Non-implementation of Forest Rights Act in Kerala: HRLN organises IPT to address problems faced by adivasi forest dwellers

The Independent People Tribunal (IPT) on the “Issues and Injustice in the Implementation of Forest Right Act (FRA), 2006” (which is in its tenth year of implementation), was organised jointly by HRLN, and the Western Ghats Hornbill Foundation on 19 – 21 November 2017. At the IPT, members of tribal communities and tribal FRA ‘Grama Sabhas’ across the state presented their complaints before a panel of senior advocates and experts. A total of 145 participants were registered, of which 78 were tribal participants representing 11 districts out of 13 forested districts across the state. The panel was chaired by Madhusudhanan, Senior Advocate, Kerala High Court. On the panel were advocate Santhamma, Senior Advocate, Kerala High Court, advocate Maria, HRLN, Dr Amitha Bachan, FRA Expert, Hornbill Foundation. It was observed during the session that the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, (PESA) which was enacted on 1996 to ensure village autonomy in governance, did not come into force in Kerala as the state has no recognized scheduled areas. Therefore, the FRA is important in ensuring the traditional rights that have been enjoyed by tribal communities for centuries. Advocate Maria, HRLN coordinator, spoke about the injustices suffered by tribal communities in Wayanad, and Dr Amitha Bachan presented a note on some of the major violations of FRA implementation in Kerala as a background paper for the IPT. Some other presentations explored the problems reported after Forest Rights Committee (FRC) formation at the FRA Grama Sabhas (or Oorukootams). Fewer than the required number of FRCs have been formed in the Oorukootams, it was noted. Therefore, community rights have not been obtained in areas without FRCs. Representatives from Idukko complained that FRCs had not been formed even in areas with significant tribal populations – which leads to the forest departments continuing to exert control over tribal forest land through societies such as Vana Samrakshana Samithi (VSS), which misuse the provisions of the FRA, 2006. The representatives also criticized the forest department policy of planting non-indigenous plants, which results in reduced biodiversity and lack of food availability for animals in the area. They claimed that this also led to increased human wildlife conflict. Adivasi representatives from Wayand talked about how habitat rehabilitation was being conducted without consulting adivasis, which was resulting in the loss of their vast traditional knowledge and culture. They also accused the tribal department of negligence towards adivasis’s problems. Kunjamma Michel, a member of the Padukkuty Muthuvan tribal settlement filed a complaint against encroachment of tribal land in Idukki district, including land given under the FRA. As a leader of the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha, she reported that up to 60% of the 150 acres of forest land belonging to Muthuvan tribal families had been encroached by the non-tribal community. She also complained against the failure of the district administration in protecting Adivasi lands and their rights. Representatives from Attapadi also spoke about how the scheduled tribe co-operative society was being hugely politicized at the high cost to Adivasi interest. They also mentioned how people who spoke up against land mafias were being branded Maoists, and how the forest department imposes unreasonable restrictions on timbre logging -- which is illegal under the FRA. The jury summarised the presentations and decided to review them before making a comprehensive report which will be released by June, 2018. They also said the important violations will be compiled with evidence -- including illegal rehabilitation in Wayanad -- and will be filed before to higher authorities or in courts.