The residents of Gunehar village in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra district are attempting to use the Forest Rights Act to challenge the state Forest Department’s decision to hand over two hectares of local forest land to the Wildlife Department to construct an office complex. At the end of December, the Gunehar panchayat filed a complaint with the sub divisional magistrate in Baijnath town, challenging the Forest Department for violating the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, and laying their own claim on the forests.

This is an unusual occurrence in Himachal, which, like many other states, has delayed implementing the provisions of the Act.

Gunehar is located in a forested region known as the Chota Bhangal. Ninety percent of the people here rear cattle and sheep for their livelihoods. The forests around Gunehar are used as a resting and shearing ground by locals, and for passage by nomadic pastoralists.

In December, residents noticed that a patch of the local forest was being cleared for construction work. Upon enquiry, they realised that the Forest Department had handed over land in the Dhauladhar Wildlife Sanctuary on which locals had user rights to the Wildlife Department for the construction of the complex.

(Photo credit: Akshay Jasrotia).

As per the 2009-’10 revenue land settlement records, that patch of land is jointly owned by the Forest Department and the local community. Thus, before handing it over, according to the Forest Rights Act, the Forest Department should have mandatorily obtained a no-objection certificate from the village Gram Sabha. But it had not done so.

The Forest Rights Act grants legal recognition to the rights of traditional forest dwelling communities and entrusts them with responsibility for conservation. It was enacted to address the historical injustice meted out to forest dwellers in India because of the non-recognition of their legal right over forest land for decades. Prior to this Act, communities living in and around forests were vulnerable to harassment and the threat of eviction on charges of being encroachers.

Although implementation of the Forest Rights Act was to begin in 2009, most states, including Himachal Pradesh, have been slow in implementing it. The Act has been violated repeatedly, and both local communities and government bodies have limited awareness about its provisions.

Community rights

Gunehar’s battle with the Forest Department must be seen in the context of a fight that stretches back to 1999 when the land the village stands on was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary without the consent of the local population.

Gunehar was one of 58 villages that fell inside the sanctuary. All these villages had settlement rights over forest resources in the area dating as far back as 1887. However, once the area was declared a sanctuary, the Forest Department prevented locals from accessing forests for their livelihood needs.

Naturally, the villagers protested. After several demonstrations and petitions, the government agreed to exclude the 58 villages from the sanctuary area. However they continued to be in the buffer zone.

Kisan Sabha Baijnath, a civil society group working with forest dependent people, which was leading the struggle, filed a case in the Shimla High Court in 2011 to assert community forest rights. The final judgement in the case is still pending and the petitioners argue that till it is out, any construction related to the wildlife sanctuary is illegal.

“Up until then in Himachal Pradesh the Act had been implemented only in the Scheduled Areas of Lahaul-Spiti, Kinnaur and parts of Chamba,” said activist Akshay Jasrotia, leader of the Kisan Sabha. “In an affidavit filed in the Shimla High Court in 2012 in this case, the state Tribal Department said that the Act would be implemented in the entire state. This opened a legal route for us to us to assert our claim on the forest areas”.

Claims over the forest

By 2014, Forest Rights Committees – mandated by the Forest Rights Act – were formed in the entire state and the Kisan Sabha started working with them around the Baijnath region. It helped local residents to file individual and community claims to forest land under the provisions of the Act.

“It is only by strengthening customary user rights in this region that long term forest conservation and restoration of ecological balance can be achieved,” said Pavana Kumari, a resident of the area and activist with the Kisan Sabha.

Gunehar is one of 32 Forest Rights Committees in the state that has filed community and individual claims under the Forest Rights Act. Though its claims are yet to be accepted, the community has taken upon itself the task of conserving the forests.

“When saplings have just been planted, people take turns to guard the forest,” said Kumari. Those who are found to be flouting this community-imposed rule by entering the demarcated forests and putting the saplings at risk are warned, and repeated violators are fined.

It was the Forest Rights Committee of Gunehar along with the village youth group and the local mahila mandal (women’s group) that managed to mobilise people to block the construction of the office complex last month.

(Photo credit: Akshay Jasrotia).

More than 70 women came forward to lead the agitation, said Kushma Devi, 38, who heads Gunehar’s mahila mandal. “Women have a close relationship with the forest,” she said. “We enter the forests on a daily basis to collect firewood, fodder and fruits. We also take the cattle for grazing.”

On a cold January evening, as it snowed on the mountains surrounding Chota Bhangal, Kumari tended to the hearth in her kitchen. Her family gathered around the fire warming themselves while chatting about the day gone by.

Kumari and her brothers collected the firewood that warmed their mud home from the forest. The house is also supported by wooden beams sourced from the forest.

“If there was no firewood and hence no fire, would you have survived the cold?” asked Kumari.

Tug of war

Asked to comment on the Gunehar construction controversy, district forest officer BS Yadav admitted: “The Wildlife Department should have taken the consent of the people and they should be questioned”.

But district wildlife officer Manohar Lal was of the view that “some people are making an issue out of a non-issue”.

He said: “If the Forest Department itself can’t construct on the forest departments land then what is the use?”

Said Bichitra Singh, deputy chief of Gunehar panchayat: “The attitude of the Forest Department of being the owner and thus unaccountable to the local people is most problematic.”

Shazia Nigar is associated with Himdhara, Environment Research and Action Collective, in Himachal Pradesh.