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Forest Rights Himachal’s Key Electoral Issue: Congress, CPIM Promise Justice, BJP Chooses Silence

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Himachal Pradesh Lok sabha Elections FRA ACt

Shimla-As the polling date for 17th Lok Sabha elections draw closer in Himachal Pradesh, voices against the non-implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA) continue to gather momentum from different corners of the state, making it loud and clear that FRA will be one of the central poll issues here.

On May 3 2019, Himachal Van Adhikaar Manch, a platform of community organisations and activists, had submitted a peoples’ demand charter on FRA to all the contesting political parties of the State – INC, BJP and CPI. 

Individual and community forest rights recognized under the Forest Rights Act 2006 hold paramount importance for the majority of the population in Himachal given the dependence on forestland, which forms 70% of the State’s geographical area. Over the last 3 years, voices demanding implementation of FRA have grown louder in the state and yet the government, especially the administrative officials have been lethargic and non-committal in their responses.   

The Forest Rights Act was passed by the Parliament of India in 2006, with the aim of protecting the interests as well as providing legal recognition and recording the rights of the communities dependent on forest land for their bonafide livelihoods. 

Section 3(1) of this act entails the recognition of rights over forest land for agriculture and habitation for ‘bonafide livelihood’ needs (not just for subsistence purposes but also for earning an income) and includes both Individual rights over land under occupation and Community rights over use, conservation and management of community forest land resources. Further, the Section 3(2) of the act provides rights to the Gram Sabha to provide consent for diversion of less than 1 hectare of forest land (involving felling of not more than 75 trees) for 13 types of village development activities. 

“On one hand, 1900 cases have been so far sanctioned by the government under section 3(2) of the FRA whereas, though 17503 FRCs have been formed, only 129 claims have been issued titles so far under the Sec 3(1) of the Act.”

 “In the 2018 Vidhan Sabha winter session at Dharamsala, the government promised that it will take effective and urgent steps for speedy implementation of the act. The State Level Monitoring Committee in its meeting in January 2019 had also positively taken upon the endorsements by HVAM reiterating similar promises but on the ground, the officials continue to be unaware of the provisions of the act,”

 remarked Akshay Jasrotia convener, HVAM.

Instead of providing any training and awareness on the act, in February the district administration of Kangra gave Panchayat Secretaries a 90-day deadline to get claims from the FRCs. In absence of any awareness about the act, FRCs are being made to send ‘nil’ or ‘zero’ claims certificates as had been earlier done in the districts of Mandi and Chamba.

 Adding further, Shyam Singh Chauhan, a member of the District Level Committee (Mandi) formed under the Act and also the Zila Parishad Member from Karsog Mandi, said

“Lakhs of occupants had applied under the 2002 policy of Regularization of Encroachments. Further, revenue and forest records too have recorded occupations on forestland for agriculture, habitation, and cattle rearing, but people still hold no legal titles. They are all eligible to claim for their Individual rights under this act but have been blatantly denied their constitutional right.”

Laal Hussain, a representative of the Gujjar Community of nomadic livestock rearers from Chamba stressed,

“2 lakh people of different pastoral communities who sustain by grazing livestock in pastures, categorized as ‘forest land’, are eligible for community forest rights under FRA, and via this charter, we want to communicate that this election we will only support those who speak of our rights and interests.”

“FRA has emerged as an important determinant of electoral polls this term not just in Himachal but across the country,”

added Prakash Bhandari of Himdhara Collective.

Whereas the national manifestos of Indian National Congress and CPM have explicitly stated that it will not allow unjust eviction and will implement the Act in letter and spirit, BJP, on the other hand, has remained mute on this issue.

“In Himachal, though people are looking out for the priority given to FRA by contesting electoral candidates from the State,”

added Bhandari.

 A very big percentage of the population has already been traumatized by the state governments’ betrayal on the promises of regularization of land under occupation, and now it lives under constant paranoia of eviction. This became evident when on 11th April, a public gathering of more than 600 in Mandi together gave the slogan “Himachal Ki Janta Kare Pukar, Humein Chahiye Van Adhikar”.

Jiya Lal Negi, convener Zila Van Adhikaar Samiti from the tribal district of Kinnaur, added

“Kinnaur has had the highest number of claims but these legitimate claims have been delayed on frivolous and illegal grounds going to the extent of questioning our identities as tribals and forest dwellers.”

Hit by the similar apathy of government and bureaucratic hurdles in the long struggle for FRA implementation, on 23rd March in a press conference, Save Lahaul Spiti, a civil society group from Lahaul had appealed for election boycott from their area. Similar public appeals of boycott or exercising the NOTA options have echoed across many tribal villages in the State.

Take for instance the case of Lippa village in Kinnaur.

“Despite a long tiring struggle for our individual and community forest rights, we have faced continued injustice at the hands of the government. What other way do we have left to show our dissent in a peaceful and democratic way but to boycott the elections?”

raised the residents of Lippa in their meeting with the district administration last week.

