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Finally, J&K's Gujjars, Bakerwals and other STs will be eligible to hold and cultivate land in the valley

For the first time in the history of Jammu and Kashmir, the Gujjars, the Bakerwals and other Scheduled Tribes (STs) living in the specified forest areas will be eligible to hold and cultivate on the limited occupied land. In order to bring these populations at par with similar dwellers across India, the government of Jammu and Kashmir has decided to fully implement the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, within the deadline of March 1, 2021.

In the entire country, J&K was the only state where the successive governments had denied such rights to the Gujjars and Bakerwals. Reason? Due to Article 370 which was in place till last year, the Forest Rights Act had never been made applicable. This Act was among the several central laws that was extended to J&K after Article 370 was partially withdrawn and the state was divided into the UTs of J&K and Ladakh in August 2019. However, the follow-up mechanism of implementation is being put in place only now.

Chief Secretary, B V R Subrahmanyam, on Wednesday chaired a meeting in Jammu to review the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, and Rules adopted in 2008, in Jammu and Kashmir.

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Work on this had already begun by the Departments of Tribal Affairs, and Forest, Ecology and Environment in October, 2020, a year after the appointed date of the Jammu and Kashmir (Reorganisation) Act of 2019.

Highly placed bureaucratic sources said that the Central Act had been made in 2006 and its Rules framed in 2008. All other States and UTs, excluding J&amp;K, had implemented the Act with its Rules. The Gujjar and the Bakerwal populations had been demanding implementation of the Forest Rights Act. Even as the nomadic and the pastoral communities were represented by several MLAs, MLCs, MPs and ministers in almost every regime, they had never brought this into effect.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had committed at Jammu’s ‘Lalkaar Rally’ on December 1, 2014, that if returned to power he would ensure extension of all forest rights to the Gujjars and other ST communities.

According to knowledgeable sources, Modi has taken cognizance of the eviction of the Gujjar and the Bakerwal communities from their occupied lands in forest areas and directed the UT administration to immediately provide his government’s best possible relief to these populations. Significantly, J&amp;K’s mainstream opposition parties, under the umbrella of Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) had lately started a concerted campaign against the eviction of Gujjars and Bakerwals and cultivating a sense of injustice and victimhood among the Muslim tribal communities.

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It was decided in Wednesday’s meeting that the ‘survey of claimants' by the Forest Rights Committees for assessing the nature and extent of rights being claimed at village level be completed by January 15, 2021, for their further submission to the respective Sub-Divisional Committees. The Sub-Divisional Committees shall complete the process of scrutiny of claims and preparation of ‘record of forest rights’ by or before January 31, 2021. The District Level Committees shall consider and approve the record and grant forest rights by March 1, 2021.

It was informed that under the Act, the forest dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers will be provided with the rights over forest land for the purpose of habitation or self-cultivation/livelihood; ownership, access to collect, use, and dispose of minor forest produce, and entitlement to seasonal resources among others. However, the rights conferred under this Act shall be for a maximum of four hectares and heritable but not alienable or transferable.

The Act further provides that on the recommendation of Gram Sabha, forest land up to one hectare can be diverted for the purpose of developing government facilities including schools, hospitals, minor water bodies, rainwater harvesting structures, minor irrigation canals, vocational training centers, non-conventional sources of energy, roads etc.

The Act also empowers the holders of forest rights, and Gram Sabhas to protect wild life, forest, biodiversity, catchment areas, water sources and other ecologically sensitive areas, besides ensuring that the habitat of forest dwelling STs and other traditional forest dwellers is preserved from any form of destructive practices affecting their cultural and natural heritage.

It was decided that the Forest Department would immediately constitute the four-tier committees including the State Level Monitoring Committee, District Level Committee, Sub-Divisional Level Committee, and Forest Rights Committees.

Other traditional forest dwellers such as the communities having primarily resided in and depended on the forest or the forest land for bona fide livelihood needs for three successive generations of 25 years each up to December 13, 2005, shall also be entitled to the forest rights under the new Act. They would have right over minor forest produce including all non-timber forest produce of plant origin like bamboo, brush wood, stumps, cane, tussar, cocoons, honey, wax, lac, tendu or kendu leaves, medicinal plants and herbs, roots and tubers.

Forest land under the Act means land of any description falling within any forest area and includes unclassified forests, undemarcated forests, existing or deemed forests, protected forests, reserved forests, sanctuaries and national parks.