New Delhi: Standing on the edge of a hill in Kishanpur Dungara village, overlooking the Ujh river in Jammu’s southern Kathua district, Abdul Gani pointed to the 12 villages—two completely, the rest partially— that would drown after a dam is built on the river.
Gani’s village, Bhaddu, is one of those. If the dam is completed on schedule, it will, along with his house and the land he farms, be swept away in six years.
“We do not want the Ujh project at all,” Abdul Gani said, echoing the concerns of around five families, who gathered later on a villager’s porch in Bhaddu. “But if there is no choice, then we should at least be recorded and compensated fairly for our land and property.”
Gani belongs to the pastoralist Bakarwal community that ascends the higher reaches of India’s northern Shivalik mountains with their livestock in the summer months. When the cold sets in, they return to Bhaddu’s forests where they live and raise their goats and horses for half the year. The migratory Bakarwal and Gujjar communities, scheduled tribes, comprise 15% of J&K’s 17 million people.
Under the Rs-9,167 crore Ujh multipurpose project, a 116m high dam will be built on the river Ujh—a tributary of the Ravi—to produce 186 MW electricity and irrigate farmland. According to official estimates based on the 2011 census, 3,700 families, or approximately 18,500 people, will lose their homesteads when the dam is built: 1,748 families will be flooded out by its reservoir. Local families alleged this was a serious undercount.
Procedures under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, which gives individual and community rights to forest dwelling and forest dependent communities, have not been followed, even though government officials claimed in August 2020 that the process had started.
Based on these claims the union government cleared Stage 1 of what is called “forest clearance”: permission to drown forests, or “diversion of forest land” as it is officially called, and approval of conditions related to compensatory afforestation.
But since the FRA was not implemented and claims to forest land never processed, the assessments conducted did not take into account the rights of local tribes. This will likely deprive them of fair compensation for losing access to the forests they depend upon.
Across India more than 3 million people are affected by land conflicts caused by infrastructure projects which include multipurpose dams. Villagers in Billawar, particularly forest dwellers, fear the same fate as families remain unrecorded, and forest rights not granted almost a year after officials claimed that the process had begun.
Invalid Forest Clearance?
Forest clearance was granted to the Ujh project in February 2021 for the transfer of 680 hectares—about 19 times the size of Delhi’s Lodi Gardens—of forest land for the project’s first phase. The final clearance by the forest department will be granted after “complete compliance” of the FRA, according to official documents seen by Article 14.
However, the form submitted for forest clearance on Parivesh portal, the website of India’s environment ministry, by the dam’s builder—the Jammu and Kashmir State Power Development Corporation—states that forest rights in the project area have been settled.
Beside this declaration is attached a file that defies this claim. The file includes letters from the offices of deputy commissioners of district Kathua and Samba dated August 2020 that state the forest rights process had only been started, never finished.
In December 2020, as the FRA implementation process in J&K was starting, officials claimed they would train committee members at the district, sub-district and village level—to verify and forward forest rights' claims.
Since clearance procedures for the Ujh project had begun, the deputy commissioners of Kathua and Samba went on record three months ahead claiming that the execution of FRA procedures had started in Ujh-affected areas.
This was inaccurate and premature.
No FRA in Two Villages
After visiting Barota and Bhaddu—two villages in Billawar sub-district of Kathua that face partial submersion—it was clear that the process to grant them their rights under FRA had not occurred.
In Bhaddu, a forest rights committee (FRC) exists to process applications but its members are unaware of their mandate.
The most educated person in the village, Mohammad Aslam, 18, a high-school graduate, had been appointed chairman of the FRC in Bhaddu. “We were merely appointed as members of the committee some months back,” said Said Ali, his father and a member of the FRC.
“The rural development and panchayat (rural governance bodies at village level) officials told us that the chairman of FRC should be educated, so we appointed my son,” said Ali.
After that, Ali said, they were not told what to do or what the law required of the government or them. Ali’s family has been cultivating Bhaddu’s forest land for generations.
Surju Devi, one of the two female members of the FRC, also told us that she was not aware of the law. “We go to the forest every other day to get firewood for cooking,” she said. “I have not been told anything about forest rights.”
Gani pulled out a stack of FRA applications from a folder.
“See, these are my family’s applications,” he said. Most of the villagers in Bhaddu were given the forest rights form to fill, but that was about it. Ali and Surju Devi confirmed that they had not been asked to submit the filled forms.
In Barota, another village that would be partially submerged by the project, an FRC has not even been constituted. Shareif Din from Barota’s forest area belongs to the tribal Gujjar community that has settled on the forest land and farms wheat and maize.
“We have not been told of any form to be filled for getting rights to the forest land,” said Din. “Our land is close to the dam area. We will lose everything we own. We don’t know any other way to survive without the forest land.”
