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J&K govt starts training officials on how to check documents of forest land ‘encroachers’

The J&K administration has already held a training session last week for its ‘frontline workers’ who are tasked to complete the job by 31 March 2021.

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Srinagar: There has been opposition from political parties and civil rights activists over its plan to evict alleged “forest land occupiers”, but the Kashmir administration has gone ahead and initiated the process of scrutinising documents supposed to be provided by individuals who already have or will receive eviction notices in the coming weeks.

As part of the plan, the administration has decided to hold “training sessions” for its “frontline workers”, who are tasked to complete the job by 31 March 2021. The administration on 2 December, as reported by ThePrint, published the names of over 63,000 individuals, accusing them of illegally occupying more than 15,000 hectares of forest land.

ThePrint has learnt that the Jammu and Kashmir Forest Department has already held one training session last week, which was attended by senior government officials and officers of the department involved in the eviction drive.

The sessions are aimed at imparting knowledge to the officials about the new forest laws introduced or implemented after the older laws were scrapped following the revocation of Article 370 and other state laws. Jammu and Kashmir as a state used to be governed by the Jammu and Kashmir Forest (Conservation) Act, 1997.

“The training sessions are routine exercises that need to be conducted to equip the forest department staff to deal with the ongoing situation. The staff will be acquainted with the nuances of the new laws as well the norms and rules through which it will be implemented,” a senior government official told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity.

“Furthermore, extra attention is being given to make the frontline staffers more sensitive towards locals,” he added.

The development comes in middle of an ongoing controversy over issuance of eviction notices to more than 100 households in Budgam district’s Zilsidara Branwar village.

On Sunday, former chief minister and Peoples Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti visited some of the families who have been served the notices, and accused the J&K administration of being callous in cruelly evicting an elderly local resident from her land.


Also read: 12 laws repealed, 14 amended — what exactly changes under new land orders in J&K

Process to check documents of forest dwellers

Senior government officials said the staffers of the forest department will also be trained in scrutinising the government documents that are being sought from the individuals accused of occupying forest land.

The alleged encroachers, according to government officials, will have to provide documented proof of them being forest dwellers by producing relevant documents, which shows that they have been residing in the forest areas for more than 75 years or three generations.

“We are going by the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 (FRA), which is now implemented in J&K,” said the official quoted above.

The administration will also check whether or not the individual possesses property or land located anywhere else, which would disqualify him/her of being termed as a forest dweller.

Officials said the rights of people, including tribals in and around forest areas, were settled in 1912 through the erstwhile state’s forest policy enacted under the Dogra regime (1846-1947). However, the law was scrapped with the revocation of Article 370, and the Forest Rights Act was extended to J&K.

The eligible forest dwellers under this Act include individuals and communities of both Scheduled Tribes (STs) as well as non-tribals, known as Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs).

However, Raja Muzaffar, a political activist and president of J&K RTI Movement, said it will be a major task for the OTFDs to prove their credentials.

“The people who have been served notices have been staying in these forests for over 200 years when there was no demarcation on types of land. When the revolutionary land reforms took place in J&K, Sheikh Abdullah, who was the prime minister of the state at that time, started what was called the ‘Grow More Food’ programme. Under the programme, the forest dwellers were officially allotted these lands, which they were supposed to cultivate. Over time, they built their lives and homes in these lands and now suddenly they are being asked to vacate,” said Muzaffar.

The activist added that the residents possessed a Girdawari, a revenue department document proving that the possession of land was with them.

Also read: J&K government to retrieve land transferred under Roshni Act within 6 months

Residents voice concern

Zooni, a resident of Zilsidara who is over 100 years old, said she has lived here and “so had my father and his father”.

Her son Sabir Mir said, “We have been served with notices and were asked to clear the trees, which we have planted”.

Prior to the latest development, the administration had also axed apple trees in Kanidajen village in the same district, claiming the trees were cultivated on occupied forest land, a claim disputed by the local residents.

Mohammad Akbar Dar, another resident of Zilsidara, said, “If this plan goes through, we have no recourse. The only document we have is the Girdawari, but we are told that it has no value since Article 370 is abrogated.”

On 1 December, the J&K government through an order established three forest rights committees — Union Territory Level Monitoring Committee, Sub-Divisional Level Committees and District Level Committees for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

According to the mandate of the committees, the ‘survey of claimants’ by the forest rights committees for assessing the nature and extent of rights being claimed at village level should be completed by 15 January 2021 for their further submission to the respective sub-divisional committees.

The sub-divisional committees are supposed to complete the process of scrutiny of claims and preparation of ‘record of forest rights’ by or before 31 January. The district level committees will then consider and approve the record, and grant forest rights by 31 March 2021.

Also read: Haseeb Drabu, NC, Congress leaders ‘gained’ from controversial Roshni land act — J&K govt


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