Damoh: On a warm October afternoon in Madhya Pradesh’s Damoh, about 20 men gathered for a baithak (meeting) to express their fears of being dispossessed from their fields. Nearly 250 km east of the capital city Bhopal, Damoh is part of the Bundelkhand region, one of the most backward in the country.

The baithak was an awareness session around forest rights. These men, who belong to the Gond tribe, rued the day they filed online claim applications for land titles under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). Four years on, they have no idea if their claims have been accepted or rejected.

With only a few days left for the assembly elections in the state, both the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are busy wooing tribal voters, holding out the carrot of grant of land titles.

The FRA is a landmark law brought to recognise the rights of forest-dwelling scheduled tribes (ST) and other traditional forest dwellers (OTFD). The Act recognised rights over forest land and resources, on which these communities were dependent, only if they could establish that they had been residing in or cultivating on the claimed land for at least three generations prior to December 13, 2005.

The previous Kamal Nath-led Congress government in the state had in October 2019 launched a digital portal and a mobile application called ‘VanMitra’ to review rejected FRA land title claims.

This was after a Supreme Court order to examine whether due process of the law was followed while declining these claims, given the high number of rejections. At the time, 354,787 claims, or 61% of a total of 579,411 claims filed for individual land titles, were rejected, the state government told the Court in an affidavit. In 2020, when Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s BJP government was formed, they continued with the process.

The VanMitra portal, which promised to bring more transparency and reduce human error in the process, has failed to do just that. It has ended up making the process of filing a claim even harder, resulting in a rejection rate of about 74% as of June 2021, according to data shared by FRA researchers, Swapnil Shukla and Shivank Jhanji, from their study titled ‘Madhya Pradesh Forest Rights: Rejection Report’.

The state is scheduled to go to polls on November 17, to elect 230 members to the Legislative Assembly--and tribal votes are a decisive factor in not just the 47 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes but also in nearly 40 general seats, according to political analysts. Given this, both the BJP and Congress have been promising tribals land rights. Issues with VanMitra, however, find no mention in these campaigns.

The study cited above states that the rate of rejection of Individual Forest Rights (IFR) claims after review through VanMitra ranged from 70.3% to 98.86% in 30 districts. Thirteen of those districts have a tribal population of more than 20%.

Damoh, comprising 13% ST population, had a rejection rate of 92.73%, the fifth-highest rejection rate of IFR claims in the state.

A dormant, non-operational portal

Of the 25 claimants in Damoh and other districts that IndiaSpend reached out to, it was found that not one had filed the claims themselves, mostly due to a lack of technological knowledge. The VanMitra application has not been accessible or downloadable on any version of Android phones, this reporter found on speaking to various people and trying to download the same. The web portal is more commonly used because in any case, most tribals in the region don’t have smartphones.

In the district’s last bordering village, Kosmada, about 32 km from the sub-district headquarter Tendukheda, tribal villagers are relatively isolated and live deep in the forests. Of the 31 claimants in this region, only one had received the title, for about 2.6 acres of land, through VanMitra in August 2020.

The rest of the villagers have no information about their claims. VanMitra was hailed as a transparent medium allowing claimants to keep track of their applications. However, like in Damoh, residents of Kosmada either didn’t file claims themselves or did not know how to access their VanMitra accounts.

The MP government had set up kiosks as a solution. Using these, the villagers filed their claims in December 2019.

“Earlier, one or two educated men from the village used to file forms to register the FRA claims,” said 48-year-old Gyani Singh Gond of Kosmada. “Now, no one has any idea about this system. We don’t have computers. We have to depend on others to fill it for us on payment of Rs 100.”

Similar stories repeat over and over in Burhanpur, Rewa and several other districts in the state, as per Jagdish Yadav from Gram Adhikar Abhiyan and Nitin Varghese of Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, who had been working to create awareness among the marginalised communities about their rights.

Van Mitra portal receipt of claimant from Kosmada village. Photo: Sukriti Vats

A transparent process turned opaque

Even when people, like Kosmada’s Gyani Singh who has claimed five acres of land, paid someone to check the status, there was no way of getting the information when the portal was down, which is often and prolonged.

‘MP VanMitra portal will remain closed due to maintenance. Sorry for the inconvenience.’--this message has been flashing on the website for months now. District officials have no idea when the website will be back live.

“The VanMitra website has not been working properly since 2020,” said Veerendra Dubey, a member of Bundelkhand Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan that works to facilitate ownership of forest land to tribals, Dalits and backward castes in Damoh. “It is open for a limited time on a few occasions, and no one knows about it in advance. This seems to be a deliberate step to dissuade villagers from checking the status of their claims.”

