Himmatnagar, Sabarkantha: In January this year Darangi Bhera Sarubhai, a resident of Khedasan village in Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district, received a notice informing him that his Individual Forest Rights (IFR) claim had been rejected.

The 70-year-old was one of 30 individuals from Khedasan, a Schedule V village, whose claims were rejected on the grounds that their possession of the land could not be verified via satellite imagery. The notice sent tremors through villages in the district, several of whom have pending IFR claims.

The Khedasan rejections are significant as this was the first time that IFR claims in the district were verified by the GEER Foundation, an autonomous body for ecological research set up by the state forest department.

Tribal communities and activists in north and north-west Gujarat have become increasingly concerned about the foundation’s functioning since 2017, when it was first tasked with verification of claims under the Forest Rights Act.

The primary complaints against GEER centre around the foundation’s lack of transparency, as it has so far refused to share the maps used to make recommendations. In addition, according to replies to right-to-information (RTI) requests, and notices by range forest officers, IFR claims are being rejected by district authorities based solely on GEER’s recommendations.

Under Section 13 of FRA, there are several types of evidence that can be provided for IFR claims, including GPS and satellite imagery, elders’ testimonies, and site inspection to verify occupation, among others. But all such evidence is being ignored and the GEER reports are being given primacy in deciding claims, documents show.

Contradictory narratives

FRA claims are verified at three levels, the highest being the district level committee (DLC). In December 2023, a DLC evaluated 176 claimants from different villages in Vijaynagar, Kedbrahma, and Poshina talukas in Sabarkantha district. Only Khedasan’s villagers received notices in March. Issued in January, the notices stated that “considering the verification report of GEER Foundation in the meeting dated 17 December 2023, your (FRA) claim is invalidated” (as translated from the original Gujarati).

A copy of one of the notices received by the villagers in Khedasan of Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district on January 1, 2024.

Villagers from Khedasan told IndiaSpend that the notices came as a shock, as GPS and satellite imagery exercises conducted by local NGOs showed clear possession of plots. These included marking the location points to size up the plot, which was then superseded by the satellite imagery of the area from 2005 to 2007, to prove that it was being cultivated during that period. They also had several other proofs, including verification from the Gram Sabha. As per the FRA, their IFR claims did not require a verdict from GEER, but apparently the foundation’s report was the only one considered.

A DLC official present at the meeting where the decision was taken told IndiaSpend that “The reason for rejecting all claims from Khedasan was not just because of the GEER Foundation report but because they had not provided other evidence as well.” The official, who did not want to be named, claimed that “We are not considering that report to make our conclusions.”

However, a response to an RTI query filed by Bharat Singh Limbad of Khedasan clearly states that the proceedings held at the DLC level took cognisance of the GEER Foundation report to negate all claims from the village.

Limbad told IndiaSpend that even if the claims were rejected on account of missing evidence, the DLC should have sent a notice to the villagers for a hearing and an opportunity to present the other evidence, since the use of satellite imagery was supposed to be used only as supplementary evidence to approve FRA claims, and not as an instrument to reject them, as per a 2013 Gujarat High Court judgement. Limbad has filed a case in the high court against the notice.

Additionally, Khedasan’s villagers received another notice in March from J.R. Vaghela, the range forest officer (RFO) of Dholwani Range, accusing the villagers of misusing the FRA for false claim applications, “which was revealed during the verification of claim applications from the satellite imagery” (as translated from the original notice in Gujarati). The notice further asked the villagers to remove the “unauthorised possession” within 10 days from the date of receipt of the letter and said that a complaint had been lodged against them under the Gujarat Land Grab Act 2020.

Other controversies with GEER reports

In Sabarkantha’s neighbouring Aravalli district where the GEER Foundation verification was also done for the first time in 2023, 207 claims out of the total 478 were rejected. The report is usually received by the members of the Adivasi Mahasabha, a movement for tribal rights, who carry out the GPS survey or train others to do so.

“The reasons for rejection are not given specifically for each claimant but it is mentioned that it could be either of the three reasons i.e. satellite imagery couldn’t find possession, there was no recommendation given by the range forest officer, or the claimant is holding a government job or is a pensioner,” said Kishor Choudhary, a member of Human Development and Research Centre, a voluntary organisation allied with the Mahasabha.

The FRA gives power to Gram Sabhas to make decisions on claims, and the opinion of forest officials is not supposed to be a deciding factor. Similarly, the Act does not talk about excluding pensioners from availing the land rights. DLC officials, when contacted, agreed that there was some confusion regarding these reasons and that they had sent a letter to higher authorities to get clarification.

