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India: First tribal village to get revenue status

Feb 15, 2010

60 yrs after independence, tribals of a forest reserve area in north India get the rights over their land enabling them to use forests produce. The Forest Rights Act 2006 has been instrumental in providing community ownership of forests that was denied to them for over 100 years.

Lucknow: Surma, a tribal village housing around 360 Tharu tribe families, is witnessing hectic activity these days. State revenue officials are camping in this hamlet for the past one week taking land measurements and recording status of the inhabitants. The tribals watch every step with curiosity.

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Many come from neighbouring villages also to see how a historical injustice is being undone. Celebrations are in the air. And why not. It’s 60 years after country’s independence that Surma is all set to become the first tribal village in a forest reserve area to be converted into a revenue village. This means tribals will now get all the constitutional rights given to a citizen of India.

Located in the core zone of Dudhwa National Park, near Indo-Nepal border in Palia block of Lakhimpur Kheri district, about 120 km from the state capital, Surma will also be the first tribal settlement in any national park of UP and country as well, to the get the status of a revenue village.

“It’s because of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 that our 60 years of long struggle has finally bore fruits. Now we will get benefit of government schemes, can build schools, roads and health centres for the people of the tribe, who so far were not allowed by the forest department even to collect grass from the jungle to build thatched houses,” said Ram Chandra Rana, village head and member of the committee formed by the state to oversee implementation of FRA in UP.

Significantly, till last month tribals here were facing evacuation threat. The high court under the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) 1972 had issued orders to get the land vacated. The process of evacuation had also begun with the allotment of land to tribals outside the forest cover as compensation. But the allotted land was already occupied by other tribes.

But then the FRA came to rescue with the state government deciding to give Tharus their rights being denied to them for over 100 years. The village is spread in about 864 acre tilled by about 360 families. Over 50 families are landless labourers. After revenue village status, every family, including landless, will get a piece of land and community ownership of forest enabling them to use forest produce.

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Total population of Tharu tribals in Surma is around 4,000. The tribe has been living here for ages and have a rich cultural heritage scattered all around Indo-Nepal border. British during colonial rule used the forest for earning revenue. The legacy continued after independence with the forest department declaring tribals as “encroachers”.

The area was declared the reserve forest after enactment of WPA. Later, Dudhwa National Park came into existence in 1977. However, No settlement of rights of the displaced tribals was done before formation of the park, though as per the Act before notification, the displaced tribals should have been rehabilitated. In 1980, villagers filed a petition in the high court for the recognition of their rights but lost the case.

The tribe continued its fight under the banner of Tharu Adivasi Mahila Manch and National Forum for Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW). “It’s the victory of the people who have faced harassment, humiliation and human rights violations for years,” said Rajnish, NFFPFW member. “Now, I would get a land of my own and send my three children to school,” said Dhani Ram, a 50-year old landless labour, whose daily earning is about Rs 50 and he has to feed a family of six.

“A lot many problems of tribals will be solved by empowering them with rights given under FRA,” said Rajesh Kumar, social welfare officer, Lakhimpur Kheri. Today, one has to cross 5 km of dense forest to reach Surma but now tribals feel that revenue status will help them build the road to prosperity.

And, it’s not just Surma alone. The neighbouring Golbozahi and many such villages in country are in the queue.

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