By Rina Chandran
Nov 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Authorities in India's Jammu and Kashmir will implement a law to grant land rights to forest dwelling communities 14 years after the legislation was enacted nationwide, a long-awaited move that may better protect nomadic tribes, human rights activists said.
The Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 aimed to recognise the rights of at least 150 million indigenous and rural people to inhabit and live off about 40 million hectares of forest land.
It was not implemented in Jammu and Kashmir as the northern state had special status that exempted it from several federal laws until October 2019 when the government introduced direct rule from New Delhi.
"This central act ... became applicable to J&K only after 31st October, 2019, hence recognising the rights of forest dwelling communities for the first time in the Union Territory," said B.V.R. Subrahmanyam, Jammu and Kashmir's chief secretary.
Authorities will complete a survey of claimants under FRA by Jan. 15, and approve all eligible claims by March 1, he said.
While FRA was hailed by land rights activists as a progressive legislation that would improve the lives of impoverished indigenous people, states have been slow to implement it, with about half of all claims rejected.
The law is being challenged in India's Supreme Court, with the top court ordering a stay on evictions of millions of forest dwelling people whose land claims had been rejected.
Its implementation in Jammu and Kashmir is particularly critical, as there are large numbers of nomadic tribes who face dwindling grazing grounds and growing hostility from settled communities, said Javaid Rahi, an indigenous rights activist.
"We welcome the decision to implement FRA in Jammu and Kashmir after all these years. It will give tribal people more legal rights," Rahi, General Secretary of Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Particularly for nomadic tribes facing more challenges, FRA gives them some protection from eviction," he said.
Earlier this month, authorities in Jammu and Kashmir demolished dozens of winter homes of the nomadic Bakarwal and Gujjar tribal groups who spend the summer months in mountain pastures, and winters on the plains with their sheep and horses.
Authorities said the settlements had encroached on private land. The Bakarwal and Gujjar, who are Muslim, have sparred with Hindu villagers in recent years over their shrinking access to grazing grounds and forests.
"Many are illiterate and do not know their rights, but they have some form of documentation, dating back decades, when they were granted grazing rights by kings," said Rahi.
"We now have to make sure their rights are recognised under FRA," he said.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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