Sonia Meena, Director of Tribal Affairs, Madhya Pradesh defended the portal. Meena told IndiaSpend that the part of the portal that accepts and checks claims was only temporarily under maintenance since September 10-11, and that it was not a common occurrence.

News and research reports claimed that the portal had been frozen due to a total number of uploaded claims (419,741) exceeding the number of anticipated rejected claims for both individual and community forest rights (360,877).

The status of the ‘claim page’ on Van Mitra portal on November 2

“When the VanMitra portal had come, it was only supposed to look at the rejected claims,” Meena said. “The pending claims at the offline level were meant to be digitised. When even those with pending claims applied on the portal again, confusion occurred between the new and the rejected ones. Then we had simply asked the reviewing officials to differentiate.”

According to Dubey, there was a lot of misinformation around the time VanMitra was introduced, including one where everyone was told to file their rejected claims by December 2019. The hastiness and outsourcing of the work to private kiosk operators, for whom it wasn’t a life and death matter, was suspected to have led to wrongfully filed claims.

While village-level kiosks set up by the government have closed down, a cyber cafe employee from Jain Shree Computers, who had also helped a few villagers file claims, said that people had stopped coming after mid-2020 because the website had been down.

A senior official from the tribal department explained that the misinformation about the portal not accepting claims after a certain time might have been due to district-level officials not telling them that there was no deadline. The fact that only rejected claimants could file on the portal was also not communicated properly to the villagers, creating chaos.

“The authorities don’t accept the claims offline anymore. This is wrong since the portal is not working, there is no other way for the villagers to file claims or check the status. It also forces the villagers to depend on VanMitra, which itself is undemocratic,” said Jagdish Yadav, Rewa-based activist.

Holding the power of verification

The claims filed in VanMitra are reviewed on three levels under the FRA Act. The most basic level includes the Gram Sabha, which is expected to constitute a ‘Forest Right Committee (FRC)’ comprising 10 to 15 people, two-thirds of them STs and one-third women members, from among themselves.

The FRC is then supposed to do verifications. After hearing the FRC recommendations, the Gram Sabha forwards its resolution on the filed claims to a sub-divisional level committee (SDLC), which then sends it on to the district-level committee (DLC) for acceptance or rejection.

Villagers and researchers both say that after the VanMitra came, there were efforts to dilute the Gram Sabha’s power, as the panchayat sachiv (village council head) took charge of the FRCs along with the patwari (village accountant) and beat guard (forest guard), who were only supposed to assist.

As per the norms, Gram Sabha’s written resolution/proposal is uploaded by FRC on VanMitra and is the deciding factor regarding the claims. However, on VanMitra, there is an additional feature, where FRC can choose whether the claims are legitimate or not, which can sometimes lead to wrongdoing.

In the village of Oria Mal, around 38 km from Kosamada, residents had claimed rights for land measuring anywhere between three and seven acres. They allege that despite Gram Sabha having given a proposal in favour of the claimants, the VanMitra portal showed that there was a rejection on that level.

“The final decision at the FRC level was in the hands of the person who had the login credentials of the portal, which in most cases were the panchayat officials. So he/she could take any decision on the behest of the members of the FRC,” said Swapnil Shukla.

This kind of malpractice might be able to explain a rate of 72.09% rejection at the FRC/Gram Sabha level on VanMitra. It increases to a rejection rate of 75.94% and 72.93% at the SDLC and DLC levels respectively, as per the data compiled by the group of independent researchers. This goes against the core idea behind the introduction of FRA, to empower the village communities and not government officials.

Meanwhile, the 30 individuals who still hadn’t received titles for their land in Kosmada said they were harassed by the forest officials for cultivating their lands, and seven of them were arrested by forest officials on the grounds of ‘disturbing the wildlife’.

This after the state’s tribal department wrote to all the district collectors in May 2019, citing Supreme Court directions, to ensure that those whose claims were rejected should not be evicted until further directions.

Kosmada residents’ letter from 2021 against eviction by forest officials

In blatant contravention of the Supreme Court order, there had been many cases throughout the state, whether it be involving Bhil and Barela communities from Khandwa district or Korku tribals from Hoshangabad, where it was reported that the tribals were not just being abused by forest officials but also evicted without any warning to carry out plantation under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) projects. (You can read our report on CAMPA here.)

Asked about the allegations made by Damoh villagers, Mahendra Singh Uikey, Divisional Forest Officer, Damoh, dismissed the allegations and said "I am not aware of any such incidents.”

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