Case studies

Community Forest Rights

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When the Forest Rights Act was passed in December 2006, the tribal villagers of Madavan Gouri in the Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh were completely unaware of the fact that they could now apply for their rights to the forest land that they used, both individually and as a community. Indeed, the members of their Forest Rights Committee (created under the Forest Rights Act) had no idea about their roles and responsibilities in helping the villagers to claim these rights and so nothing was done... However, thanks to the work of PACS and partner MGSA, they are now well aware of their rights and are working tirelessly to claim them.

Living as illegal forest offenders

Until the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was passed in 2006, the rights of tribal communities to their ancestral lands were not adequately recognised. “Forests were governed by the Indian Forest Act (1927) - a colonial law that gave the government the right to declare any area a 'reserved’ or ‘protected’ forest,” explains Deepak Agrawal - Cluster Coordinator for MGSA. “People living in a reserved forest had no right to pluck even a leaf from the forests surrounding their village.”

The 1927 Act was a big problem for tribal communities, who have relied for generations on collecting forest produce for their food, medicines and livelihood. By just going about their daily lives, they became illegal “forest offenders” overnight.

Lalaita Bai – a 45 year old widow from Madavan Gouri - explains the lack of security that they felt: “They [the forest administration] regularly burnt standing crops, destroyed standing crops using tractors and took away the ox, plough and other agricultural implements. They would take away my cattle to the kani [place where impounded animals are kept] and demanded that I pay 500-1000 rupees as fine before they released the animals.”

Thankfully, under the 2006 FRA, tribal communities and other forest dwellers, like Lalaita, are now able to apply for the rights to the land that they use. However… if tribal communities don’t know how or why they need to apply, these rights are useless.

Before the Forest Rights Act was passed, Lalaita and the other tribal villagers from Madavan Gouri were regularly punished for “trespassing” on the forest land that they depend on.

No knowledge of forest rights claims

Under the FRA, every tribal village should have a Forest Rights Committee (FRC). The Committee is responsible for mapping the forest land they use, submitting forest rights claims via the Gram Sabha (village council) and following up with government officials on the status of these claims.

Indeed, when MGSA started working in the area under the PACS programme in 2011, they found that 5000 applications for land rights had been submitted in 2008 under the FRA. However, the villagers had no knowledge of this and so had never followed up with the government.

“Since the villagers are mostly illiterate, the Government takes advantage of this situation and makes them put their thumb imprints on papers they cannot read or understand,” explains Mani Ram who is now Secretary of the Forest Rights Committee in Madavan Gouri. “Many were made members, Presidents and Secretaries of the Van Adhikar Samitis [Forest Rights Committees] without their knowledge; if you do not know, how can you be expected to call meetings and verify patta [land rights] claims?”

MGSA filed a request under the Right to Information Act (RTI) to access the status of the 5000 forest rights applications. The result of the RTI application showed that, except for 10-12 pattas (land rights certificates), the entire list had been rejected by the Government.

Setting up a Forest Rights Committee

Armed with this knowledge, MGSA helped to form a new FRC in Madavan Gouri. It consisted of 10-12 core members, selected by the community.

“The primary aim [of MGSA] is to help communities to empower themselves with the knowledge and comprehension of their rights, privileges and constitutional guarantees,” says Pramod Gond - Community Organiser for MGSA. “The PACS model seeks to train community members to be local change agents, ensuring they have a forum to voice their concerns and get these addressed through policy advocacy at the governmental level.”

Having received training from MGSA, the FRC wrote a complaint to the Block Development Officer (BDO) in 2012 about their rejected forest rights claims. However, this yielded no result.

“The Government functionaries get transferred every few months,” explains Geeta Bai, a member of the FRC. “Every time we went to meet them, we ended up speaking to a new officer, and the story had to start from scratch again because the newly-posted functionary needed time to bring himself/herself up to speed.”

The Madavan Gouri Forest Rights Committee hold a meeting to discuss their latest plan of action.

Individual and community forest rights

After multiple attempts, MGSA and the FRC ended up mobilising 4000 villagers to gherao (lay siege to) the local government office in Malthon, carrying out a dharna (peaceful sit-in protest).

As a result, the office admitted bureaucratic failure and was forced to accept the villagers’ rightful claims, forwarding their applications on to the district level committee for verification. Finally, in 2013, 350 community members received their individual pattas.

MGSA have also helped the FRC to submit more individual forest rights claims, along with Community Forest Rights claims – applications under the FRA for rights to land that is used for community purposes.

“MGSA functionaries made a dummy of the application form and distributed it to us,” says Geeta. “They told us how to fill in these forms correctly, so not a single form was rejected on any technicality.”

Again, bureaucratic inertia meant that the applications moved at a snail’s pace. Buoyed by their previous success, 12 more gheraos (sieges) had to be organised at 3 different government offices involving thousands of community members.

Finally, in 2014, 135 individual pattas were granted to claimants along with 3 community pattas: for the cremation ground, the playground and the local talab (pond).

Deepak – one of the villagers – holds his individual forest rights certificate.

The struggle continues…

Today, the FRC is functioning well. Shiv Lal is the President and, thanks to training he has received from MGSA, he ensures that the meetings are inclusive and participatory: “In our meetings, decisions are taken with everyone's consent. Even if one member disagrees, the decision is put on hold and discussed again from the perspective of the dissenter.”

The FRC members have just finalised their next action plan: “There are 30-odd pattas still left to be given to claimants in this village, so the struggle continues,” says Ram Kali – the Sarpanch (Village Head) of Madavan Gouri.

“It took months of sensitisation and capacity building to start demanding our rights under the new Forest Rights Act,” admits Ram. But, both the FRC and the Gram Panchayat (village council) are energised, knowledgeable and confident about their roles, responsibilities and rights.

It would not have been possible without the support of the PACS programme and MGSA, since it required enormous resources and skills to understand and interpret the law,” says Ram. “As a mostly illiterate community, it was beyond us.”

As Deepak from MGSA says, “Communities must be made aware that simply filing a claim and expecting the system to take it forward is not going to work. The energy at gatherings such as this one is a sure sign that our approach has finally begun to deliver results.”

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