On a January night in 1967, Vanthala Ramanna became an encroacher on his own land. The Andhra Pradesh government 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 the others in the village had become de facto landless, now needing to prove their land ownership.
The notification was issued under Section 4 of the Indian Forest Act of 1927. It is the first step in the process of declaring any piece of land a reserve forest. The next step involves 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 his family is haunted by the fear of being evicted from their land.
“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 unspoken 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 combined have over 7 million hectares under the Section 4 category. By comparison, this is the size of 120 Mumbai cities or almost twice the size of Kerala. 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 an 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.
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 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.
The apathy of the officials described by Reddy and Sunder can be clearly seen in the way the Andhra Pradesh government and its forest department handled the Panasalpadu village land.
After a delay of 40 years, the FSO appointed to look into the claims of Ramanna and other residents from Panasalpadu and 25 neighbouring villages decided to settle the land in favour of the people on November 21, 2007.
The Narsipatnam divisional forest officer appealed the FSO order in the Visakha-patnam district court in 2008. The court asked the settlement to be done again.
The residents, with the help of non-profit Samata, moved the Andhra Pradesh High Court, which in 2009 also ordered the settlement to be revisited and completed in six months. But nothing has moved since.
“The residents have valid legal documents issued in the pre-Independence era but the state refuses to acknowledge it. So, they have to prove their claim on the land all over again,” says Ravi Rebbepragada of Samata.
While one would expect that the forest department will try to complete the process of forest notification, as it will increase the forestland under its control, what has happened is the opposite.
Forest departments across the country treat the areas stuck under Section 4 as their own land, even without completing the process. The Indian State of Forest Report, 2019, released by the Forest Survey of India, offers a glimpse.
It says while the total recorded forestland in the country stands at 76.74 million ha, only 51.38 million ha of it has forest cover. This means 25.37 million ha of forestland is without a cover.
“This includes Section 4 lands, along with forestland diverted for activities like mining, hydropower projects which lack any forest cover now,” says Rebbapragada.
The uncertainty has neither helped the displaced people nor the forests. The current administration says the situation has become so complicated that it is almost impossible to correct it now.
“Since no survey has ever been done of these areas, we do not know the exact limits of the Section 4 forestland,” says Vikas Paliwal, Sahibganj divisional forest officer in Jharkhand’s Santhal Pargana.
The region has a peculiar problem. The British administration in 1837 demarcated forest tracts in the Rajmahal hills inhabited by the Paharia tribe.
On February 25, 1946, the governor of Bihar issued a Section 4 notification for the forest and wastelands in Pakur, Godda and the then-Rajmahal districts, collectively called the Santhal Pargana, to be declared a reserve forest.
The notification broadly identified the boundaries using major landmarks like bungalows, rivers and roads. It appointed the then-district magistrate and collector Stephen Hari Tudu as the FSO. But, the process never really took off and the state forest department claims that they do know the reason.
Paliwal explains that while the forestland might still be identified, such an exercise for the wasteland is not possible.
“During the British rule, wasteland was a category of land which did not generate revenue. Over the years, the nature of these lands has changed. People now live there, cultivate the land and in some places, even forests have come up. How are we to identify this?” he asks.
In 1993 — 73 years after the notification was issued — the Jharkhand government successfully converted 20,000 ha into reserve forest. It was only a small portion of the original demarcated area.
“The original plan had 1,283 tribal villages, but the forest department could only locate and resettle 542 of them,” Paliwal says.
The battle rages on in the remaining area, the boundary of which is clearly unknown. Paliwal maintains that he has written to the revenue department to hand over the lands to the forest department.
The uncertainty has meant that illegal activities are being undertaken in these places at the cost of the forests. On December 3, 1995, the then-Sahibganj divisional forest officer booked one Parmanand Pandey for illegal stone mining inside the disputed forest area.
Pandey moved the Jharkhand High Court maintaining that he could not be charged as the area was not a reserve forest. In 2012, the high court passed a judgement in his favour. More recently, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change gave stage 1 clearance to a steel plant that was constructed on Section 4-notified forestland in Bokaro, Jharkhand.
The plant was built by Electrosteel Steels Ltd between 2008 and 2010 by encroaching on 174 ha of Section 4 forest. The Jharkhand forest department has filed 53 cases against the private company between March 2009 and March 2017. In 2018, Vedanta bought the plant and applied for environment clearance. The Union environment ministry awarded the clearance a year later, after the company claimed the land was private.
In yet another example, one can see how the forest department is taking advantage of the grey area. In Jharkhand, uncultivated government land is classified as gair majura. These lands, originally with the zamindars, were passed on to the state after enactment of the Bihar Land Reforms Act, 1950, that abolished the zamindari system.
