Continuing the fight for proper implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) a renewed call has been made for putting an immediate stop to eviction proceedings against anyone resident on forest land in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh.

The call follows a factfinding committee report probing the death of Dama Devi of Daangel village in Mandi after a cardiac arrest on July 26. Activists say her death followed threats and intimidation by forest department officials about her family’s “illegal occupation” of forest land.

Forest department officials allegedly told her they would forcibly remove her and her family from the land. Dama Devi was a Dalit.

The report, titled Bureaucratic Apathy Marginalizing the Landless in Himachal Pradesh, was prepared by Vimla Vishwapremi of the Mountain Women Rights Forum, zila parishad member Savitri Devi, Khem Daasi of the State Women Welfare Board, Manju Devi of the Subdivisional Level Committee on the Forest Rights Act, Aditi of the Himdhara Environment Research and Action Collective, independent journalist D.R.Koundal, and B.R.Bhatia, Bhagat Ram and Sukhdev Vishwapremi of the People’s Campaign for Socio-Economic Equity.

Its authors draw attention to the demise of another Dalit, Kundan Singh of Salamatpur in Paonta Sahib, on December 27, 2017 after his family allegedly faced forcible eviction from their land.

Then there was the episode reported in 2018, of state forest department officials issuing eviction orders to 90 households in Kinnaur whose forest rights hadn’t yet been settled. These families had to approach the Himachal Pradesh High Court to quash the illegal eviction order.

In yet another instance in the Kangra district’s Palampur area, the government reportedly issued eviction orders against seven Dalit households when their forest right claims were still being processed.

The report says “There have been similar incidents of eviction and violence led by the Forest Department. Sometimes the electricity and water supply are cut off to threaten people to vacate the land. At other times people are forced to sign affidavits stating they have abandoned the land.”

The authors seek that the state government’s FRA monitoring committee and the chief secretary of the state must direct the heads of the revenue and forest departments to issue orders to all officials concerned, that to evict people without settling their forest rights under FRA is illegal and punishable by law.

Mandi district presents a very interesting insight into the state of affairs. Activists point out that the district administration had acquired ‘NIL claims certificates’ from almost all the Forest Rights Committees in the district in 2014, to say there were no claims to be made under the FRA.

These blanket certificates, based on a template issued by the Principal Secretary (Forest) to all district authorities to get consent for the diversion of forest land, are being used as no-objection certificates from the gram sabhas, to indicate compliance with FRA provisions as required by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

“In most cases, as gram sabha members testified, there was no gram sabha quorum or inadequate information was given to members about the provisions of the Forest Rights Act while taking these certificates. In some cases they were signed only by panchayat secretaries and members of Forest Rights Committees, or only official members of the Sub Divisional Level Committees or District Level Committees.

“It’s important to note that most of these villagers and FRC members were unaware of the existence of the FRA and what the law entails for them. In fact, until organisations working around the FRA met them, they were clueless about the fact that their forest rights had been declared nil by the administration, when in fact they are intensively dependent upon forest land for livelihood needs.

“When, after acquiring some awareness and information about the FRA, people from a few areas approached the subdivisional and district administrations with their forest rights claims, the claims were not accepted citing the nil report,” the report states.

It is being demanded that the nil claims in Mandi must be considered void and the process of settling rights under the FRA must be started immediately. “Deputy Commissioner Mandi must ensure awareness of FRA and immediate filing of forest rights claims, focusing on the individual claims of marginal forest land holders such as Dama Devi,” the authors say.

Committee member Aditi told The Citizen that “a beginning of sorts has been made with gram sabhas being asked to pass resolutions for considering afresh the villagers’ FRA rights.”

The report underlines that the government must grant immediate titles to individual forest rights holders from the Scheduled Castes and other landless communities, especially those with holdings below five bighas of land.

The government must also conduct FRA awareness programs and training immediately across the state for FRC members, panchayat representatives and line departments, to ensure just and speedy implementation of the 2006 law.

The report also recommends that the government look into establishing a State Scheduled Castes Commission to address cases of caste based violence. Meanwhile the district administrations, along with representatives from civil society, should initiate campaigns with the aim of developing an exclusion-free region.

An immediate detailed police probe into the death of Dama Devi is also sought, after which the responsible officials should be charged under relevant sections of the Scheduled Castes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act besides other relevant sections of the penal code.

The report further calls for a joint independent investigation by the National Human Rights Commission, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and the Central Information Commission, against the eviction onslaught on families from marginalised sections of society.

A High Court monitored investigation against the threats and intimidation and illegal actions of forest department officials is also sought.

“The government must now cautiously participate in studying the issue of landlessness and marginalized land holders in regard to the existing social and economic inequities of the region, emphasizing on the Scheduled Caste communities who stand in the worst condition,” the report recommends.

The issue of FRA implementation rocked the winter session of the state assembly last year, where lone CPI(M) MLA Rakesh Singha and Congress MLA Ashish Butail had torn into the BJP government led by Jai Ram Thakur for abdicating its duty to properly implement the FRA.

Activists held a major demonstration at the time, in Dharamshala outside the state assembly. Inside Singha observed that “67 per cent of the land area is under forests in Himachal. We should have been the best implementer of the Forest Rights Act. Instead we are the worst.”

And Butail asked, “Why are we so scared to implement this act? When there is a thorough process in place to assess and verify claims, when the law is clear on the three generations clause, there is no need to worry about misuse as these rights cannot be sold. They are inherited rights and pass from generation to generation.”

This had compelled the state government’s tribal affairs minister Ram Lal Markande to promise to implement the FRA’s provisions in mission mode. A full year down the line, activists working on the subject observe that precious little has been done.