Nomad forest dwellers in Indian-administered Kashmir are pinning their hopes on the implementation of a 14-year-old law to save their land and homes, as the government announces plans to evict tens of thousands of people it says are encroaching on protected land.
Last month, the forest department of the disputed federal territory published a list of about 63,000 people it says are living and farming “illegally” on a total of 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of forest land.
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Now the tribal communities living in the region’s forests are looking for protection under India’s Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, which is coming into effect in the region more than 10 years after it was enacted elsewhere in India.
Zahid Parwaz Choudhary of the Jammu and Kashmir Gujjar Bakarwal Youth Welfare Conference said the law would ease the persecution of tribal communities, which rights campaigners say has intensified under the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“If the FRA was implemented in Jammu and Kashmir earlier, we would not have seen the eviction of dozens of families and the harassment of hundreds of families,” said Choudhary, who presides over the nonprofit working for tribal rights.
Bakarwals are nomadic shepherds who lead their flocks in search of greener pastures across the Himalayan state.
The FRA aimed to recognise the rights of at least 150 million indigenous and rural people to inhabit and live off about 40 million hectares (99 million acres) of forest land.
Mostly concentrated in or near forests, Kashmir has a tribal population of about 1.1 million, according to the latest census carried out in 2011.
Despite coming into force in other Indian states, the law never went into effect in Kashmir, with those who opposed it citing the region’s right to make some of its own laws under its now-revoked special status.
Javaid Rahi, general secretary of the Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation, noted that the law should have automatically gone into effect after the removal of Indian-administered Kashmir’s special status in August 2019.
Following calls from rights activists and intense media scrutiny, the government announced in November 2020 that it would implement the law.
The deadline for collecting applicants’ information is Friday, with the aim of approving all eligible claims by March.
But, Rahi said, there are still concerns among forest communities.
“For example, as per the FRA, the Gram Sabha [village representative body] of a village, which defends the rights of the forest dwellers, should be formed in a meeting attended by [at least] 50 percent of the voters in the village,” he said.
“But, this norm is being violated in most of the villages.”
Kashmir’s director of rural development, Qazi Sarwar, who is overseeing the law’s implementation, denied that authorities are not following the rules of the law.
“There are complaints somewhere, which we will look into. But, it is not happening in every Gram Panchayat,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
Abdul Aziz Khatana, a herder from Lidroo village in southern Kashmir, keeps worrying about one thing: how will he survive without the small mud and wood hut he stays in during the six-month migration to graze his livestock every summer?
In November last year the forest department demolished the hut, he explained, saying the land it was built on had been illegally occupied.
“I had been using it for years to protect myself from wild animals and bad weather. How did the forest department declare it illegal all of a sudden, I wonder,” said Khatana, who supports a family of five.
“The forest is our source of income. Forests also provide us shelter. We can’t think of living without forests.”
The herder said he was offered no compensation, but has applied under the FRA. If he qualifies, he could get the land back and some money to rebuild his hut, he added.
Tribal rights activists and researchers say Kashmir’s forest dwellers have increasingly been targeted for eviction in recent years.
In early December, forest dwellers in Kanidajjan village said the government felled thousands of their trees after accusing them of encroaching on forest land.
A month earlier, villagers in Pahalgam in southern Kashmir said the forest department demolished at least 13 huts and reclaimed more than 34 hectares (85 acres) of land from villagers. “Hundreds of forest dwellers have been evicted in different places. This is like throwing the birds out of their nests,” said Rahi.
Mohit Gera, Kashmir’s principal chief conservator of forests, said the evictions are meant to stop the illegal use of forest land and do not specifically target tribal communities.
“The forest department is not against people. In fact, we want to work with the people to protect forests. Any action is taken when forest land is encroached,” he said.
Rahi said that lack of awareness among the tribal population about the law is a challenge due to the low literacy rate among those communities.
According to the latest census figures, about half of Kashmir’s tribal population is illiterate.
“We are now trying our best to make them aware by visiting them and using traditional and social media,” Rahi said.
Those efforts are hampered by 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 withdrawal of the region’s autonomy.
Authorities say the communications blackout is needed to maintain order in the Himalayan region where security forces have been fighting a long-running rebellion.
Gera, in the forest department, said whatever land is retrieved as a result of the removal of illegal residents will be legally considered protected land.
He noted that India’s forest conservation law allows the government to utilise forest land for a developmental project of public interest “only when there is no alternative but to use forest land which is holy and precious [protected]”.
Raja Muzaffar Bhat, president of the anti-corruption J&K RTI Movement, said he has little confidence that the current procedure for implementing the FRA 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 population, is nowhere in the picture as the FRA is being implemented,” Bhat said.
Considering how little tribal communities know about 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 with heavy snowfall earlier this month.
“I appeal the government to create mass awareness among forest dwellers before implementing the FRA in haste,” he said.