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Video: Three Shimla MC Workers Caught Dumping Garbage in Forest, Suspended After Video Shared on Twitter

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Shimla MC Workers Dumping garbage into forest

Shimla- Three sanitation workers of Shimla Municipal Corporation were suspended after a video was posted on social media showing them disposing of a large amount of garbage in a forest area. The incident became an embarrassment for SMC as the video went viral on Twitter and reached Central officials and green activists.

As per the local who recorded the video, on November 22 at about 1:30 PM; he saw garbage being dumped in the forest near SMC parking on the cart-road.

A green activist of Healing Himalaya organization picked the video on Twitter and brought it to the attention of the officials of the Centre government. The organization tagged BK Agarwal, Secretary Lokpal, Govt. of India and IFS officer Parveen Kaswan.

Sanjeev Gupta, Secretary, ISCS, Home Ministry, also responded on the video and Tweeted,

“An absolute shocker. Stern action should be taken against these reckless murderers of the environment (most likely working for Shimla MC). Will take it up with the State Govt & Shimla MC.”

It’s pertinent to mention that Healing Himalayas had undertaken a cleaning campaign in the said area a few months back. The organization in its Tweet said,

“It is so disheartening to see our work being undone near lift Shimla.”

The SMC was directed to take action. It was found that the sanitation workers of the SEHB society were dumping about two tons of garbage collected from the lift area during one of its cleanliness campaigns.

However, instead of carrying it up to the road for transportation, they dumped it into the forest.  The workers were identified from the video and suspended.

According to the Commissioner, SMC, Pankaj Rai, the Area Supervisor and Sanitary Inspector have been served show-cause notices.

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Baddi Dumping Yard Case: Blow to Solan Admin as HC Directs Relocation of Family, Construction of House, Cow-Shelter

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Baddi Dumping Yard Case 2

Solan-As a blow to the trickery of District Administration, Solan, and the Baddi-Barotiwala-Nalagarh Development Authority (BBNDA), the Himachal Pradesh High Court on November 21, 2019, gave a big relief to the families forced to live in inhuman conditions in Baddi’s Kenduwal. These two authorities had been reluctant to relocate or compensate victim families. They went to the extent of not following the orders of the court. In fact, this case has highlighted the hypocrisy of the government over its own Swachh Bharat campaign. 

However, hearing the petition, a bench of Chief Justice L.Narayana Swamy and Justice Jyotsna Rewal Dua on november 21, 2019, passed orders directing the Deputy Commissioner, Solan, to identify a piece of land to relocate the family, provide them with a house, electricity and water connection, and consider construction of cow-shelters for their cattle to the satisfaction of the families.  The court also appointed Rajnish Maniktala, a senior advocate as Amicus Curiae to assist the court in this petition. Further, the implementation of Solid Waste Management Rules in the entire state has come under the ambit of this petition, which was filed by Shimla-based Advocate, Deven Khanna. 

The BBNDA and Baddi Municipal Council had turned the site at Kenduwal into an illegal dumping yard. The Authority was supposed to construct a Solid Waste Treatment Plant years ago, however, instead, it simply created a dumping yard and violated several environmental laws and guidelines. As per the petition, none of the 36 Conditions mentioned in the Environment Clearance letter are fulfilled by BBNDA. Such grieve environmental violation under the patronage of the state government is a matter of huge concern for the state. 

The houses of about 32 members of four families belonging to Gujjar families were located at this site. These families had been living here for over three decades. Creating dumping yard around their habitat had made their lives unbearable as well as unsafe due to unhygienic conditions arising due to this illegal dumping yard.

 

These families had been running from pillar to post seeking relief. However, none of the state government bodies, district administration, police, or the BBNDA authority listened to their grievance. Eventually, Suleman, on behalf of these families, approaches the court to file a PIL.

About six months ago, the court had eventually asked the Authorities to relocate the family to a piece of land that is located at a considerable distance from the dumping yard.

However, BBNDA defied the orders of the court and, in a bid to allegedly threaten the families, it demolished their cow-sheds last month. Over 80 cattle, including about 40 cows and newborns, were left shelter-less to face winters under the open sky.  The families had alleged that officials trespassed and demolished their cow-sheds without showing any orders from any authority. Instead, the officials used police force, including armed jawans, to scare them. Himachal Watcher had published a story regarding the same along with a video of the said demolition being carried out.

Surprisingly, none of the other media (dailies and regional news portals) covered this news. In fact, media hardly showed any interest in this petition ever. It appears, belonging to minority community, the suffering of these Gujjar families did not appeal to anyone except the State High Court. 

Through their advocate, Khanna, the families have also filed a contempt petition in the court, which is pending.

Meanwhile, hearing the main petition, the said orders were passed by the court.

“In the peculiar facts and circumstances of the case, we permit the petitioner to approach the Deputy Commissioner Concerned by filing a separate application with a prayer for relocation of his house to the extent of land, which is in his occupation, to any other suitable area to the satisfaction of the petitioner,”

the bench said in its order.

