As threats to common properties magnify, as people’s traditional access to living systems is denied, the Forest Rights Act starts making its way into people’s lives, in the trans-himalayan valley of Spiti, to uphold the rights that have sustained residents here for centuries.
On an overcast day, we stirred a conversation with few members of the Forest Right’s Committee (FRC) from Mane, a village in the trans-himalayan district of Spiti, discussing how Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 would make them the legal owner of the land under their occupation. “All of this is ours, anyway,” they remarked, pointing to the forest land. “But is your name recorded as the owner in Land Revenue records?” we enquired. The immediate response, which was in the affirmative, soon turned around. “Not in the the jamabandi (revenue records), but we have always used it without hindrance.” We sipped our tea, and processed the conversation, questioning, “Why was a denial of access to their traditionally held rights not perceived as a threat?”
We were in Spiti Valley in early October travelling to Kaza, Tabo, Hall, Rangrik and Pin Valley, participating in a series of dialogues and public meetings on the ‘Forest Rights Act 2006’. This was a part of a process of awareness building about the significance of the act in collaboration with the Spiti Civil Society, a local action group led by the youth from the area. The Act, meant to ascertain the rights of communities dependent on ‘forestland’, is of critical importance for the people of Himachal Pradesh, where 2/3 of the geographical area is designated as forest land and 90% of the population is dependent on it for livelihood. But with half a year of harsh winter, and the other half spent in making most of the livelihood options of agriculture and tourism, communities in Spiti Valley, mostly Scheduled tribes, seemed to have been oblivious to the Act that records legal ownership under it. A reluctance on the part of the administration has been a hinderance in disseminating any information to the people on the Act. It is due to bureaucratic apathy, low awareness of the Act and lack of political will that so far only 25 individual claims for ‘habitation’ from Kaza have reached the Sub-divisional Level Committee (SDLC) level and not a single community claim has been filed. Where as there are close to 2000 housholds in the valley and many have claims to make.
The road to Tabo, from the district head-quarter Kaza, was lined by bushes of sea-buck thorn, and fields of barley, potatoes and black and green peas. Banks of the Spiti River spanned with apple orchards. In recent years, apple production has reached the lower belts of the Valley, making it a lucrative source of income. Given the tiny land holding size, over the decades, people had expanded their orchards into nearby lands which were later categorized as ‘forests’. Still, no claims for ‘land under cultivation’ have been submitted to the SDLC. We crossed houses busy with renovation, where families patched their typical flat-roofed, white and red mud-brick homes with a new coat of mud—an abundant natural resourcee obtained from ‘forest land’ that villagers are strongly dependent on.
“FRA can make you the legal owner of all these stones, the sand around you…”, we recalled our colleague Prakash Bhandari saying this in his public speech in the compounds of a Gompa—a Buddhist Temple— in Kaza where close to 150 people had gathered. This was in context of the Act’s most powerful provision of Gram Sabha consent before carrying out of any development activity by the State. The women, who received this statement with roaring claps, later informed us of various instances where the officials had fined them for picking up the sand and other material for houses. Understanding that the Act also recognises and records rights over traditional knowledge of cultural diversity and biodiversity, the women seemed further encouraged.
Across sessions, the initial inquiries of the people were mostly limited to the ‘Himachal Pradesh Nautor Rules’, a policy designed in 1968 to allot land to the landless. While the State government is no longer framing policies related to regularization of forest land occupations central legislations brought diversion of forest land under the jurisdiction of the Union Forest Ministry, in tribal belt, the governor of Himachal has exempted provisions of FCA, 1980 to allot forest land for cultivation under Nautor rules. However the glitch is that the Shimla High court in a judgment had maintained that the annual income criteria of Rs. 2000 would be an eligibility criteria under Nautor rules, 1968 in the tribal belt also. This has been challenged in the Supreme Court of India, and only when the final judgement comes then further land can be allotted under these state rules. Regardless, ministers, and even patwaris have emphasized on Nautor, informing the claimants in one instance, “Process your applications under Nautor, FRA mei kuch nahi hoga…(nothing will happen under FRA)”. Unaware of this, and that FRA supersedes all other Acts, inhabitants in the region have continued to hold on to the false promises from the political leaders about Nautor. In one instance, a claimant who first prepared his file for an individual claim under FRA, soon after took his file back, saying that he wanted to instead apply under Nautor Rules. People here continue to be mobilised for a policy that lies paralysed, while legal ownership continues to be a distant dream.
Residents of Kibber, unlike other villages approached us eagerly insisting that they wanted support to proceed first and immediately with the Community Forest Rights claim. Their claim fell in an area spread over 1 lakh hectares on which they have depended for grazing their sheep and yaks and collecting forest produce. Tsering, from the village said, “We have been restricted by the Forest Department on earlier occasions and who knows when our complete access would be denied?” He was referring to the restrictions placed on accessing the forest lands on which they had customary user rights. Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary and Pin Valley National Park are rich in endangered plants with high medicinal values, and are inhabited by a strong population of snow leopard. 10 kilometers around these protected areas has been declared as ‘Eco-sensitive Zones’, where activities are to be either prohibited, regulated or permitted with guidelines by the State. In 2017, construction of a road connecting the pristine Pin Valley to Kinnaur was initiated. While this would shorten the distance to Shimla from Kaza by 90 kilometres, it will be accompanied by slope destabilization, muck, and other hazards, due to the forest diversion. Since 2009, Project Snow Leopard has been implemented in the region, one of the objectives of which is to ‘reduce existing anthropogenic pressures on natural resources.’ Against such threats, an NOC from the Gram Sabha under the Act can be a precious weapon for the community to have a say in the nature of development that people aspire for. For the residents of Kibber, Mane, and Khurik, the essence of FRA seemed to have rung true.
Photos and Blog by Vaishnavi Rathore*, member Himdhara Collective
*with inputs from team members