TRIBAL Welfare Minister Govind Gaude has directed officials to dispose of forest rights claims filed by about 10,000 applicants under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 by the end of the year. This would require quick solutions to inter-departmental issues relating to the subject. The process for settling forest rights claims began way back in July 2012 but only a handful of cases have been disposed of by the district-level committees so far. The minister’s deadline gives just over three months. The officials concerned would have to work really hard to meet the deadline and settle thousands of cases. On the face it, the task seems improbable as the issues relating to settlement of claims have not been resolved. The officials have done spot verification of only 2,709 claims in a little over five years. Given the pace of work since the Act was implemented it is unlikely that the settlement of rights claims would be completed within the time fixed by the minister.
Rather than setting a deadline, the government should first find out the issues that were coming in the way of faster disposal of the forest rights claims. The minister should have apprised himself of the difficulties encountered by the officials in handling and deciding on the cases. It would have been better if the government had drawn up an action plan based on the experiences and observations of the officials engaged in the implementation of the Act. Just giving directions to settle the cases within a certain time frame could lead to the due process being by-passed by the officials. There is also a possibility of some officials or unscrupulous elements close to power using the circumstances to favour some people while denying rights to others. There is no harm in extending the deadline by six or more months. It is not an urgent matter. Forest rights claims have been filed and they need to be thoroughly examined based on certain criteria and stipulations, so that both the interest of conservation of forest and environment as well as the traditional rights of forest dwellers are protected without any mutual injury. The government should first try to remove the bottlenecks.
The state has missed the past deadline for settling the claims made under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The then secretary of tribal affairs, P Krishnamurthy, in a presentation on the action plan of Goa state on implementation of the Forest Rights Act had given ‘final commitment’ that implementation would be done in a mission mode to help the forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers get benefits within the targeted time of December 31, 2013. In Goa there are no primitive tribal groups and pre-agricultural communities who would normally not have any evidence to prove their claims on the land they hold. There are no forest villages either in the state. Almost all the settlements in forest areas have entries in the revenue survey village records, which should facilitate the disposal of the claims without hassles. However, for reasons unknown the process has not been completed even after five years. Goa is a small state. There is some proof or the other of every plot of land under the possession of a family or community; so the implementation of the Forest Rights Act should not pose much of a problem for the officials.
If the delay in the implementation is by design of vested interests or bureaucratic lethargy the government should find out the persons responsible for the same and act against them sternly. The delay has held up grant to the tribal people of their rights for no fault of theirs as they put up their claims well within the stipulated time. The tribal people have borne the brunt of slow action on the part of the officials in settling their claims. To the Kumeri cultivators, who have been over the years cultivating crops on forest land, an early settlement of claims would have been a great help. The tribals are a poorly organized section of society; they have put up with the delay on the government part so far. However, patience has a limit. They are asking for the rights recognized under law and not anything more. They have been feeling uncertain about whether they would be granted the rights or not. Let the government end this uncertainty and grant rights to the legitimate applicants soonest