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Forest Dwellers’ Rights

Delay in giving rights to tribals and others to forest land is injustice

More than a decade after the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act came into effect, the tribals and other forest dwellers are yet to get the benefits promised by it. It has come to light that Goa was lagging far behind is disposing of claims received under the Act. Goa’s position is 19 among 20 states in the disposal of forest rights cases. Though the Forest Rights Act came into force in 2006, the actual process of gathering claims from tribals and other forest dwellers began only in 2012 in the state. Six years were thus lost without any progress. According to official data, the state government had received 9,758 claims from individuals and 378 community claims under the Forest Rights Act. The settlement of the claims has been very slow, with only 3,192 individual claims having been verified over the last seven years. The number of community claims verified was mere 18. It could clearly be seen that the authorities had not shown seriousness in disposing of the claims of applicants.

The dismal performance was regretted by none other than the state Chief Secretary at a recent meeting of the state-level monitoring committee on the subject. The poor performance has been keeping Goa at the bottom of the list of states on the subject. Despite being a small state and despite the number of claimants being small, the state has not made any progress on the subject. A mere 35 titles from among 71 cases have been approved by the district-level committees in case of individual claimants who have been issued sanads, while the number of cases decided by the committees in the case of community claims was just 11.

The authorities have given various reasons, including shortage of field surveyors and PDA machines and lack of quorum at the gram sabhas called to decide on claims, for delay in completing the process for deciding the forest rights claims. It is significant to note that the hurdles faced by officials in decision making on forest rights cases were brought to the notice of the Chief Secretary only after he inquired about the delays. The officials concerned are in the know of the problems and the answers to them; be it requirement of surveyors, PDA machines or use of Google maps for verification and authentication, quorum at the gram sabhas. At the state-level monitoring committee, the officials devoted a lot of time to pointing out the reasons for the slow progress, rather than pointing out the measures they had taken to overcome the odds. As the officials knew about the problems in deciding the cases they should have brought them to the notice of the government. They should have shown keenness to press the government to help them have enough of resources such as surveyors and PDA machines. What prevented them from seeking help of the higher-ups? The officials took the issue of granting rights to STs and others lightly as those seeking rights came from lower strata of society and would continue to endure the delay without much fuss.

The state government cannot go on delaying indefinitely its decision-making on granting forest rights to those who qualify for them. Now that the shortcomings are known, immediate steps have to be taken to overcome them. The government must help the forest department to fill vacancies of surveyors and appoint more surveyors if needed. The government must provide funds to the department to equip them with the latest gadgets that help in verification and settlement of claims. The government should use the advice given by the revenue secretary to use Google maps, which are more accurate, for expeditious disposal of the claims. The problem related to 50 per cent quorum at the gram sabhas can be addressed by amending the provision and allowing for their adjournment and holding the same with available quorum as is done in other cases. All impediments in the way of settlement of claims must be removed to pave the way for faster disposal of claims to give rights to the deserving claimants and end the wait endured by the members of the scheduled tribes and other forest dwellers for long.

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