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Portal of trouble opens again for Madhya Pradesh tribals on the lookout for pattas

India

Portal of trouble opens again for Madhya Pradesh tribals on the lookout for pattas

Bhopal, Jan 29 (IANS/ 101Reporters) Ravalusingh Baiga (50) had been cultivating four to five acres of land since 1998. When the Forest Rights Act (FRA) came into existence in 2006, he filed a lease claim for those eight fields. However, the lease copy he got in 2016 gave him the right to only an acre, or four fields.

“Now you can guess how we run the house,” sighs Ravalusingh, whose eight-member family lives at Dhaba in Samnapur tehsil of Madhya Pradesh’s Dindori district.

Budhlal Baiga (40) alleges that every third person in the village has suffered this setback.

“They got 10 or 20 decimals after making claims for two to five acres. Despite lodging complaints and officials taking note, the problem persists,” he says.

Organisations working for tribal welfare claim that 90 per cent of the distributed leases have seen unwarranted reduction of land, whether the application was made offline or online. The problem persists not only in the 89 tribal development blocks of Madhya Pradesh, but also in other states Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Odisha and Chhattisgarh.

Madhuri Ben, president, Jan Jagruti Samiti, which helps tribals in Burhanpur attain forest rights pattas (land titles), says applicants are now being forced to file claims through Van Mitra portal or app. “This has proved even more disastrous.”

Why portal?

The members or community of the Scheduled Tribes who primarily reside in and depend on the forests or forest land for livelihood can claim rights under FRA 2006. Any member or community whose three generations (75 years) prior to December 13, 2005, primarily resided in forest land is also eligible. Ten acres can be claimed for individual lease, whereas no limit has been set for community lease.

When rejections mounted, the state government launched the Madhya Pradesh Van Mitra portal and mobile app in December 2019 to review the rejected claims. From December 2019 to November 2022, a total of 6,27,513 applications went through the Van Mitra portal and 6,17,284 claims (98%) were resolved.

However, the portal gradually shut in 2020, citing confusion due to the arrival of new claims. By May last year, the portal was functional only in eight of the total 55 districts. Last July, the portal reopened to hear both new and rejected claims, but that meant only more trouble. The claims sent back for amendments will still be heard offline.

Before reopening the portal, a 12-member task force was formed last April under the chairmanship of the then Chief Minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, for effective implementation of the rules of Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, and FRA. This task force is functional only on paper now.

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Task force’s suggestions ignored

Task force member Milind Thatte says they had suggested that the forest lease hearing should be held offline at gram sabhas because the rules itself say that the decision should be taken at gram sabha public meeting. “We had suggested that Van Mitra portal is needed to bring transparency, but should be limited to keeping records of claim documents, gram sabha decisions and leases,” he details.

Another task force member and FRA expert Dr Sharad Lele tells 101Reporters that he had brought issues related to portal use before the government’s notice in a meeting held under the chairmanship of Chouhan, about 10 months ago. Some of them were poor network coverage, non-availability of mobiles or laptops, poor education status of most tribals, and lack of clarity in satellite images.

However, last April itself, the administration called lease applications in 20 forest villages of Dindori district with help from Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) and National Institute of Women, Child and Youth Development. “Wrong names and land compartments, and mistakes in farm size and location were found in the approved land titles during this period.”

“As these are old forest villages settled by the forest department, all the fields here are eligible for individual pattas. So it was decided to mark and measure every field. Maps were prepared and then claims made afresh,” says Lele, Distinguished Fellow, ATREE, which also applied for amendments in many claims.

Notably, 230 claims, including new and those requiring revisions, were filed offline at Sheetalpani in Bajag tehsil and Pondi in Samnapur tehsil, in culmination of the work that began last April. Amendments had to be made to 70 per cent of the claims given earlier. The work could not proceed in the remaining 18 villages due to portal reopening.

Offline new applications stalled

“We first examined the land titles received at Sheetalpani and Pondi, and realised that most of them needed amendment. We formed a team each of village elders and youth. We held workshops to make tribals aware of the maps, land measurement and other technical information,” details Mohit Mahajan, ATREE coordinator, Dindori.