Aside from the rejections, there were also issues with approved claims as almost all the approvals involved less area than what was originally claimed by the FRA beneficiaries.

As per the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a nationwide network of forest dwellers in India, satellite imagery for small plots is highly error-prone, and physical verifications by Gram Sabhas would work better.

Members of Action Research in Community Health (ARCH), an NGO working with tribal communities, also raised concerns regarding GPS survey and satellite imagery that resulted in either rejection of claims or approval of less area than what was claimed.

“This is why satellite imagery is just one piece of evidence that can be submitted for verifying FRA claims,” said Abrish Mehta of ARCH. “In case satellite imagery is not in favour of the claimants (showing less area or no possession), they should be given the option to produce alternative proofs of their occupation.”

Mehta has been advocating for the GEER Foundation to share its satellite imagery maps with the claimants.

An official from Gujarat’s tribal department told IndiaSpend that “The GEER Foundation has now agreed to share their maps with the claimants, in a recent meeting. The reason some of the approved claims are less than the area asked is that these people give arbitrary estimates of the claimed area.”

Choudhary said that the claimants were hesitant to let the GEER Foundation, which is associated with the forest department, do the satellite imagery work unless they guaranteed that it would not reduce the area presented in their GPS/Satellite mapping.

IndiaSpend reached out to the director of GEER, R.K. Sugoor for comment, and attempted to meet with him on two occasions, but without success. This story will be updated when we receive a response.

FRA and distrust of the forest department

The FRA process in Gujarat started in 2008, when forest rights committees were constituted. The processing of the claims began a year later. In 2010, the state government declared that satellite imageries would be used with the help of the Bhaskaracharya National Institute for Space Applications and Geoinformatics (BISAG), a state-owned facility, for FRA claims where no other documentary evidence/records was available with the forest department.

During that time (2009-10) in Khedasan village, 78 FRA claims were filed but only four of them were approved and all others were rejected, Avinash Kulkarni, an activist with Adivasi Mahasabha said. During this time, BISAG evaluated 182,000 claims and rejected 113,000. Here, too, all other records and site-based verification were ignored in favour of BISAG’s satellite imagery, Kulkarni said.

In 2011, ARCH filed a public interest litigation in the Gujarat High Court calling the exercise “undemocratic” and “unscientific.” In 2013, the court ordered the state government to review all the rejected claims, including 74 claims from Khedasan village, and gave directions against evicting or harassing the tribals during the pendency of claims.

In the second phase of the review, BISAG evidence was not consulted. Many claims were approved, but none of them were from Khedasan. The tribal officials realised that the issue was that satellite imaging was not done by feeding the GPS coordinates of the plots in question, Kulkarni said.

As per Kulkarni, the tribal commissioner stated that land should be measured by GPS, which is what the NGO started doing and trained others to do as well. In 2016, their efforts allowed Gujarat’s state-level monitoring committee to use satellite imageries for verification of disputed/rejected and pending claims for Narmada district on a pilot basis through the technical assistance of GEER Foundation.

Tribals versus Forest Department

Many tribal communities are wary of the forest department and its associated organisations. According to Choudhary, the forest department filed false claims of encroachment and trespassing against several tribals in Sabarkantha and constantly harassed them. Limbad, too, claimed that Khedasan also has a long history of intimidation by the forest department.

A response to another RTI filed by Limbad revealed a trail of communication between the DLC and the forest department, which showed the opposite.

A show cause notice was issued in 2020 by the RFO, declaring that the villagers’ land fell in the category of “reserved forest” under the Indian Forest Act 1927 and the Indian Wildlife Conservation Act 1972, and accused the villagers of damaging the forest, which could attract “criminal cases” against them

This was the argument used by the forest department to forcefully dig holes in the village for plantation purposes. Bhera claimed that his legs were broken, he was put in jail by the forest authorities, and prevented from cultivating his 4.04 hectares of land.

Despite letters sent by the DLC secretary and the additional collector twice last year requesting the forest department to “not remove or vacate the claimants from the occupied forest land as the process of verifying all rejected claims under the satellite imagery was ongoing”, the villagers say--and notices sent to them show--that the forest department continued harassing the villagers.

On being contacted, the forest department officials denied such allegations. However, they maintained their stance that the villagers were encroachers, which had been proved through the latest verification process.

Now villagers are especially fearful since many are on the verge of losing their homes and livelihood.

“I have two sons who will be unable to farm on our ancestral land,” Bhera said. “The only future I see for them is as agricultural labourers in other people’s farmlands.”

Note: The documents in the original Gujarati have been translated using Google Lens, and the corresponding translations are included within the files linked in the story.

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