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Maharashtra Forest Department’s False Propaganda Against the FRA


Maharashtra FD uses compensatory afforesation funds to produce distorted propaganda about the Forest Rights Act


Recently, the Maharashtra Forest Department published a “study” that purported to show that the Forest Rights Act is leading to forestdestruction.  Contrary to their claims, the study’s own data shows the opposite – and in fact exposes the Forest Department’s penchant for blatantly twisting facts to favour itself.  In the past, such false “data” has often been used again and again, in the press, in the courts and in the government, to discredit forest rights and the movement.  We are circulating this critique so as to ensure that those who want to know the real picture – as revealed, we note again, by the study’s own data – can have access to it.

The study is available here.

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Lies, Damn Lies and Satellite Data – the Maharashtra Forest Department’s ‘Study’ on the Forest Rights Act

This deeply faulty and obviously biased study manipulates data and facts in order to make a case against the FRA. In particular, it does not highlight that its own data shows that:

  • Only 2% of claims that it investigated could actually be “false” even by its incorrect interpretation;
  • The satellite imagery it uses is highly unreliable and is not even internally consistent, making it impossible to verify what is actually growing on the lands in question;

The study suffers from two major problems:

Problem 1: A faulty and incorrect framework. The study has adopted an extremely limited and faulty framework for analysis. The FRA recognises 14 different rights. However, the study has focussed only on one of them, forest rights (FRs) recognised under section 3(1)(a) of the Act. This section recognises “the right to hold and live in the forest land under the individual or common occupation for habitation or for self-cultivation for livelihood by a member or members of a forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes or other traditional forest dwellers”. The key word here is the right to hold and live in the forest land under‘occupation’ and not necessarily under actual cultivation. This has been further clarified by Rule 12(A)(8) of the FRA amendment rules notified on September 6, 2012, which states “The land rights of self-cultivation recognized under clause (a) of sub-section (1) of section 3 shall be, within the specified limit, including the forest lands used for allied activities ancillary to cultivation, such as, for keeping cattle, for winnowing and other post-harvest activities, rotational fallows, tree crops and storage of produce.”

Thus any of the following would be a right of a forest dweller under section 3(1)(a):

  • growing tree crops on the occupied land;
  • leaving part of the land fallow for a year or two to allow it to regenerate or because the person does not have the capacity to cultivate it that year;
  • using a part of the land for other allied activities ancillary to cultivation
  • growing ordinary crops with a boundary marked by trees;
  • Building a shelter on the land to live in; etc.

Against the above provisions, the study is based on the wrong interpretation that rights can only be recognised on land that, on a satellite picture, is fully covered with ordinary crops as on 13.12.2005.Using this faulty framework, the study has sub-divided the land over which rights have been recognised into land under cultivation, barren land, land with forest cover or a mix of these three, and categorised all recognised rights having land uses other than pure cultivation as faulty or illegal. Despite this, out of 35,044 finally recognised FR cases analysed, 85% cases were found to be under cultivation in 2005-06 covering a total area of 40116 hectares (an average of just over one ha per FR).

The remaining 15% cases were found to have either ‘barren’ or ‘forest’ or a combination of cultivation, barren and forest as land use. Only 2% of the total cases analysed were actually found to have only forest cover representing less than 1% of the total area over which forest rights have been recognised (and even these, one should note, could consist of tree crops). If correct, this indicates a remarkable rigour in the process of verification of the claims preceding their approval.

Half of the remaining 13 percent supposedly ‘illegal’ FR cases consist of only ‘barren’ land and the other half have a combination of land uses. Both should be perfectly legal in view of the clarification given by the amended FRA rules that land under occupation can include land used for activities ancilliary to cultivation, including rotational fallows and tree crops. This is due to the adivasis traditional practice of rotational cultivation which requires parts of the cultivated land being left fallow in rotation over which vegetation is allowed to regenerate to restore its productivity.

Terming FRs on ‘barren’ land or land having a combination of forest and cultivation as illegal is highly questionable due to the nature of cultivation practiced in forested tribal areas. Due to the interdependence of agriculture with forests, it is quite common for people to retain trees on their cultivated lands or protect adjoining forests as a part of their livelihood system. The FRA does not bar recognition of land under a combination of land uses which is under occupation of the claimant as clarified by the amendment rules.The very assumption that land for self-cultivation cannot have any tree cover is bizarre for anyone familiar with adivasi culture and practices.

Problem 2: A bigger problem with the study, however, is the effort made to privilege satellite imagery as the exclusive basis for assessing the legitimacy of recognised FRs.

In this, the study has inadvertently achieved a self goal by attempting to prove changes in land use over the approved forest rightscases from 2005 upto 2011 by superimposing the claimed lands on Cartosat-1 satellite images and National Remote Sensing Centre’s (NRSC) Land Use Land Cover (LULC) maps for the same years. This comparison has brought out the following:

  • Most of the cases classified as totally under agriculture in the NRSC maps are also classified as agriculture in the Cartosat ones;

o    Most of the cases classified as “forest” in the NRSC maps, however, are classified as agriculture in the Cartosat ones;

o    Only 7% of the plots classified as “forest” in the NRSC maps are also classified as such in the Cartosat ones;

o    There is no way to check if land that is classified as “barren” was in fact fallow cultivated land.

All of this is stated by the study itself.

Despite such major discrepancies between the NRSC LULC and Cartosat-1 maps, most of the analysis of the study relies on NRSC satellite images – which the study itself states are problematic. This clearly indicates that satellite imagery, particularly for small patches of land, is useless in the absence of ground truthing, which should actually have been done at the time of field verification of each claim. This is why the FRA not only provides for a transparent, gram sabha based process including physical verification of every claim, but also permits use of satellite imagery as only one of over 13 types of evidence out of which any two may be submitted in support of a claim. The Forest Rights Committee of each Gram Sabha has to intimate the forestdepartment prior to undertaking physical verification and forest officials are members of both the sub-divisional and district level committees which further examine the veracity of the claims recommended by the gram sabha. Each forest right title is certified by a tribal, revenue and forest official. By questioning the approved FRs post facto, the study is not only questioning the entire system but even the functioning of the forest department’s own officials (including the forest officer A. K. Jha, who was in charge of implementing the FRA in Maharashtra in its first years).

One might further note that the study’s observation that some claims have been approved over land with young plantations is also of little consequence as across the country, there have been complaints about the forest department forcibly undertaking plantations onforest land under cultivation, often to prevent the cultivators from claiming rights under the FRA. The FRA provides for a right to insitu or alternate land where claimants have been illegally evicted prior to December 2005. It is also hardly surprising that some land use change has taken place on less than 1 percent of the total area of the approved FRs as that is in the nature of cultivation practices in forested areas. It is quite possible that having obtained security of tenure, the right holders have started investing more in improving the productivity of their land. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs has also asked all state governments to ensure that rightholders obtain access to all govt development programmes, including land development.

It is really unfortunate that the forest officials who have steered this study have ignored the fact that the FRA is not only about recognising rights over tiny patches of land – it is meant to undo the historical injustice done to forest dwellers by the very department they represent. Indeed, they are blind to all the other rights in the Act and fail to even look at whether they have been implemented or not. Of course this is hardly surprising, considering that this would expose the role of their department in blocking the recognition of most such rights and subverting the law.

The final and biggest irony of this study is that it has been funded with money generated for compensatory afforestation through destruction of natural forests for non-forest uses approved by forest departments themselves. It would be useful to know how much of the money meant for compensatory afforestation was spent on undertaking this poorly designed study, and how many hectares of plantations that could have supported together with how many person months of forest officials’ highly paid time were devoted to it.