The land is further divided into gair majura aam (commons) and gair majura khas (lands where the zamnindar had given rights to a tenant). Now the forest department insists on taking over all gair majura land, conveniently overlooking the land rights of residents in over 700 villages.
“This is a serious problem which everyone tries to avoid. So far, we have been taking care of the gair majura land even though the forest department is the regulatory authority. If the forest department takes the charge it will lead to land rights problems,” says R Ram, Circle Inspector of the revenue department at Anchal (block) office, Taljhari, Jharkhand.
The Comptroller and Auditor General in 2017 highlighted that the state government had not issued a single final notification for 1.9 million ha od forestland, which had led to the illicit sale and purchase of the forestland; over 25,181 ha is under encroachment now.
Section 4 forestland is just one of the many lacunae in the way forest is governed in India. Madhya Pradesh is the only state which has taken steps to at least understand these land disputes. The state has a category called orange land, which refers to land that is disputed between the forest and revenue departments.
A testament to the cluelessness of the government is that for the first time since Independence, the Madhya Pradesh government set up a task force in May 2019 to look into the ownership of 180,000 ha across 14 districts over which both the revenue and the forest departments lay claim.
The task force, headed by A P Srivastav, the then-additional chief secretary of the state forest department, submitted its final report on February 6, 2020. The report for the first time explained that orange land included unresolved Section 4 forest along with land that was double counted in revenue and forest department records.
It says the origins of the orange land can be traced to the initial years after Independence. With the coming of the Madhya Bharat Zamindari Abolition Act of 1951, all the forestlands under zamindars went to the Indian state.
On these lands, which had villages along with forests, the process of notification of reserve and protected forest was done by the state between 1954 and 1957. The demarcation and survey settlement of these lands happened between 1963 and 1971, and it was decided that about 3.9 million ha of private and common land was supposed to be returned to the revenue department. But this never happened.
The taskforce found that there are 27,000 villages where private and common land was wrongly taken over by the forest department and never returned to the revenue department. What this means is that the fate of the residents of these 27,000 villages is dependent on an endless bureaucratic exercise.
The Madhya Pradesh chief secretary ordered these private and common lands to be returned to the people and gram sabhas once in 2008 and again in 2015. But it has never happened.
“It is the fault of the Centre. Although the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, gives the Centre the right to regulate the diversion of forest land, it has never bothered to ask the states about the status of these disputed forestlands. It is unfortunate that this country, its courts, the bureaucracy and academics have all chosen to turn a blind eye to this issue,” says Anil Garg, a Betul-based advocate who works on the issues related to Section 4 forests in Madhya Pradesh.
On September 2, 2020, the Madhya Pradesh forest department charged and jailed 11 people, including a minor from Khairbani village in Betul district, under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, for damaging trees on reserve forest. The residents, facing economic hardships due to the coronavirus lockdown, cleared a nearby 35 ha plot for cultivation.
The forest department claims that the land is reserve forest, though it was never notified as one.
“I have worked on that land with my father when I was a child. Now they are putting our sons in jail for trying to use it for survival. What are we supposed to do? Eat mud and die?” says Phulansi Bai Ahake, a tribal woman whose son was arrested.
Sharad Behar, a retired chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh, says the deterioration of revenue administration across states over the years has led to this crisis of leaving huge forests un-demarcated and people’s rights unsettled.
“The British used to conduct frequent surveys of the settlement of land. This was because land was the source of revenue for them. But after Independence, no land survey was ever done,” he says.
The Centre passed the Schedule Tribe and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act or FRA in 2006 to undo this “historical injustice” and give rights to 300 million forest dwellers in India.
FRA was created because of the failure of the Centre and state governments to implement the Indian Forest Act, 1927. This was despite the Union government, in 1980 and again in 1990, issuing notifications to the states asking them to settle the rights of forest dwellers over their forest lands.
“The earlier process of forest land settlement under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 has not been efficient, to say the least. So a more democratic process was laid down under FRA to help people regain their rights,” says Tushar Dash of Community Forest Rights-Learning and Advocacy, a pan-India group of forest rights experts and activists.
Still, over a decade since its coming into force, the implementation of FRA remains poor. Officials from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, who met on September 10, 2020, blamed state forest departments for the same.
“(The) Ministry of Tribal Affairs is not directly involved in (the) implementation matters. Therefore, it is clear that issues of implementation need to be resolved at the state level in terms of the statutory provisions,” say the minutes of the meeting.
In a country that boasts of one of the top 10 forest covers in the world, it is ironic that the forest departments and the Union government have not followed its own law for over 90 years. Meanwhile, in many villages across India, like in Panasalpadu, the rights recognition process has not taken place up to now. While Chinnaya Ramanna was failed by the Indian Forest Act, 1927, it seems for his son, justice is being delayed, and therefore denied, under FRA.
Reporting for this article was supported by Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in the 16-31 January 2021 edition of Down To Earth.