Miniature dwellings in the wild

While the State government has been distributing pattas to forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act 2006, activists and tribal communities lament over several crucial factors, including the miniscule size of the land — 1.5 cents — they’ve been given.
Miniature dwellings in the wild
Illustration - Saai

CHENNAI: Recognising the long-pending rights of traditional forest dwellers and tribals in Tamil Nadu, the State government has so far issued 9,812 land deeds to the community members.

TN began issuing deeds after the Supreme Court in 2016 vacated an interim order of the Madras High Court to stay in issuing land pattas under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, to forest dwellers.

The FRA was launched as a result of protracted struggle and injustice endured by the marginal and tribal communities in India, to assert their rights over the forestland on which they’ve been dependent on for several decades. Furthermore, the act is considered vital as it provides restitution of deprived forest rights, including individual rights to cultivate and community rights over common property resources. The Act also mandates that the land deeds will be provided only to those residing in the forest before 2005.

Subsequently, to issue these pattas, both revenue and forest department officials were involved in identifying the beneficiaries and issuing land deeds. According to the Department of Tribal Welfare, the highest number of beneficiaries has been in the Western district.

A senior official in the tribal welfare department said, “Training is being conducted for tahsildars in the revenue department and forest department rangers, who’ll be primarily involved in identifying beneficiaries and receiving applications from the dwellers across the State.”

He added that by providing these land deeds, tribals and traditional dwellers will be recognised of their rights. “There are instances of forest dwellers being displaced and voluntarily evacuated for projects like dam construction and setting up of tiger reserves. Hence, displaced communities, now living in settlements will also be eligible for land deeds and do not have to fear eviction,” the official added.

To avail the land deed, the forest dwellers should submit an application form with the grama sabha, which will in turn be passed on to the Forest Right Committee (FRC). The FRC will measure the land both for housing and farming.

Followed by this, a sub-divisional committee with tahsildars, rangers and tribal representatives will check the authenticity of the land claim, and forward it to district-level committee headed by the collector. Meanwhile, the State-level committee is also in place to check the effective implementation of FRA.

Though the government is working on issuing pattas, forest dwellers claim they had to protest several times to avail these pattas and pointed out several flaws in the implementation of the Act.

S Thanaraj, the State coordinator of Ekta Parishad (a non-violent people’s movement for land rights) says the implementation of the Act is not efficient at the ground-level. Additionally, the stay of the Madras HC triggered protests.

“Though FRA elaborates on individual rights, farming rights and community rights, there’s a gap in implementation, as it’s not monitored properly at the sub-divisional, district and State-levels. Additionally, there’s a lack of understanding of FRA among State departments themselves,” laments Thanaraj. “Besides this, when the land deed is issued, the procedures are not followed in most regions.”

He urged the State government to convert all villages and settlements inside the forest into revenue villages for better implementation of FRA. “In TN, out of the 36 tribal communities, about eight tribals in the State speak Kannada, 10 tribes speak Malayalam, and a few tribal groups speak local language, with dialect closer to Tamil. Such diversity forces FRA to be converted into vernacular languages,” he points out.

Give us our due, not handouts, say tribals

CHENNAI: Though more than 9,000 tribals and traditional forest dwellers received land deeds as a reparation to the historic injustice done to them, the State government now providing a meagre 1.5 cent for housing feels more like a handout, claim beneficiaries.

Mallika of Paliyar tribe in Kodaikanal, says, “A mere 1.5 cent is insufficient to construct a house. FRA iterates on providing compensation for the injustice we endured through the years but giving this feels more like a handout than restitution. We’ve been asking for land deeds for the last 20 years. Despite the government finally rolling out the Act to compensate us, the implementation and the extent of compensation has been unsatisfactory.”

Since there are many tribal communities have yet to receive housing patta, Mallika urges the government to increase land allocation. “Forest department should, at the very least, provide us with 3 cents of land for housing. The forest has been our home for decades; it’s only far we’re rightfully compensated,” she points out.

Though Mallika managed to receive housing deeds, she is yet to get farming patta from the government. FRA mandates 10 cents land for cultivation and she hopes to receive at least 5 cents.

Meanwhile, tribals and traditional forest dwellers also allege that officials from the forest and revenue departments measured the land for allocation five years ago. But no action has been initiated yet.

“The measurements are not done following protocols. And the land measured also has not been processed for deeds,” avers Vigneshwaran, another forest dweller.

It’s important to note that TN is yet to provide rights for farming and community living, which is also mandated under the FRA.

“The work for housing is moving at a slower pace. Hence, the government must swiftly work in providing farming and community rights along with housing rights. Also, forest department staff are unruly towards tribals and traditional dwellers. This needs to be monitored,” states Vajrevel, a resident in Anamalai Tiger Reserve.

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