On February 16, Kalti Kannaya, a 55-year-old tribal farmer from eastern Telangana, consumed pesticide and later died in a government hospital. He was a Koya tribal from Mamakannu village in the Bhadradri Kothagudem district, about 300 kms from Hyderabad. Like other Koya tribesmen, who inhabit both sides of the Godavari river, Kannaya and his family survived on farming on a small patch of forest land. And when the forest department took over his land, he decided to take his own life.
Kannaya is not alone. The distress is being felt far and wide among Telanganaâ€™s tribal communities who continue to live in the fear of evictions. After series of protests demanding the implementation of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 or the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in November last year, the state government started a process promising to resolve the issueâ€”to grant land titles for tribals and forest dwellers residing and farming on Podu lands.
The process, however, was stopped after a month. As tensions simmer, Telanganaâ€™s tribal community remain worried and clueless as the government continues to stall the process. Podu is a traditional form of shifting cultivation, a slash and burn method of agriculture. For centuries, tribal communities living in forests and hilly terrains of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have cultivated crops using this method. In the recent years, while many communities moved to conventional farming on Podu lands, some still practise shifting cultivation.
Kanayya tilled a similar piece of land but in July last year, forest officials fenced six acres of his Podu land claiming it was forest land in their records. This claim was contested by Kanayya. Later, in November 2021, using the state process, Kannaya and his three sons claimed rights for 12 acres of their Podu land.
â€śDelay in getting land title and fear of losing the rest of his land lead to his suicide,â€ť alleged Vasam Ramakrishna Dora, Telangana State Convenor of Adivasi Joint Action Committee, a consortium of tribal organisations. Dora, who has been leading campaigns for the implementation of FRA in Telangana, visited Kannayaâ€™s family after his demise to document the incident.
What the law mandates?
FRA ensures a variety of forest rights to scheduled tribes and forest dwelling communities including legal rights for communities, and individuals, over Podu lands recorded as forests in government records. Following decades of struggle, the law was brought in December 2006 â€“ by the United Progressive Alliance led union government â€“ to undo the historical injustices. Under colonial rule, millions of tribals were legally turned into encroachers on their traditional forestlands and then again in independent India, when development projects, sanctuaries and national parks were created.
It mandates the state governments to grant land titles upto 10 acres to every family from tribal and forest dweller communities who were in possession of the land before December 13, 2005, as specified by the law for individual claims.
After the law was enacted it was implemented only once. In 2008, the then Congress government in undivided Andhra Pradesh announced a roadmap for the FRA implementation but large sections of the eligible communities were left out at that time for multiple reasons such as wrongful interpretation of the law by officials, lack of awareness among communities and so on.
Soon after the assurance from Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao, on November 8, 2021, the state government started accepting applications claiming land titles under the FRA. Forest rights committees, responsible for receiving and verifying land claims, were formed across villages asking eligible applicants to submit claims within a period of one month upto December 8.
This, however, is in contravention of the guidelines issued by the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the nodal agency for implementing FRA, which sets down that the procedure of filing claims be allowed for a period of three months from the date of calling for the claim applications.
That November, 50-year-old Payam Venkayya, a tribal from Kunaram hamlet in Bhadradri Kothagudem district, filed an application to claim land tenure rights for a five acre piece of forest land. Around 30 other families in his village also filed claims.
â€śBut our villagers are doubtful of receiving pattas (legal document of the allotted land) this time as our claims were rejected last time when such a process was held,â€ť says Venkayya.
Venkayya was among the nearly 3.5 lakh applicants in the state who filed similar claims for land titles, guaranteed under the FRA.
Nearly four months after receiving the applications, state officials are yet to begin the next stage, as they await directions from the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS)-led government.
Scrutiny of claims
In the process, according to FRA, claims will have to be scrutinised and passed through three levels of checksâ€”the gram sabha, the sub-divisional level committee (SDLC) and the district level committee (DLC).
These bodies will then verify and map the area claimed. Once the claim is accepted by the DLC, land title is granted. And in case the DLC rejects an application, the applicant can approach court.
P Kalyan Reddy, Joint Director of stateâ€™s Tribal Welfare Department told TNM that the applicants have so far raised claims for nearly 13 lakh acres of land.
â€śThe state government is yet to decide on when to start the ground truthing of the applications,â€ť said Reddy.
The law mandates recognition of a variety of forest rights, such as individual forest rights, community rights and habitat rights for Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs); in contrast, officials accepted only individual claims during the exercise.
Tribal activists have been reaching out to tehsildars and district collectors requesting to begin the next stageâ€”verification of claims. â€śBut officials say that they are waiting for directions from the Chief Minister,â€ť said Dora.
Adinarayana, Public Relations Officer to the state Tribal Welfare Minister Satyavathi Rathod, confirmed that the matter is pending with Chief Minister Rao. â€śOnly the CM will decide on when the next stage of the process begins,â€ť he added.
TNM sought comment on why the FRA implementation process has been withheld from S Narsing Rao, Principal Secretary to the CM, Somesh Kumar, Special Chief Secretary of Revenue Department, Rajat Kumar, Special Chief Secretary of Environment, Forest and Science and Technology and Christina Z. Chongthu, Secretary, Tribal Affairs via email on February 22 and a reminder on March 23. The story will be updated if they respond.
While the Union Tribal Ministry mandates all states to submit monthly progress reports (MPR) on the implementation of the act, Telanganaâ€™s â€ślast correct MPRâ€ť was submitted in January 2018.