The Ujh project got final clearance from India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in March 2021 after being recommended by the expert appraisal committee of the ministry in December 2020.
While land acquisition for the project under the Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR), 2013 has not started, the Environment Impact Assessment study (EIA), undertaken to assess damage to environment and reduce it before environment clearances ought to be given, mentions that 46 scheduled tribe (ST) families come under the project. The village heads Article 14 spoke to said there were far more Gujjar and Bakarwal tribal families in the project area.
The 2013 land acquisition act, which would be used to acquire land under the project, provides for compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement of landowners as well as people who depend on the land and get affected by its acquisition.
In July 2021, almost a year since the deputy commissioners’ offices claimed FRA was initiated, nothing has been done to grant these rights to the concerned people of Billawar.
“While final forest clearance will be granted after FRA settlement, these documents raise questions on the validity of Stage 1 forest clearance itself,” said Kanchi Kohli, a researcher working on environment and forest governance in India. “The letters from deputy commissioners suggest that the process under FRA was initiated, but if that’s not true, then stage 1 clearance stands contested.”
The Facade of Development Post-Abrogation
Even then, governance issues, procedural delays and token representation, in the absence of any awareness for legitimate claimants, have been widely reported.
The Gujjar and Bakarwal tribal communities in the forest areas of Budgam in Kashmir were sent eviction notices in November 2020 under the Indian Forest Act 1927 for “unauthorised occupation” of forest land. This was done even as the rights-based FRA act, with contrary provisions, was applicable and on its way to be implemented in the union territory.
Gujjar and Bakarwal tribal activists claim that the government is not interested in giving tribal communities their legitimate rights over the forests they’ve lived in and depended upon.
“There was the rhetoric that Article 370 hampers central legislation from applying to J&K. But even after the abrogation of Article 370, there has only been rampant forest clearances for development projects,” said Zahid Parwaz Choudhary, state president of Gujjar Bakarwal Youth Welfare Congress J&K(JKGBYWC). “There is no similar focus on legislations that provide rights to people.”
Tribal communities fear that in the absence of FRA, they will be excluded from the consent-seeking process and the compensation for losing their rights over the forest land that comes under the Ujh project.
The fears of the Gujjar and Bakarwal community in J&K are validated by official figures on distribution of land titles under FRA in India.
According to the latest information available with the ministry of tribal affairs (MoTA), only around 46% of the claims received under the FRA have been distributed nationally. Of the 38,03,185 claims disposed of, 18,01,596 claims were rejected. The monthly progress report on the MoTA website for February 2021 does not include figures of claims received for J&K or any relevant update.
A Misleading Rehabilitation and Resettlement Plan
A draft rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) plan has been uploaded with the forest clearance documents on the PARIVESH portal. The draft mentions the number of affected families coming under reservoir submergence, how much land is to be acquired per village and at what rate.
While the draft mentions that it was prepared by JKSPDC in association with the J&K state revenue department, land revenue officials of Billawar denied any knowledge on the subject.
“The land revenue department has not started the acquisition process yet,” said Sandesh Kumar Sharma, additional deputy commissioner of Billawar. “The draft you are referring to will be based on the EIA study, and I am not aware of it.”
The draft takes off from the EIA conducted by JKSPDC and environment consultancy WAPCOS. The study listed the affected population across 52 affected villages. It said around 46 scheduled tribal families would lose their lands and homesteads as the area comes under submergence. This when the ST population living on forest land has not yet been recorded under the FRA.
“The ST population in two or three villages alone would be more than what the authorities are claiming. The survey of people, for both forest and revenue lands, is highly flawed,” said Madan Lal, the sarpanch of Dungara, which will be completely submerged. “Since the 2011 census, the number of families has increased manifold which is why all the village sarpanches demanded a new survey be undertaken to get to real figures.”
In the EIA public hearing conducted in July last year, village heads had unanimously rejected the population estimates and demanded a fresh survey. The draft R&R based on 2011 census numbers, and excluding forest dwelling communities, had caused concern among the villagers.
“This draft is a part of the EIA study. Since the provisions under Land Acquisition Act have not been initiated and a social impact study has not been done, this R&R plan is not accurate and should not be used as an underlying study when the plan is prepared under the 2013 Land Acquisition Act,” said Kanchi Kohli.
“The LARR has provisions to compensate not only landowners but also communities, like the pastoralist Bakarwal community in this case, who derive their livelihood from the land that is to be acquired. It is imperative that FRA be implemented well so that their rights are not violated,” Kohli added.
(Tapasya is a Delhi-based journalist working with The Reporters’ Collective. They write on issues of environment and governance. Research for this story was facilitated by Land Conflict Watch with support of the Internews Earth Journalism Network.)