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Elderly Woman in Mandi Dies due to Bureaucratic Apathy and Intimidation: Fact-Finding Report

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Dama Devi of Mandi death case

Mandi-The Forest Department, Himachal Pradesh, has been alleged of grave apathy and discrimination due to which an elderly lady died of a heart attack in Mandi district in July. It was alleged in the report of a fact-finding committee that was submitted to the Deputy Commissioner, Mandi, Rugved Milind Thakur on October 15, 2019. Not only the district administration, but the state government has also been alleged of showing apathy toward the victim and selective targeting of marginalized communities such as women, landless, Scheduled Caste, Pastoral and other marginalized communities while evictions from forest lands. 

The committee comprised of public representatives and civil society groups, who were investigating the case of the deceased lady.

Members of this fact-finding team included Vimla Vishwapremi, State Convener, Mountain Women Rights Forum, Savitri Devi, Zila Parishad Member, Majhwaad Ward, KhemDaasi, Member State Women Welfare Board, Manju Devi, Member, Sub-divisional Level Committee on Forest Rights Act, Gohar, Mandi, Aditi, Himdhara Environment Research and Action Collective, B.R Bhatia, State Secretary People’s Campaign for Socio-Economic Equity and Independent journalist, D.R. Koundal, Journalist, Dainik Bhaskar & Social Worker, Bhagat Ram, Block Convener People’s Campaign for Socio-Economic Equity, Sukhdev Vishwapremi, Convener, People’s Campaign for Socio-Economic Equity.

woman dies of heart attack

Fact Finding Committee Submitting its Report to DC, Mandi

As per the report submitted to the DC, on July 26, 52 year old healthy and active Dama Devi, a resident of Village Daangel (Tehsil Chachyot) in Mandi District, died of a sudden heart attack when six officials of the Forest Department, without issuing any prior notice, arrived on the land she had been cultivating for generations and intimidatingly started questioning her about her “occupation” on forest land.

After the complaints filed by the family of Dama Devi, the Police Station, Gohar, finally registered the FIR under section 3(1)(6) of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The investigation in the matter is still under process. An independent 10-member fact-finding team comprising of public representatives, social activists and civil society groups visited the place of incident and after interaction with the local villagers and the affected family members, assessed the facts behind the matter. The team, on October 15, met the DC, Mandi, submitting their detailed fact-finding report.

The fact-finding team, upon investigation, found that Dama Devi belonging to Scheduled Caste Community, hailed from a very poor family who only had a land size of three Biswas under their legal ownership. The family thus to sustain basic livelihood needs had been dependent upon 1-2 bighas of forest land under their occupation which they had been cultivating since many generations. Adjacent to this land, few families of the village also had occupied a small piece of forest land over which they had constructed a temple. The two parties have had a land-related dispute going on for a few years, the report said.

Few villagers who were present at the time of incident mentioned that Dama was following her usual routine of fetching water from the water spring (baavdi) July 26, 2019, when she was called out to her land, in a loud and rude tone, by the officials of forest department. The six officials thereafter started shaming her in front of a gathering of villagers and questioning her intimidatingly, pressured her with accusations and threats of eviction from forest land under her occupation.

Having never seen so many officials together, Dama Devi, nervous and traumatized by the sudden intimidation and threats, continued responding in tears pleading about her family’s dependence on this land for sustenance. But when the Forest officials did not stop with their intimidation tactics, Dama Devi suddenly collapsed, falling unconsciously on the ground.

“It is most shocking that after Dama Devi collapsed the officials from Forest Department, instead of providing her with any assistance in accessing medical support, just left the spot”

states the fact-finding report.

By the time, Dama Devi’s son Desh raj reached the spot and took his mother somehow to hospital, she was already dead due to cardiac arrest.

As per Desh raj, he had approached the police Station Mandi on the evening of July 26 to file an FIR against the six forest department officials but his complaint was registered as an FIR only on August 28. Even after that, the Police Department has been laggard and apathetic in their conduct and investigation, the fact-finding team reported. It’s saddening that both the State government and the Administration have been silent on the whole issue. The Fact-finding team stressed,

“This is clearly a case of death due to the pressure of forced and illegal eviction from forest land.”

The fact-finding report also revealed that this was a case of selective targeting whereas there were other such “occupations” in the village and in fact across the state where no action is being taken.

Adding further, the fact-finding team emphasized that the death of Dama Devi is not the first case but the State in past few years has seen a rapid rise in similar cases of forced eviction from forest land.

