kundeli village of Udaipur block is interesting because of its geographical and demographic makeup. It is a heavily forested area populated by several vulnerable tribes like Pando, classified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) by the Chhattisgarh government, and the Majhi and Majhwar tribes, among others.

Like most of the Adivasi communities residing in Surguja, they are also very dependent on the forest for their livelihood. The village is spread over a few hillocks and some of its hamlets don’t have a motorable road. Most of the respondents’ families depend almost entirely on agriculture, and do not have irrigated land. In non-monsoon months, they earn sporadically through daily wage labour on farms and at the government’s rural employment scheme Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) sites.

Radha Bai of Dhavaipaani hamlet in Kundeli village filed a claim for 10 acre under the Forest Rights Act. She received a patta for 0.1 acre.

Libilsay Bada and Radha Bai are neighbours in the Dhavaipaani hamlet of Kundeli village. The hamlet is only accessible by foot. Bada applied for a patta for seven acre and got 0.04 acre, while Radha filed a claim for 10 acre and got 0.1 acre.

Both said that they are worried about the issue of their land, which their families have been cultivating for generations.

“It will be very harmful if we don’t get a certificate for the whole area of land that we are cultivating because if they try to evacuate us from the land for some project or the other, we will be defenceless,” said Bada, who belongs to the Adivasi Oraon community. “This is my father’s land. Where is the rest of it getting registered if it’s not on my patta? What are they doing about it? Duniya humara zameen chheen raha hai (everyone is trying to grab our land).”

Radha Bai added that they also want the paperwork for their whole occupied land so that they can pass on stabler futures to their children.

“What will we give our children if we only have a few dismil of land to our name?” she said.

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