Along with both teams, ATREE listed farms of every person in a register. Maps were prepared using mobiles with GPS and AMCHO CFR open source application to mark the location and size of each person’s farm. Details of every claimant’s Aadhaar and ration cards, and voter ID were added. After claims were resubmitted offline, the forest rights committee along with revenue and forest officials measured the plots.

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After the claims got gram sabha approval, they went to the sub-divisional and district committees, where 90 out of the 134 claims of Sheetalpani got approval. The remaining were returned to the gram sabha for corrections. However, only 51 of the 90 approved claimants have received land titles. Remaining are on hold because they are new claims, for which the district administration now allows applications only online.

Of the 96 claims from Pondi, the sub-divisional committee accepted 80, while the forest department wanted changes to the rest. After site re-inspection and claim improvement, the claims have reached the district committee.

The district administration has not made a final decision on the mandatory online process. The district magistrate had written to the state government in October itself to allow offline process, but there has been no response.

Not much luck with offline revision

“The lease of most of the people in our village is yet to be amended… Van Mitra portal has been reopened, and officials are now forcing them to apply online only,” alleges Bigari Singh (32), a Baiga tribal of Sheetalpani.

Bigari has been quite lucky in his second attempt. He filed a forest rights claim for 1.99 hectares in 2008.

“Our claim got accepted the next year, but the forest department team destroyed half of my crop one day. It was through them that we came to know that our lease was only for 0.32 hectare,” he says.

A revised lease for 1.99 hectares was issued to Bigari on September 25 last year, after he approached ATREE.

Baisakhu Baiga (55) has been into farming at Sheetalpani for years together.

“I made a claim for 2.57 hectares in 2006, but got 0.174 hectare on lease in 2009,” says Baisakhu, who has an eight-member family.

After much struggle, he filed a claim with ATREE’s help last year and received his revised lease giving rights to the entire 2.57 hectares on September 25.

Making online option a norm

Sunaram Navasiya (47) of Sheetalpani made lease amendment applications several times, but got rejected repeatedly.

“We worked jointly with ATREE to prepare maps of every farm and land for three months. The officials told us many times that our applications are correct, but added that their hands are tied,” he explains.

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“‘You have to apply through Van Mitra portal only; pattas will not be given by applying offline’ is the standard reply we get,” he says.

Land title of Nasu Baiga (45) of Pondi has not been amended despite making an application. “Officials are insisting on online application,” Nasu laments.

A Tribal Affairs Department order of July 13 last year says new applications can also be heard through Van Mitra portal. However, officials have tweaked it to emphasise that claims can only be made online.

Mahajan says there was no restriction on offline application as per the order, yet it was discontinued. Also, most of the applications that ATREE deals with require amendments. The portal, on the other hand, hears new and rejected applications only.

“It is not easy to get new maps and measurements from the Van Mitra app and portal… This suggests that each field should be measured separately… The satellite map does not work properly… We have informed the forest department and Collector several times,” he says.

Different takes

JP Sarvate, Divisional Deputy Commissioner, Tribal Affairs Department, Jabalpur, and Assistant Commissioner of Dindori Nilesh Raghuvanshi, admit that only online applications are accepted because Tribal Affairs Department has ordered to hear new applications through Van Mitra portal.

Acknowledging that tribals and ATREE have made him aware of the issues, Dindori District Collector Vikas Mishra tells 101Reporters that he has written to the Principal Secretary, Tribal Affairs Department, on October 25 last year seeking approval of 870 offline claims that have reached the district level committee. “Further action will be taken only after a reply is received,” he says.

Tribal Affairs Department Commissioner Sanjeev Singh tells 101Reporters that new applications are also heard through Van Mitra portal and app this time. “Rules allow both offline and online applications. If district officials are forcing tribals to apply online, action should be taken against them. Both fresh and rejected applications are being heard on the portal. For making amendments, applicants should apply offline,” he says. However, tribals claim the offline process is not working.

Meanwhile, Satendra Singh, Additional Commissioner, Tribal Affairs Department, informs that 8,144 new claims have been received since the portal reopening. “Work is on to ensure that offline application records are visible online. Once this is complete, we will accept offline applications too.”

(Sanavver Shafi is a Madhya Pradesh-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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