It’s pertinent to note that lakhs of families in Himachal Pradesh have been dependent and holding occupations over forest land for agriculture and habitation. Most of these occupations are many decades old and of less than 10 bighas but have not been regularised or given legal titles. The distressing fact is that the worst victims of the violence of eviction are the people from the most marginalized communities such as women, landless, Scheduled Caste, Pastoral and other marginalized communities, the report stated.

Though, the central government in 2006 enacted Forest Rights Act (FRA) to secure such forest-dependent communities and to give their occupations on forest land legal recognition, the implementation of this historic legislation has been extremely laggard and depressing. Most importantly, FRA under section 4(5) clearly lays out that till the process of verification and recognition of forest rights is not completed, no person can be evicted from the forest land under their occupation. But the state government has neither been able to provide awareness or training on the legislation nor has it succeeded in building faith about FRA amongst the common masses.

The report noted that noteworthy in this regard is the case of District Mandi which stands further ahead in case of gross violation of forest rights as here the District Administration, in the year 2014, instead of conducting any training, had made the Forest Rights Committees issue affidavits saying ‘nil claims’ received in context of forest rights. The forest dependent public of Mandi has since then been demonstrating against such grave violations and echoing the demand for declaring these ‘nil claims’ null and void.

Lakhs of families resembling Dama Devi, who have been historically dependent upon forest land for fulfilling their bonafide livelihood needs, are eligible to file forest rights claims under FRA. But if the state government and the administration continue with their apathy in recognizing the forest rights of these communities then many more such poor and marginalized families will continue to suffer a similar fate as Dama Devi and drown further down in the pits of marginalization.

In regard to this case, the fact-finding team has submitted a 10-point demand charter along with the report. Few major demands include:

  1. A high level monitored detailed police investigation must be efficiently and effectively carried out without any further delay
  2. A High-Court monitored investigation be conducted against the intimidating behaviour and illegal actions of the Forest Department.
  3.  Chief Secretary, GoHP must immediately issue executive orders for speedy, effective and inclusive implementation of FRA, clearly directing that eviction of any family eligible under FRA is punishable by law.
  4.  Declaring the Nil Claims issued in Mandi as Null and Void, DC Mandi must ensure the training of FRCs on awareness on FRA and immediate filing of forest rights claims.
  5.  Prioritize on granting immediate titles to the Individual Forest Right holders under the FRA with occupations below 5 bighas of land

The fact-finding team will also be submitting the report to various other departments, State Government and Central Authorities like the National Human Rights Commission, Scheduled Caste commission, Ministry of Tribal Affairs etc.

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The Story of Himachal’s ‘Friendly Leopard’ from the Viral Videos

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Viral Himachal Leopard Cub Video

Kullu-Several videos of the ‘leopard incident’ in Tirthan Valley, Kullu district, Himachal Pradesh, are going viral in India and would soon spread to international media. Anyone who is watching these videos is wondering as to how a wild predator who avoids humans, habitats, roads etc. and is a shy feline happened to be playing with people amid a huge gathering of people around him, traffic jam, and a lot of noise. It’s just like a fantasy to see a wild animal having such close, friendly contact with humans despite not being familiar with humans. Not only it was dangerous for the animal itself but also the ignorant people chasing him with mobile cams in their hands. That’s what we could infer from the response given by forest officials after watching the behavior of the people in these video clips. Himachal Watcher has also compiled several video clips of the incident.

A lot of our curious readers had been writing regarding the incident, so we talked to people who actually have knowledge regarding wildlife and animal behaviour in order to find a possible explanation for this rare leopard-man contact. It turned out, opposite to the fun people were having with this animal, it was a sensitive matter for the wildlife officials. 

We talked to the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Banjar, Praveen Thakur and HPFS, Sachin Sharma, who is currently posted as DFO, Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP).  Readers had been asking us questions; Where did it come from? How did it become so friendly with humans? What happened to the cub later? So we requested DFO, Banjar, Praveen Thakur, to answer these and some other important questions related to the incident. 

What you already know is that a leopard came out of the wild onto the road near Sarchi – Nagladi bridge in Tirthan valley on January 14. This belt comes under the Great Himalayan National Park. People stopped their vehicles and came out to record videos. The leopard was seen playfully grabbing different people. A traffic jam and a huge gathering of people, mostly locals, were seen in the videos. It was something that people had never seen, at least in this part of the world. 

The DFO, GHNP, also admitted that this is highly uncommon to see such ferocious wild predator getting so friendly within a few hours after contact with humans. But in this case, it was just a cub, aged about seven to eight months. 

“I haven’t seen or heard of such an incident where a wild leopard became so friendly with humans that he started to play with them. These animals are generally shy and smartest in the feline families. They avoid humans and their habitats,” he said.