“If such approached by way of application is made to the DC concerned, the said Authority shall consider his request and pass appropriate order at the earlier,”

the bench said.

“It is stated by the learned counsel for the petitioner that the cow-shed, having cattle, was demolished. For this purpose, DC concerned to also look into the matter while considering the application of the petitioner for relocation/construction of house/ow-shed as well as providing electricity and water connection for the decent living of the petitioner,”

the bench directed the DC referring to the act of demolishing petitioner’s cow-shelter.

It’s pertinent to mention that when previously contacted by HW, the DC, Solan, had termed this as a case of encroachment, and had said that these families are not eligible for relocation as they are not covered by any such policy.  Considering the indifference of the district administration, the current order has come as a blow to it.

The next hearing has been scheduled for December 16, 2019. 

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CBI Probe in Kotkhai Gudia Case Under Scanner, Forensic Report Suggests Involvement of More Than One Person

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Kotkhai Gudia case forensic experts report

Shimla-Gudia Nyay Manch has demanded fresh probe into the ill-fated 2017 Kotkhai Gudia rape and murder case after new revelations were made in the recent hearing in the case.   

The case was closed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) team after booking and arresting a woodcutter for the said crime with a conclusion that it was not a gangrape and only one person was involved. The turn of events left the family of the 16-year-old victim and the people of the state stumped and unsatisfied. Media reports had also challenged the probe

While CBI claimed to have solved the case after eleven months of investigation, hardly anyone was convinced that a woodcutter could have possibly committed this crime and managed to fool CBI and bribe nine police personals including IG, SP, and DSP to frame wrong people.

The accused police officials, who were booked for the custodial killing of Suraj – one of the six suspects allegedly framed by them, were defending someone, the public suspected. There were many other questions which remained unanswered thus the CBI’s claim failed to convince anyone that justice was done to Gudia.

After a silence of about one year, the inquiry conducted by the CBI is in the public court. During the hearing of the case of custodial death at Chandigarh-based CBI court, forensic experts claimed that there is a possibility that more than one persons were involved in the rape and murder of Gudia.

These forensic experts – HV Acharya, Assistant Director, Forensic Science Laboratory, Gandhinagar, and Hemangi Shah Assistant Director, Forensic Psychological Division, Directorate of Forensic Science, Gandhinagar- had conducted polygraph and Brain Electrical Oscillation Signature Profiling (BEO) tests on the five accused – Rajinder Singh, Lokjan, Deepak, Ashish Chauhan, and Subhash Singh.

During this hearing, they were cross-questioned by the defense counsel, Atvinder Singh.

Singh asked Dr Acharya if he still stands by his observation that the crime in Gudia was conducted by more than one person, Acharya said “Yes” as an affirmative response. Dr Shan also supported Acharya.

A joint observation report was compiled by the two experts and submitted to the CBI.

While their report clearly said that no role of these five accused was observed in Gudia case. Their report had also said that no role of Rajinder was observed in killing of Suraj.

Moreover, the report of these experts has also observed that there was “definite police effort to defend someone”.

The experts stood by their observation that these six accused were arrested and tortured without any direct evidence.

The Gudia Nyay Manch is up in arms again against CBI for an allegedly botched up investigation in the case. The Manch said it would be staging fresh protest against CBI soon.

What is Kotkhai Gudia Case

On July 4, 2017, a 16-year-old girl, who was returning home from her school in Mahasu are of Kotkhai, Shimla, went missing. Her naked body was found in the forest of Halaila on July 6. As per the initial investigation by the police SIT, Gudia was gang-raped and then murdered. The SIT on July 13 arrested six persons claiming that they cracked the case.

However, the family and locals were not convinced that these six accused, five of which were laborers and daily wagers, had committed the crime. The pubic, as well as the media, wasn’t convinced with the theory given by the police SIT. On July 18, public outrage was witnessed after one of these accused was killed in the police custody while locked up at the police station, Kotkhai. The locals pelted stones on the police staff and compelled them to leave the station. The station was then set on fire.

Under huge pressure from the public, then Congress-led state government asked the CBI to investigate the case. By the end of August 2017, CBI had arrested nine police officials including the head of the SIT Zahur H Zaidi, IG, Southern Range, DSP, Theog, Manoj Joshi, and six others for the custodial killing of Suraj. Later, the CBI also booked then Superintendent of Police, Shimla, D W Negi.

In its charge-sheet submitted to the court, the CBI had said that all six accused were falsely framed by the SIT.

The CBI had filed a separate case to investigate rape and murder of Gudia. The CBI team investigated for next eleven months without any success, thereby, facing backlash from the state high court over delay in the investigation. Ultimately, disappointed with the CBI, the court questioned the competence of CBI and asked its Director to appear personally before it.

Immediately after this summon, CBI claimed to have cracked the case in which a woodcutter was arrested. The case was considered to be closed thereafter.

However, doubts remain over botched up CBI investigation in the case.  

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