The photograph showed Ramka Bai standing in a jowar field with another woman of her family. She must have been in her twenties or thirties then, she recalled.

She is now 60.

On the morning of July 16, she sat patiently with nearly a hundred other Adivasis, waiting for the Madhya Pradesh tribal affairs minister to appear in Siwal village in Burhanpur district. She clutched the old, tattered photograph in her hand.

“This photo shows how long we had been living in this forest,” she explained. Like many other Adivasis from the Barela community, she claims her family has farmed a small plot of land in the Badnapur forest area near Siwal since the mid-1970s.

“I am going to show this photo to the minister,” she said, “along with this.” She thrust her left arm forward – it looked deformed, with a dislocated bone jutting out above the elbow.

“The forest guards evicted us suddenly in 2002,” she continued. “They broke our houses, beat us and broke my arm too.”

Like Ramka bai, other Barela Adivasis also had stories of eviction and abuse that they were waiting to share with the state tribal affairs minister.

Markam was visiting the village in the wake of a controversial incident on July 9, when forest department officials drove excavator trucks over Adivasi farms in the forest near Siwal, fired pellet guns at protesting Barelas, and injured four young men. While forest officials describe the Adivasis as “encroachers”, the Barelas claim that the violent attempt to evict them from their farms was illegal.

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In 2006, India passed a law called the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, more commonly known as the Forest Rights Act, which recognised the rights of Adivasis and traditional forest dwellers to live and cultivate on forest lands.

Like lakhs of other forest dwellers across India, the Barelas of Burhanpur filed forest land claims under the law, only to find most of the claims were rejected over the years.

The Barelas allege that they were rejected without due process.

In February, the Supreme Court, acting on a petition filed by wildlife groups, ordered the eviction of all forest dwellers in India, whose claims under the Forest Rights Act had been rejected. This number was as high as 1.89 million forest-dwelling families, according to a 2018 report of the tribal affairs ministry. The scale prompted the Centre to intervene, and the court stayed its order, asking states to disclose whether they had followed due process while rejecting the claims.

Documents subsequently filed by nine state governments show at least 1.3 million of the claims have been rejected without following the due process, the Huffington Post reported last week.

In Madhya Pradesh alone, 2.4 lakh claims were wrongly rejected – the second highest after Chhattisgarh, where 4.5 lakh claims were rejected.

On May 1, the Madhya Pradesh government had decided to review more than 3.6 lakh rejected claims to examine which of them had been wrongfully rejected, and directed all district collectors not to evict any forest dwellers till this process had ended.

Despite that, the forest officials tried to evict the Barela Adivasis of Siwal on July 9.

When tribal affairs minister Markam visited Burhanpur on July 16, the Barelas not only pointed out that the eviction drive was a violation of the government’s May 1 order, they also expressed an anger that ran much deeper: anger about a long history of brutal evictions from their own land, and about the blatantly unlawful ways in which their claims over forest land had been rejected.

Unauthorised rejections

The Forest Rights Act allows traditional forest dwellers to claim individual and collective rights over forests. While the ownership of the forest land does not change, the forest dwellers acquire the right to hold and live on land up to four hectares, to cultivate, fish or graze their animals, to collect and use minor forest produce, and to collectively manage a forest as a community.

To stake a claim, they need to make an application. The Act establishes a three-tier process to assess such claims, starting with a village-level forest rights committee and followed by sub-divisional and district level committees.

The main eligibility criteria for Adivasi claimants is to show that they have been living in the claimed forest land since before December 2005.

The Barela Adivasis, who traditionally practiced shifting cultivation and moved through different forests in eastern Madhya Pradesh down the generations, claim they settled in the Badnapur forest of Burhanpur in the 1970s and 80s. Despite this, they said forest officials and non-Adivasi villagers have repeatedly dubbed them as “new” encroachers.

Listening to their stories of routine evictions, minister Markam asked them to submit all documents proving their domicile directly to his ministry. “Kagaz bolta hai,” Markam told them – documentary proof is more credible that oral claims.

“But we have been submitting our ration cards and other documents for years, clearly showing how long we have been living here, and our claims are still rejected,” said 45-year-old Remla Badole, who claims his family settled in the Badnapur forest in 1974.

MP's tribal affairs minister, Omkar Singh Markam, visited Adivasis of Siwal village on July 16. Photos: Aarefa Johari

Badole’s experience illustrates the many ways in which the implementation of the Forest Rights Act has failed forest-dwellers around the country.

Badole, who grows soyabean, paddy, jowar and other crops on a small plot in the Badnapur forest, first filed his forest land claim in 2006. Under the FRA, it is essential that claims are submitted only to 15-member forest rights committees elected by special Adivasi gram sabhas established in Adivasi hamlets under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, or PESA, of 1996. These gram sabhas are specifically meant to protect the interests of marginalised indigenous communities.