When asked whether a cub of its age, considering strength and growth of nails and teeth, was capable of inflicting harm or not, he said that on sensing a threat it can. He condemned the behaviour of the people as it was not only dangerous for them but also the animal.

“Amid such a chaotic environment, the behaviour of any wild animal would be unpredictable. If not intentionally, the cub could have inflicted minor injuries to someone while playing. In that case, the reaction of people could have been hostile and things could have gone wrong,” he said.

In his opinion, this rare instance can’t be termed as a result of man-animal conflict. No other instances where these animals attacked or caused harm to humans in this region have been reported, he said.

The DFO, Banjar, Praveen Thakur said he was also surprised but also gave an explanation.

“It was an eight- to-nine-month-old cub, who got separated from its mother. The mother with its cubs lives in a nearby forest in a territory of four to five square kilometers. There was an incident of fire in the area and the cub, most probably, got separated from the mother due to it,” the DFO told Himachal Watcher.

Regarding the friendly behaviour of this cub, he said,

“Several videos are going viral on social media where the cub was looking comfortable and friendly with humans amid a crowd. Adult leopards show behavioural changes before becoming mature animals. They mostly avoid humans. But it was not an adult leopard, but just an 8 to-9-month-old cub,” he said.

“However, the cub did not get friendlier at the starting and was avoiding vehicles. As per my knowledge, for the first few hours, the cub was seen roaming around in a distress and avoiding humans and vehicles. (Watch Video). Initially, a couple of vehicles stopped to see the cub. As it was just a cub unable to hunt and survive at its own, it got friendlier after sensing that humans were not harming and, thus, were no threat. Cubs can get friendly on sensing no threat. Similarly, cubs and young offspring of several other animals can get friendlier.”

If watched video clips carefully, the cub was curious and trying to explore this new environment. But at the same time it was distressed as it had gotten separated from its mother and was in a environment not natural for it.

Citing a previous case, the DFO said,

“Not long time ago, we had rescued a bear cub. He had also become friendly within no time.”

“In the present case, we have identified the family. Mother lives in the forest not far from our Rest House. The area falls under the Great Himalayan National Park and is not far from the road. The family is not entirely unfamiliar with traffic and human movement,” he told HW.

In the current incident, he said that it’s a case of separation of the cub from mother.

A forest fire was reported in the territory of this family, and the mother or the cub got stuck somewhere due to it, resulting in a separation.”

He confirmed hearing calls from its mother. Mother would make a particular sound as a form of a call when trying to find its cubs, he explained.

He said that the department received the information regarding the presence of this cub among humans a little late. On receiving information, a rescue team was dispatched, which reached the spot within half-an-hour.

The team caught the cub with a net without much difficulty, he said. As it was healthy and had no injury or disease, it was released into its natural habitat as guidelines say that in such a case the animal should be released to its natural habitat as soon as possible to reduce distress.

He also said that teams are continuously monitoring the movement of the cub to ensure that it reunites with its mother and do not venture into human habitats or comes near the road again.

The mother and the cub are only a couple of kms distance apart. The cub would also make calls, which would help the mother find it, he said.

He rejected speculations of this cub being raised as a pet.

“His mother would have not been making calls if the cub was raised as a pet. These calls imply that the cub got separated very recently,” he said.

“After consulting wildlife experts, we have decided that in case the cub is seen venturing into human habitats or places having human presence and displaying same friendly behaviour again, then it would have to be captured and sent to the rescue centre in Gopalpur in Kangra district,” he said.

If it would grow up while remaining in friendly contact with humans, it might not get capable of attaining hunting skills to survive at its own in the wild. Moreover, these animals could inflict grieve injuries unintentionally while playing.

However, we are certain that the mother would soon find the cub. We will keep monitoring it until the mother stops making distress calls, he said.

On being asked whether this cub was capable of hurting or injuring a human, the DFO said that cubs of this age lack hunting skills, and it’s mostly after one year of age that the mother starts training them.

The DFO, however, expressed more concern over the behaviour of the people than that of the animal.

Most of these people were locals and they are often made aware about dos and don’t on an encounter with a wild animal.

“As soon as I came across the videos, I contacted a few people who were present on the spot including the Pradhan of the area and told him to ask people to stay away from the cub and to not chase him for photos and videos. I had even spoken to the local police to help manage the situation as people were not even listening to our Rangers,” he told HW.

“It was a complete nuisance that the people were creating by causing a traffic jam, chasing the cub, and trying to get close to it. We are trying to identify some people visible in the video deliberately going near the cub,” he added while informing that there are provisions of three to six months of imprisonment for those creating nuisance for or teasing wild animals, especially those protected. Leopards are protected under Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act.

