The Tamil Nadu government has admitted to the Centre that it rejected over 10,000 claims made by tribals in the state over the forest land they are living on – at different levels in the state – without following due procedure. In the rejected cases, according to an RTI, a review process is currently under progress to provide claimants opportunity for appeal.
According to an RTI copy accessed by a Tamil News Channel, this information was presented by the Tamil Nadu government at a meeting held by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs on June 18, regarding the eviction of the rejected cases under Forest Rights Act, 2006. On February 13, the Supreme Court had directed state governments to evict Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers, whose claims over forest land were rejected under the 2006 Forest Rights Act. Nearly 1 million tribal people across the country and 8,329 tribal persons in Tamil Nadu were at risk of eviction. This was later stayed by the court in March and a bench of Justices Arun Mishra, Navin Sinha and MR Shah gave state governments four months to submit detailed affidavits about procedures followed to assess the claims.
The court also pointedly demanded to know whether the claims were rejected after following due procedure and if committees had monitored the process of selection and rejection.
'Due procedure not followed'
In its presentation to the Ministry, the Tamil Nadu government said, "Total 10,656 FRA claims have been rejected at different levels in the state, however, 4 individual claims have been rejected at the DLC level. Chief Secretary has conducted a review meeting with all concerned District Collectors through video conference and awareness creation programmes and training programmes were conducted for stakeholders. In rejected cases, the due procedure was not followed hence review process is under progress through providing the opportunity of appeal to claimants."
Speaking to TNM, tribal rights activists say that the government flagrantly violated due process while collecting and examining claims from tribal communities. One of the most glaring violations, as Jayaram of the Tamil Nadu Malaival Makkal Sangam (Tamil Nadu mountain dwellers association), is the complete lack of response to claims that were made.
In Tamil Nadu, 7,148 Scheduled Tribe claims and 1,811 Other Traditional Forest Dwellers' claims were rejected.
'No reply to claims'
"From Vellore region alone, we gave 1,279 claims in 2017 but we received no reply from the district administration," says Jayaram. When a claim is rejected, the claimant can apply for his/her land documents again within 60 days.
"When we asked the Sub-Collector he told us that he need not give us any information. The forest department too said the same. Only 91 people were given the 'pattas' for their land but even in these cases, there has been no official allocation so far. Following this, we filed another 500 claims but we don't know what the status of these is yet," he adds.
The group is planning to organise protests in Vellore on August 20, demanding that their claims be accepted by the district administration.
Another glaring issue that activists point out is that the village level committees that were meant to scrutinise claims were allegedly left out of the process.
"The forest rights committees are supposed to be formed at the village level. Members will scrutinise claims and then give it to the Revenue District Officer just to ensure all documents are in place, " says Selvaraj, an activist from the Nilgiris district. "However what happened in Tamil Nadu was completely haphazard. The forest department and revenue department were both distributing and collecting forms. The entire point of this exercise is to give forest dwellers more rights and autonomy over the forest land. But here, that was not the case," he adds.