In 2006, however, the Adivasis of Siwal had not yet been educated about PESA, and had not formed a special Adivasi gram sabha or elected their own forest rights committee. Badole, therefore, submitted his FRA claim and domicile documents to the general panchayat of Siwal village, comprising mainly of non-Adivasis.

His claim was rejected at the panchayat level itself, without being forwarded to the sub-divisional or district level committees set up under the FRA. “The sarpanch signed a note on my claim saying that I was not present for the meeting when my matter was to be discussed,” said Badole. “But I was never even informed about such a meeting.”

Remla Badole's rejected FRA claim, with the village sarpanch's signature on it.

According to Madhuri K, an activist from the 20-year-old non-profit group Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, everything about this case is in violation of FRA procedures. “The sarpanch of a regular panchayat simply has no authority to reject a claim under FRA,” said Madhuri K.

Like Badole, several Adivasis complained that their claims had been rejected when they were absent from crucial meetings requiring their attendance.

Under the FRA, for instance, a forest rights committee must conduct physical verification of the forest plot being claimed, in the presence of government officials as well as the claimant.

“I was told that I would be informed about the date of the physical verification a day before it would take place,” said Ratan Ringnya, a Barela farmer from Siwal who also filed his claim with the general, non-Adivasi panchayat in 2006. “But I was never informed, and was not around when the physical verification was done. And later I was told my claim had been rejected.”

This was one of many documents Dilip Sisodia submitted with his claim for forest land rights.

Plantations and bribes

One of the most common reasons for rejected claims in Burhanpur, however, is the forest department’s declaration that the land being claimed is demarcated as an “RDF plantation”, or a plantation meant for the rehabilitation of degraded forests.

Forest departments in each district make working plans on paper for the development of forests in their jurisdiction and may demarcate “RDF” sections in which they plant various fruit trees. They receive state government funds to purchase saplings, plant trees and maintain the plantations. But in many cases, RDF declarations are made without verifying whether the plots in question have been claimed by forest dwellers.

Barelas from several villages told that their claims had been rejected and returned to them with “RDF bills” inserted in them, indicating the number of trees that the forest department had planted on the claimed piece of forest land, and the amount it had cost them.

“But no one comes to check whether these bills are genuine,” said Dilip Sisodia, a Barela Adivasi from Chainpura village near Siwal. In 2009, forest officials evicted Sisodia and other villagers from the forest and fenced off a portion of the land. “They came and dumped karanji saplings in a corner of the plot and never bothered to plant them,” said Sisodia. When Sisodia submitted his claim over the land in 2012, it was rejected on the grounds that the land was an RDF plantation.

“The saplings they dumped had died long before, so forest officials must have swallowed the money that they got from the government to maintain that plantation,” he said.

According to Madhuri K, there has been large-scale misuse of RDF plantation funds over the years. “Lakhs of rupees are allocated for plantations in each village, and funds are often shown to be spent on paper, even if they have not been spent on the ground,” she said.

Several Barelas also alleged that forest officials routinely take “haftas” or bribes from them to allow them to cultivate in the forest. “Each family in my village has had to pay Rs 2,000 to the forest nakedaar every year – once while sowing and once while harvesting our crops,” said Ratan Aare from Hirapur village. “When we were filing our claims, we were told we had to pay Rs 1,500 each if we wanted our claims to be approved. But they rejected our claims anyway.”

Women from the Barela Adivasi community of Burhanpur district at a gathering in Siwal village on July 16.

When spoke to Burhanpur’s deputy forest officer Sudhanshu Yadav, he denied that the forest rights claims of the Barelas had been wrongfully rejected.

“Badnapur was notified as a reserved forest in the 1950s or 60s, so the final rights to this land were already settled at that time,” said Yadav, who insisted that all claims over the forest after the 1960s would be unviable.

Tushar Dash, an independent researcher on forest rights, said Yadav’s views were “wrong and completely inconsistent with the Forest Rights Act”.

Forests in India are classified as “reserved” and “protected” forests under the Indian Forest Act of 1927. Creation of reserved or protected forests under the law require settlement of rights of tribals and forest dwellers.

“But in most states, including Madhya Pradesh, the settlement of rights has not been done while notifying the reserve forests leading to tenurial insecurity and disputes,” said Dash. The Forest Rights Act addressed precisely this issue, Dash said. “It recognised the injustice done to Adivasis and forest dwellers in the process of creating reserved forests. Recognition of forest rights now has to be done only through the FRA, not through any other forest law.”

Dash has come across several forest officials who are not aware of the provision of the Forest Rights Act. “But it should be their job to know the law – it has been 12 years since the FRA was passed.”

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