Nomadic forest dwellers in Indian-administered Kashmir put their hopes in the implementation of a 14-year-old law to save their lands and homes, as government announces plans to evict tens of thousands people who he says are encroaching on protected lands.
Last month, the disputed federal territory’s forestry department released a list of around 63,000 people who it said live and farm “illegally” on a total of 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of forest land.
Now, tribal communities living in the region’s forests are seeking protection under the Indian Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, which comes into force in the region more than 10 years after its enactment elsewhere in India.
Zahid Parwaz Choudhary, of the Jammu and Kashmir Gujjar Bakarwal Youth Protection Conference, said the law would facilitate persecution of tribal communities, which rights activists say has intensified under the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“If the ARF had been implemented earlier in Jammu and Kashmir, we would not have seen the eviction of dozens of families and the harassment of hundreds of families,” said Choudhary, who chairs the organization at non-profit that works for the rights of the tribes.
The Bakarwals are nomadic shepherds who lead their flocks in search of greener pastures across the Himalayan state.
The FRA aimed to recognize the right of at least 150 million indigenous and rural people to inhabit and live on approximately 40 million hectares (99 million acres) of forest land.
Mostly concentrated in or near forests, Kashmir has a tribal population of around 1.1 million, according to the last census taken in 2011.
Although it came into effect in other Indian states, the law never came into effect in Kashmir, with those who opposed it citing the region’s right to make some of its own laws under its statute. special now revoked.
Javaid Rahi, secretary general of the Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation, noted that the law should have come into force automatically after the special status of Indian administered Kashmir was removed in August 2019.
Following calls from human rights activists and scrutiny from the media, the government announced in November 2020 that it would enforce the law.
The deadline for collecting applicant information is Friday, with the goal of approving all eligible applications by March.
But, said Rahi, there are still concerns among forest communities.
“For example, according to FRA, the Gram Sabha [village representative body] of a village, which defends the rights of forest dwellers, should be formed at a meeting in which [at least] 50 percent of the voters in the village, ”he said.
“But this norm is violated in most villages.”
Kashmir Rural Development Director Qazi Sarwar, who oversees the implementation of the law, denied that the authorities are not following the rules of the law.
“There are complaints somewhere that we are going to look into. But that doesn’t happen in all Gram Panchayat, ”he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
Abdul Aziz Khatana, a herder from Lidroo village in southern Kashmir, worries about one thing all the time: how will he survive without the small mud and wood hut in which he stays for the six months migration to graze their livestock every summer?
In November last year, the forestry department demolished the hut, he explained, claiming that the land on which it was built had been illegally occupied.
“I had been using it for years to protect myself from wild animals and the elements. How did the forestry department suddenly declare this illegal, I wonder, ”said Khatana, who supports a family of five.
“The forest is our source of income. Forests also provide us with shelter. We cannot think of living without forests. “
The Shepherd said he was not offered compensation, but made a request under the FRA. If he qualifies, he could reclaim the land and some money to rebuild his hut, he added.
Tribal rights activists and researchers say Kashmir’s forest dwellers have been increasingly targeted for eviction in recent years.
In early December, forest dwellers in Kanidajjan village said the government cut down thousands of their trees after accusing them of encroaching on forest land.
A month earlier, villagers in Pahalgam, in southern Kashmir, said the forestry department had demolished at least 13 huts and reclaimed more than 34 hectares (85 acres) of land from the villagers. “Hundreds of forest dwellers have been evicted to different places. It’s like throwing the birds out of their nests, ”Rahi said.
Mohit Gera, Kashmir’s senior chief forest conservator, said the evictions are aimed at ending illegal use of forest land and are not specifically targeting tribal communities.
“The forestry department is not against people. In fact, we want to work with people to protect forests. All action is taken when forest land is encroached, ”he said.
Rahi said the lack of awareness among tribal people about the law is a challenge due to the low literacy rate in these communities.
According to the latest census figures, around half of Kashmir’s tribal population is illiterate.
“We are now doing our best to educate them by visiting them and using traditional and social media,” Rahi said.
These efforts are hampered by the lack of access to high-speed mobile internet, he added.
The Indian government has limited mobile internet in most of Kashmir to 2G since the region’s autonomy was withdrawn.
Authorities say the communications ban is necessary to maintain order in the Himalayan region, where security forces are fighting a long-standing rebellion.
Gera, of the forestry department, said all land reclaimed as a result of the removal of illegal residents will legally be considered protected land.
He noted that India’s Forest Conservation Act allows the government to use forest land for a development project of public interest “only when there is no alternative but to use land. forest which are holy and precious [protected]”.
Raja Muzaffar Bhat, chairman of the anti-corruption movement J&K RTI, said he was unconvinced that the current FRA implementation process will improve the lives of Kashmir’s forest dwellers.
“For example, the tribal affairs department, which is supposed to take care of the interests of the tribal people, is nowhere in the picture while the ARF is implemented,” Bhat said.
Given the tribal communities’ limited knowledge of the forest rights law, Bhat is also concerned about the speed of the application process, which was hampered for more than a week when Kashmir was hit by severe waterfalls. snow at the beginning of the month.
“I call on the government to educate forest dwellers before hastily implementing FRA,” he said.