The Forests We Forgot
Down To Earth| January 16, 2021
Huge swathes of forestland have been declared reserve forests but never notified since the colonial era, leaving thousands of people encroachers on their own land for generations. For them, it is a perennial existence of uncertainty. ISHAN KUKRETI travels to several villages across JHARKHAND, ANDHRA PRADESH AND MADHYA PRADESH to find how government failure, both at the Centre and the states, is hurting the communities and forests alike
Ishan Kukreti

ON A January night in 1967, Vanthala Ramanna became an encroacher on his own land. The Andhra Pradesh government literally snatched away his land when it decided to create a new reserve forest almost the size of Mumbai city. The news reached Panasalpadu village in Vishakhapatnam district almost two days later. By then, Ramanna and all others in the village had become de facto landless who had to prove their land ownership.

The notification was issued under Section 4 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927. It is the first step in the process of declaring any piece of land as a reserve forest. The next steps involve settling the land rights before the transfer is made to the new owners—the forest department. But that never happened. This is not the first time the village residents had to prove their rights over their ancestral land.

Some 150 years ago, the first Indian Forest Act in 1865, promulgated by the British government, had usurped the traditional ownership and management power of forest-dwelling communities. After over six decades of coaxing, the British government in 1932 issued pattas (legal ownership documents) to the forest dwellers. But the legal documents did not deter the Andhra Pradesh government from exploiting the same colonial law to snatch away their lands.

Cut to January 2021. Ramanna is dead, but the fear of being evicted from their own lands haunts his family. “It has been 50 years and the government has neither established the reserve forest nor returned our land,” says Vanthala Chinnaya, Ramanna's son who was not even born when the notification was introduced. He is now a grandfather of two. The area is under Schedule V of the Constitution and developmental works are undertaken by the Integrated Tribal Development Agency. The residents, however, cannot sell their land nor use it to get bank loans because of the Section 4 notification.

Andhra Pradesh is not the only state where this legacy of unsettled rights over forestland haunts communities. Large swathes of forestland and their millions of inhabitants across India are in a similar limbo. The Indian Forest Act, 1927, recognises only three categories of forests: reserve, protected and village. Still, the land records of almost all forest departments have “Section 4 forest” as a category, as if it is an unsaid rule. There is, however, no consolidated data on the extent of this ad hoc forestland. Such government inaction means that even those forests whose protection triggered the entire process, are now left vulnerable.

Down to Earth filed applications under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI), to 17 state forest departments, asking for the area notified under Section 4. Only three states—Maharashtra, Telangana and Odisha—shared the details. The information for Karnataka and Jharkhand were obtained from multiple reports released by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. The data for Andhra Pradesh was collected from the Status of Adivasis/indigenous Peoples Land Series-7: Andhra Pradesh, published in 2014 by Palla Trinadha Rao. The details for Madhya Pradesh were collected from the Satpura Research and Advocacy, a Madhya Pradesh-based land research organisation.

The seven states have over 7 million ha under Section 4 category—by comparison, this is the size of 120 Mumbai cities or almost twice the size of Kerala (see “Disputed forestland”, p32). Madhya Pradesh has the largest area under Section 4 forests, followed by Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh.

Under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, once the notification under Section 4 is issued, the state government has to appoint a forest settlement officer (FSO) to look into the land rights of people living within the identified boundaries of the proposed reserve forest. The officer, who is usually from the revenue department as the law forbids forest officials for the role, has the power to settle rights over both common and private lands. The claimants can also appeal against the decision of FSO in a forest court. Only when this process of land settlement is complete, including the verdicts on the appeals, can the state government issue a notification under Section 20 of the Act to finally declare a piece of land as a reserve forest (see “How a forest is formed”, p33). Currently, 14 states have their own forest laws, but all follow a similar procedure. While the law says the FSO has to fix a period within which people can submit their claims, it has no time limit for the rest of the process.

S Shyam Sunder, one of the first generation officers of the Indian Forest Service who retired as the principal chief conservator of forest, Karnataka, says forestland was never a priority for the Centre or state governments. He says most of the land stuck under Section 4 was announced in the 1950s and 1960s when the country was not food secure. “At the time of Independence, India was short on food and had to constantly approach the US for it. So even after the issuing of Section 4, these forest lands were treated as revenue lands, he says. Buchiram Reddy, a 91-year-old retired forest officer from the Andhra Pradesh cadre, says the role of an FSO is an additional work that no officer wants. “Settling of land rights is not an easy task. FSO is given just one helper to carry out the charge which is simply not enough,” he says.

Besides, Reddy alleges that FSOs have a tendency of granting land rights to people even when the claim is not genuine, and this leads to litigation and delays. “The revenue official, with no stake in forests, often sees the settlement process as a money-making opportunity. In that case, we appeal against the award. But due to the slow judicial system, the cases remain pending,” he says.

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