And according to the minutes of a review meeting held between the ministry and state governments in June 2021, it was revealed that the Telangana government had sent an MPR only for the month of April 2021 but that too was termed incorrect.
According to the ministryâ€™s data, as of October 2021, 42,96,452 claims (41,26,807 individual and 1,69,645 community) have been filed across India. Of them, land titles for only 50 percent individual and 59.5 percent community claims have been distributed.
Whereas, in Telangana, as of January 2018, 1,83,252 individual claims and 3,427 community claims were received (In contrary to the recent exercise, when the FRA was implemented for the first time in undivided Andhra Pradesh, both individual and community claim applications were allowed to be submitted). Of them, 93,639 individual and 727 community claims, covering an area of 7,54,339 acres, were accepted. That is only about 50 percent of the total applicants who received land titles.
Relying on satellite imagery
On February 13, 2019, in a dramatic move the Supreme Court had ordered forced evictions of more than a million tribals and others dwelling on forest lands whose claims were rejected. But two weeks later, on February 28, the apex court stayed its order and directed all states to submit affidavits after a review of all the rejected claims and explaining the plans on implementation of FRA.
A writ petition questioning the constitutionality of FRA remains pending in the Supreme Court. The last hearing was in January 2020. As of March 2020, Tribal ministry data suggests that Telangana had rejected a whopping 45 percent (83,757) of claims made under the FRA.
â€śSuch a large number of rejections was because the officials insisted upon relying on the satellite imagery as evidence to verify if the land claimed was under cultivation before 2005,â€ť said Midiyam Babu Rao, chairman of Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch and state committee member, CPI(M).
Rao, a former Member of Parliament, however, added that, â€śunder the law, satellite imagery is not mandatory evidence but only one of the many pieces of evidence to be submitted in claims.â€ť
Screenshot of Section 4.(3) of Forest Rights Act
In a similar case in May 2013, the Gujarat High Court had ruled against mandating only satellite imagery as evidence while stating that it would â€śnot subserve the object of the Act, ignoring other pieces of evidenceâ€ť.
According to Rao, the tribal communities in the state were â€śliving with the fearâ€ť of their claims being rejected again as officials indicated using satellite imagery in the verification process before the government started receiving claims.
Since 1995, the Forest Survey of India (FSI) has had high resolution satellite imagery maps of all forested areas and are used to identify whether a piece of land is forest or under farming.
In erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, officials used such maps recorded before the cutoff date of December 13, 2005 to verify whether a piece of land claimed was forest or under cultivation.
This method of verification, however, is unreliable and misleading.
A tribal farmer can file claim land rights over different parcels of forest land. â€śIn Podu cultivation, after every cropping phase, farmers leave the land fallow for years and clear another piece of land for farming. Therefore, at the time when satellite imagery maps were captured prior to the cutoff date, the claimed land would or would not have been cleared for farming. That is why the FRA rules do not list satellite imagery as mandatory,â€ť explained Rao.
Rule 13 of FRA â€“ evidence for determination of forest rights â€“ includes submission of public documents such as old maps, satellite imagery, forest enquiry reports; government authorised documents; physical structures such as houses and huts; traditional structures such as wells, burial grounds, sacred places; and statement of elders among other evidences.
The Act clearly states that any two pieces of evidence under Rule 13 will be enough to recognise forest rights.
â€śIf the Telangana government decides to repeat the same mistake of mandating satellite imagery as evidence for proving possession of land, it will be illegal, unconstitutional and people will have every right to challenge them in courts,â€ť said Shomanna Khanna, a lawyer practising in the Supreme Court and Delhi High Court on a variety of rights related issues.
Denial of forest rights
According to latest data put out by the union environment ministry, Telangana has a recorded forest area of about 26,969 square kilometres, 24.05 percent of total geographical area of the state.
Since the formation of the state of Telangana in June 2014, this is the first time that the TRS government has started the process to implement FRA. In February 2008, the then Congress government in undivided Andhra Pradesh initiated the process for implementation of FRA. But, lakhs of households missed the deadline to file their applications while, activists allege, a majority of the claims were wrongly rejected at the time.
Over the years, protests demanding implementation of the law intensified across districts. â€śDemand for land titles for Podu lands is the main issue across 15 constituencies,â€ť claims Dora.
On October 5, 2021, opposition parties including Congress, CPI(M) and CPI along with tribal organisations held statewide road blockades (Maha Rasta Roko) demanding the state government to issue land titles (pattas) for Podu lands.
Subsequently, on October 23, CM K Chandrasekhar Rao directed the officials that the tribals practising cultivation on Podu lands be provided with an â€śalternative government land.â€ť
But as the government drags its feet, more conflicts flare up across the state.
According to CPMâ€™s Babu Rao, if the TRS government had intended to implement the FRA, it would have released a roadmap on how it will conduct the whole process from receiving claims to granting land titles.
â€śThe exercise was only to deceive the tribals. The CM directed the authorities to receive the claims only to calm down the protests,â€ť he said, adding that the governmentâ€™s motive appears to withhold the ownership of the contested forest land with itself instead of vesting rights to claimants.
â€śThe overwhelming number of applications made the CM realise the scale of the Podu lands being claimed. By stalling the next stage, the CM is indicating his disinterest to allot vast extents of forest land to tribals,â€ť alleged Dora.
After a long delay of over seven years, the Telangana governmentâ€™s move to abruptly stall the crucial process briefly after initiating it is a continuation of depriving forest rights among tribes amidst unresolved land disputes and conflicts on contested forest lands.
Prudhviraj Rupavath is researcher, land and forest governance, at Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change and natural resource governance in India.