He urged the people to avoid wild animals if they happen to encounter them. Stay away from them, do not gather around and obstruct their path. Left alone, on sensing no threat, these animals eventually find their course and go back to their natural habitat, he said. In the current case, the situation would have led to chaos if it was a mature leopard, he said.

Even if you want to watch the animal then, at least, maintain a safe distance or remain in the vehicle, he added.

When asked whether this instance can be related to man-animal conflict and is a matter of concern or not, the DFO said,

“This can’t be termed as a matter related to man-animal conflict and isn’t a matter of concern as long as animals do not enter human habitats and kill livestock or attack humans. Moreover, such judgement can’t be made based on a single instance.”

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Farmers Welcome SC Order to Stay Implementation of Farm Laws But Suspicious About Formation of Committee

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stay on farm laws

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday stayed the implementation of three contentious farm laws passed by the Centre Government, which has led to huge protest from hundreds of farmer groups. The stay implies that the Centre Government can’t take any executive actions based on these laws till further order. 

“The implementation of the three farm laws (1) Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; (2) Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020; and (3) Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, shall stand stayed until further orders,”

said the order passed by a panel headed by the Chief Justice of India (CJI) Sharad A Bobde on Tuesday.

Further, the MSP system would continue as it was before the enactment of the laws.

“As a consequence, the Minimum Support Price System in existence before the enactment of the Farm Laws shall be maintained until further orders. In addition, the farmers’ land holdings shall be protected, i.e., no farmer shall be dispossessed or deprived of his title as a result of any action taken under the Farm Laws,”

the order said.

With this order, the SC hoped to end the ongoing impasse over the contentious farm laws.

The farmers who have been protesting for over the last 45 days, welcomed the SC’s order.

However, at the same time, the Apex Court ordered the formation of a committee to listen to both sides and make recommendations to the court. The committee, which would comprise of Agriculture economist Ashok Gulati, Bhupinder Singh Mann, Dr Prmod Kumar Joshi, former director of National Academy of Agricultural Research Management), and Anil Ghanwat from Shetkari Sangathan, was asked to submit its report in the court within two months.

The CJI, in its order, speaking about the purpose of this “extraordinary” order, said,

“While we may not stifle a peaceful protest, we think that this extraordinary order of stay of implementation of the farm laws will be perceived as an achievement of the purpose of such protest at least for the present and will encourage the farmers’ bodies to convince their members to get back to their livelihood, both in order to protect their own lives and health and in order to protect the lives and properties of others.”

Though a stay on the implementation of laws was welcomed by protesting farmers, several unions said that they would not accept this committee and the protest will continue. They said the Government is trying to form this committee through the Supreme Court. This committee, they said, included persons who have already been justifying the farm laws. They said the purpose of this committee is nothing more than creating a diversion. The protest would be armed up and only a repeal of laws would be accepted, the unions said. 

At the same time, the SC was undeterred with these statements and said there is nothing that can stop it from forming a committee. The SC asked the farmers to cooperate with the committee.

On the other hand, the Government was more concerned about that other political parties would think of the stay as a “political victory”.

Further, the Government has also expressed apprehension about security breach due to the tractor rally planned by protesting farmers on the Republic Day.

K.K. Venugopal, Attorney General, told the court that there are reports that the farmers’ bodies may take out a tractor rally on January 26, 2021, disrupting the Republic Day Parade and celebrations However, the same was stoutly denied by Dushyant Dave, learned senior counsel appearing for a few of the farmers’ bodies on the ground that at least one member of the family of each of the farmers from Punjab is in the Army and that they would not disrupt the Republic Day celebrations.

The Court, in its order, said that several rounds of talked between farmers and the Government have failed and there was no solution in sight.

“The situation on ground is: (i) that senior citizens, women and children are at site, exposing themselves to serious health hazards posed by cold and covid; (ii) that a few deaths have taken place, though not out of any violence, but either out of illness or by way of suicide,”

the order said.

The court also lauded the farmers for carrying on the agitation peacefully without any unwanted incident.

Further, the Court orders also mentioned separate petitions filed by individuals/residents of the NCR complaining of blockade of roads/highways leading to Delhi and terming it an infringement of the fundamental rights of other citizens to move freely and to carry out trade and business.

