Forest Rights: A big relief for Gujjars, Bakerwals

Dr Javaid Rahi

The countrywide law – The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, popularly known as the Forest Rights Act – was extended to Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir through an Act of the Parliament of India titled “Jammu and Kashmir Re-organisation Act, 2019” on 5th of August 2019 . It was widely hailed by tribal communities of the area and they termed it as a historic step to correct the discrimination, injustice meted out to tribal people and forest dwellers of erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.
The Act gave back to traditional forest dwellers their rights to freely access, independently manage and govern forest lands and all other resources related to forests, within village boundaries, which had been controlled by the Forest Department of erstwhile State of J&K , prior to 31st of October 2019, the date of implementation of Reorganisation Act, 2019 in J&K.
Under the said Forest Rights Act , rights of traditional forest dwellers are stand protected against forced displacements, evictions from forest lands which the Gujjars, Bakerwals, Gaddis were facing for the last many decades.They are now entitled to use minor forest produce except timber, access to water resources besides they will now have grazing rights on Forest lands, as well.
Prior to the extension of FRA (Forest Right Act), there was no proper law/Act existing in erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir with regard to the use of forest lands by Gujjars , Bakerwals, Gaddi, Sippi groups who are pastoralists tribe. Though, nomadic groups (Gujjars, Bakerwals, Gaddi, Sippi) got ST status in J&K in the year 1991 after a long struggle, but since then they were struggling hard for a number safeguards available to Scheduled Tribes residing in other parts of the country including the Forest Rights. They were regularly agitating for constitutional safeguards to J&K STs by extending Indian laws enacted for tribal groups of J&K enabling them to progress on the prototype of tribes of other states of India.
As per the data and research documents a major chunk of these tribals of JK are landless, shelter less entitled for dwelling rights on forest lands which they were using and managing as traditional inhabitants since centuries together.
Population of Tribes in J&K
With reference to the UT of Jammu & Kashmir, five tribal communities have been listed in Constitution of India as ST’s includes Gujjar, Bakarwal, Gaddi, Sippi and Shin/Dard. They, as per census 2011, constitute more than 10% population of the state. The Gujjar and Bakerwal together comprise 90 percent of the total tribal population in UT of J&K. However, Gujjars have questioned the official statistics time and again by asserting that their population is much more than what the census reports. They claim that the census was undertaken during the time of their annual migration. Due to this, a large population of their tribe, who was in the upper reaches of the Himalaya, was not counted. The census hence under-reports the population of Gujjar and Bakerwals who constitute no less than 15 to 20 percent of total population of the state of J&K.
The Forest (Tribal) Rights
Act- 2006 provides :
On 18th December 2006, the Indian Parliament passed legislation whereby the Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers were fortified with the rights on forest land and other resources. It was an initiative of the Government of India to redress the historical injustice committed against tribes who are the main forest dwellers, while including provisions for making conservation more effective and more transparent.
Through this legislation, which came into force on 31 December 2007, following rights have been granted to tribes of India:
* Ownership and Title rights to land, subject to a maximum of 4 hectares, that is being farmed by tribal or forest dwellers as on 13 December 2005;
* Use rights – Rights were granted to tribes to grazing areas, pastoralist route to minor forest produce (also including ownership)
* Rehabilitation- Right to rehabilitation in case of illegal eviction or forced displacement. Relief and development rights were granted for basic amenities, subject to restrictions for forest protection;
* Protection Rights and Forest management rights- to protect forests and wildlife.
The eligibility for ‘Forest Rights’ (to get rights) is confined to those who “primarily reside in forests” or who “depend on forests and forest land for their livelihood”. Further, either the claimant must be a member of the Scheduled Tribes scheduled in that area or must have been residing in the forest for 75 years.
Types of Rights granted to Indian Tribes under Forest ACT 2006
* Right of ownership, access to collect, use, and dispose of minor forest produce;
* Right to hold and live in the forest land for self-cultivation, for livelihood, to Scheduled Tribe or other traditional forest dwellers;
* For settled or transhumant community-rights of uses of entitlements such as fish and other products of water bodies, grazing and traditional seasonal resource and their access to nomadic or pastoralist communities;
* Right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage any community forest resource which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use;
* Right of access to biodiversity and community right to intellectual property and traditional knowledge related to biodiversity and cultural diversity;
* Traditional and customary right enjoyed by the forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes or other traditional forest dwellers;
* Community rights such as nistar, by whatever name called, including those used in erstwhile Princely states, Zamindari or such intermediary regimes;
* Other rights as may be granted by the State.
Forest as Home of Tribes
The forests are the home of nomadic tribes. Lakhs of nomadic Gujjars-Bakarwals, Gaddis and other groups of J&K are dependent on forest lands as they are not only residing in these areas since centuries. They stay in Jungals during migration and their livelihood is completely based on forest products, grazing lands other resources.
In the past, the tribes especially Gujjars have been protecting forests against mafias and other land grabbers, but as per laws of erstwhile state of J&K , protection to forests by a person or persons other than officials were illegal which was totally unjust and against tribal rights. Hence, they (Gujjar community) hailed the extension of FRA to J&K as they are now forest legally protect the forests per Forest Rights Act.
Implementation of Forest Rights;
Scheduled Tribe communities of the UT of Jammu and Kashmir feel that now onwards a new era of development, overall progress and equal opportunities will start for all of them. They are eagerly waiting for a positive outcome through implementation of new Forest laws extended to J&K by the Parliament of India.
As per law Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) Government of India will be the Nodal Department for the implementation of the FRA in States and UTs. Tribals of Jammu and Kashmir are hoping that FRA will be implemented rapidly in the UT as the same was extended to J&K after 12 years of its implementation across India. It will empower the Village committees to govern community forest resources and to democratize forest governance by securing rights of Tribes of Jammu and Kashmir.