In a major victory, tribal people in Maharashtra’s Thane district have managed to get information on forest land titles through the Right to Information Act. They were demanding this information for months, with over a thousand of them going on a “RTI Satyagraha” in April.
Finally, the State’s Chief Information Commissioner, Ratnakar Gaikwad, has issued an order insisting that information under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, be given out by government officials. Mr. Gaikwad has also asked for the 10 tribal petitioners to be compensated Rs. 2000 each.
Ever since the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, tribal people from the Jawhar and Vikramgad talukas of Thane district have allegedly received titles only for a small part of their land. Their repeated protests went unheard and the problem remained unsolved.
In April 2013, around 1,272 of them filed applications under the RTI Act, seeking documents related to their claims on forest land and wanted to know on what basis land was distributed by the State.
After the Revenue Department did not respond to their queries, 400 tribal people lodged an appeal. “The hearings with first appellate officer were nothing less than torture,” Bablya Tumbda of Vehelpada from Thane’s Vikramgad tehsiltold The Hindu . The officer questioned their motive for filing the RTI application, and quizzed them about their funding source and political connections. “He even called us fools for seeking information,” said Mr. Tumbda. The hearing was cancelled abruptly.
Activists then called the former Chief Information Commissioner, Shailesh Gandhi, who suggested the filing of a second appeal under the RTI Act.
“Ten villages decided to send one representative each for the second appeal. People took out contributions to send their delegate to Mumbai,” said Milind Thatte, who works for the NGO Vayam, which educated the tribal people about the Act.
On Tuesday, after hearing the appeal, Mr. Gaikwad issued a show cause to the Public Information Officer for not providing the details.
The order makes it clear that the information regarding claims under the FRA must be displayed suo motu by the Revenue Secretary for all applications after April 1, 2011, on notice boards and online.
This will have to be updated every month.
“After this order, tribals across the State can check and know the reasons behind rejections of their land claims. The process will be much more transparent now, with less harassment,” said Mr. Thatte.