Stay on 3 Farm Laws and Formation of Committee: Read Full Order of Supreme Court

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Inflation, Increased Cost of Food Items, Ration, Crumbling Health Infrastructure, and 100 Gram Sugar: Govt’s Diwali Gift to People

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hp govt's gift on diwali 2020

Shimla-The Himachal Pradesh Government has collected over Rs. 86 crores in the name of the COVID-19 relief fund, but only Rs 25 crore was spent. It was stated by Sanjay Chauhan, former Mayor of Shimla and a senior CPI (M) leader. It’s a shocker considering negligible relief measures and the state of health infrastructure crumbling amid a pandemic. The unpreparedness of the state government to deal with community spread of coronavirus is coming to light as its COVID-19 hospitals have begun to run out of beds in isolation wards. Two major medical facilities -Indira Gandhi Medical College & Hospital and DDU Hospital in Shimla- are packed to their full capacity. 

What’s not shocking is that Chief Minister did hail the Prime Minister, exactly as he was told, claiming that the nation is out of COVID-19 crisis. It suggests that the Chief Minister is little aware of the surge in cases and over 400 COVID-19 deaths, of which 93 were reported during the last 12 days of November month. Yesterday, the state has reported over 700 cases with six deaths, which is alarming.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi deserves all praise for his dynamic leadership as he is successfully steering the Country amid all troubles and difficulties. He has successfully brought the Nation out of Covid-19 crisis,” 

said Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, while addressing a public meeting at Sihunta under Bhatiyat Assembly Constituency on Wednesday. 

Talking about the real situation and relief measures, the state Government became a laughingstock and was being trolled on social media after it announced 100 gram sugar and 500-gram rice per person to all ration cardholders as a Diwali gift. If that was not enough, according to a media report, this quota has still not reached the depots. There is a possibility that it would reach the cardholders only after Diwali.

The reason behind this backlash is not only that 100-gram sugar is too trivial to be called a gift or relief, especially amid a pandemic when common people, especially those falling in middle and lower-income groups, are faced with unemployment and economic crisis.

While the people were hoping for relief from their elected government, inflation was on the rise. Currently, prices of food items including vegetables and other essential commodities have also witnessed a huge increase. Further, cut in subsidy on electricity, hike in bus fare, increase in property tax, rise in diesel and petrol prices etc. have put additional burden on the commoners. 

Then there were other issues like relaxation in garbage collection fee for the period of lockdown. Sadly, the public did not get any relief even in garbage bills despite staging protests. 

Meanwhile, Ministers made news for spending tax money on buying luxury vehicles and VIP numbers. 

Oppositions, Congress and CPI (M) have also targeted the government over its failure to provide any considerable relief to the people when it’s most needed. As per oppositions, the current government has no control over the market or inflation.

Chauhan also raised the issue of thousands of vacant posts of doctors, para-medical staff, nurses etc. at medical facilities across the state. He said that of the total 1000 posts of lab technicians, 700 were still vacant. He said that the government did not prepare for a community spread despite having a time of eight months during the lockdowns. It was due to this lackadaisical attitude of the government that currently IGMC and DDU hospitals have run out of space in isolation wards, he said.

He also said that, in an all-party meeting convened on March 21, CPI(M) had given the government 12 recommendations to effectively deal with the situation. The party had suggested that thousands of vacant posts should be filled at the earliest, all government buildings construction of which were completed should be prepared to accommodate COVID-19 patients. Similarly, at least four blocks of the under-construction building of IGMC should also be equipped with facilities to accommodate patients, the party had suggested. 

On November 8, 2020, the state unit of Mahila Congress staged a protest over a huge increase in prices of food items. They wore garlands of potatoes and onions and marched from the party headquarter to the Office of Deputy Commissioner, Shimla. Women alleged that the people have received no relief despite such a huge crisis. Instead, the current government is encouraging hoarding of essentials.

The opposition also said that the government has increased the rate of cereals provided through the public distribution system. This increase is Rs 5 for cereals and Rs. 9 for mustard oil. Vegetable prices have gone beyond Rs 50 during the festival season. It also said that the registration fees of vehicles have also been increased.

Sanjay Chauhan is of the view that to provide relief, the government should deposit at least Rs 7500 in the accounts of consumers and provide them with 10 kg ration per person for free.

He also said that recently the government has hiked the charges for electricity and installation of meters. The government has now withdrawn its notification restricting schools to charge only tuition fee and allowed them to charge full fees, including those pending for the period of lockdown, he said. This decision has come as a huge financial burden for parents and is causing mental harassment. 

The policies of the current government are only benefiting corporates, while other sections like labourers/daily wagers, small scale industries and businesses, shopkeepers, farmers are faced with financial crisis and unemployment due to lockdowns imposed in view of corona pandemic, Chauhan said. 

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