Historical injustice continues despite pro-people legislation

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Himachal Van Adhikar Manch, a platform of groups and activists demanding and working on the implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006 in Himachal Pradesh have condemned the illegal manner in which many vulnerable communities are being evicted from their lands by labelling them as ‘encroachers’ despite pro-people legislation.

Referring to the latest incident of death of a Dalit, Kundan Singh, son of Rulia, from Salamatpur, Paonta Sahib (Sirmaur), HVAM convener Mr Akshay Jasrotia alleged that after his family faced forced eviction from their home and land. According to his youngest son, Rajesh Kumar, “The eviction took place on 27th December 2017 when the forest officials came to remove the dwelling by force. Kundan was ill and lying on his bed and his thumbprint was taken on the papers by force. Within hours of the incident, Kundan passed away”.

It is important to note that the family was according to his widow Darshini Devi, living in the village since several decades ago and the common village land under the category forests was given to them to reside by the village by passing a common resolution since Kundan, belonged to Chamar community, and used to tan the skin of the dead cattle of the village. Since he and his family were on a hand to mouth existence he used to cultivate some of the lands around his dwelling for subsistence purposes. There are many such examples of Dalit families settled in villages on common or private lands in the area.

The encroachment notice that was issued to Kundan in 2015 but according to his son he never got a chance to be heard at the Divisional Forest Office where the case was lodged. The most shocking is that the DFO who issued the notice is also a member of the District Level Committee under the Forest Rights Act 2006 and he, if willed, could have given Kundan a chance to place his claim under the Act.

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The FRA 2006, is a legislation that was made precisely to provide protection to vulnerable and marginalised sections of the society and communities dependent on ‘forest land’ for their housing, agriculture and other common uses. The very purpose of the Act was to undo the historical injustice that the poorest in this Country have faced since the last hundreds of years by being labelled as ‘encroachers’. The Forest and Revenue departments have been registering cases of encroachment against Dalit and other landless communities under the HP Public Premises & Land (Eviction & Rent Recovery) Act, 1971 and section 163 of HP Land Revenue Act 1954, using the garb of the April 2015 Order of the High Court for ‘removal of encroachment’s.

The Public Premises Act concentrates too much power in the hands of the DFO, who is the complainant, collector and prosecutor – all three under the legislation. However, it is important to note that the Premises and Land Revenue Act is State legislation, and therefore ought to be overridden by the Central legislation like the Forest Rights Act 2006. This is a gross negligence by the forest administration and also a violation of section 3(g) of the Scheduled Tribes and Castes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act 2015. The administration had a choice to use a pro-people legislation in favour of a poor Dalit family. Instead, it chose to act in a draconian manner, despite the availability of progressive laws like the Forest Rights Act 2006, pushing Kundan and his family further on the margin of survival.

The State Government needs to take immediate action against the responsible official under the provisions of the Atrocities Act and provide relief to Kundan’s family and needs to ensure that there is no repeat of this kind of an instance. The resolution is to settle rights of forest-dwelling communities, especially Dalits, under available laws like FRA.

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