To fight injustice in not being given the ‘right’ of forest land, villagers seek justice through ‘Satyagraha’ —fight for truth as they call it, and what better way than using RTI?
That the Right To Information (RTI) Act is a powerful non-violent weapon to fight injustice and knows no discrimination has reflected in the over 700 tribals of Jawhar taluka of Thane district, who have all individually filed RTI applications at the Additional Collector’s office last week.
“Don’t call it protest”, they urge, “filing RTI applications to find out the truth is our Satyagraha.” The information they are demanding revolves around their claims for land ownership which has been approved by their gramsabhas and several committees of the government but is being denied or being given only partially to them by the district collectorate on vague grounds.
What is the Forests Rights Act? As per the official website, http://www.fra.org.in, the definition is, “The Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, is a result of the protracted struggle by the marginal and tribal communities of India to assert their rights over the forest land over which they were traditionally dependent. This Act is crucial to the rights of millions of tribals and other forest dwellers in different parts of our country as it provides for the restitution of deprived forest rights across India, including both individual rights to cultivated land in forest land and community rights over common property resources. The notification of rules for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, on 1 January 2008, has finally paved the way to undo the ‘historic injustice’ done to the tribals and other forest dwellers.”
Leading social activist of Jawhar, Milind Thatte, who has been crusading for the forest land rights of tribals, inspired and guided them to file RTI applications. States Thatte, “The Forest Rights Act implementation began in January 2008 all across Maharashtra. Village forest rights committees (FRCs) were formed and tribal villagers filed their claims with these committees set up at different levels by the government. The committees verified the claims by spot visits and measurements. The gramsabhas finally approved (or rejected) these claims. The claims were then forwarded to Sub-Divisional Level Committee (SDLC) and then to District Level Committee (DLC) presided by the district collectors. The SDLC and DLC were expected to clear the claims within 60 days each. However, the tribal claimants have received their Patta (land title) only after five long years and they have been given only a part of their claim. This has shocked the villagers as no reason has been assigned as to why less land has been given to them despite clearance by committees.”
Thatte is angry that, “many claimants in Jawhar and other tribal areas of the state have received a Patta that shows much lesser area of land than what the farmer is actually tilling and has claimed the right. There are cases where the claimant had attached evidence and a verification report by FRC (Forest Rights Committee) showing five to six acres of land holding, however the government Patta has shown only half or a single acre. The government has not explained to the claimant why this unjust allocation was done.”
According to Section 12(A)10 of the Forest Rights Act, “All decisions of the SDLC and DLC that involve modification or rejection of a gramsaha resolution or recommendation of the SDLC shall give detailed reasons for such modification or rejection, as the case may be:
Provided that no recommendation or rejection of claims shall be merely on any technical or procedural grounds: Provided further that no committee (except the gramsabha or the Forest Rights Committee) at the block or panchayat or forest beat or range level, or any individual officer of any rank shall be empowered to receive claims or reject, modify, or decide any claim on forest rights.” Thatte says the district collector has not followed the right procedure and has taken a haphazard decision in rejecting claims of these tribal villagers, which is in gross violation of the Act.
Thatte and his team trained the villagers to file RTI application giving reference of the Forest Rights Act–Amended Rules of September 2012 and to the ‘proactive disclosure’ Section 4 of the RTI Act which requires that government proactively disclose to the claimant why an adverse decision was taken. Thus, over 700 citizens from 11 villages from Jawhar (viz. Kogda, Hateri, Malghar, Anantnagar, Akre, Kahandolpada, Dhadhri, Dabhosa, Ozar, Vinwal and Dapti) and three villages of Vikramgad (viz. Wehelpada, Dohyachapada, Sawarkhind) have filed RTI applications in a single day at the district collector’s office at Jawhar, last fortnight.
The information they have sought under RTI from the district collector of Jawhar is:
1) Copy of letter, if any, sent to the gramsabha for verification of my claim for my land as per Section 12 A (2);
2) Copy of recommendation made by the Forest Rights Committee or Sub-Divisional level committee to reduce the area of my claim for my land as per Section 12 A (3);
3) Copy of the letter as per Section 12 A (7) letter of rejection or of only partial allotment of land sent to the Gram Sabha; and
4) Copy of the letter sent to me stating the reason for rejection or only partial allotment of my claims to my land.
Last fortnight, villagers made a beeline to the Additional Collector’s office.
Section 12 of the Forest Rights Act:
12 A (6) The SDLC or DLC shall remand the claim to the gramsabha for re-consideration instead of modifying or rejecting the same, in case the resolution or the recommendation of the gramsabha is found to be incomplete or prima-facie requires additional examination.
12(A)7: In cases where the resolution passed by the gramsabha, recommending a claim, with supporting documents and evidence, is upheld by the SDLC with or without modifications, but the same is not approved by the DLC, the DLC shall record detailed reasons for not accepting the recommendations of the gramsabha or the SDLC as the case may be, in writing, and copy of the order of DLC along with the reasons shall be made available to the claimant or the gramsabha or the community as the case may be.
12(A)10 All decisions of the SDLC and DLC that involve modification or rejection of a gramsaha resolution or recommendation of the SDLC shall give detailed reasons for such modification or rejection, as the case may be: Provided that no recommendation or rejection of claims shall be merely on any technical or procedural grounds: Provided further that no committee (except the gramsabha or the Forest Rights Committee) at the block or panchayat or forest beat or range level, or any individual officer of any rank shall be empowered to receive claims or reject, modify, or decide any claim on forest rights.
(Vinita Deshmukh is the consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)
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