1. 81 cr. people to get free foodgrains for one year
Those covered under National Food Security Act will benefit; Centre to bear the entire expenses estimated at ₹2 lakh crore; Food Minister terms it ‘another remarkable decision of government’
The Union Cabinet on Friday decided to provide free foodgrains to all 81 crore beneficiaries covered under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) for one year.
The beneficiary families which used to pay ₹1 for coarse cereals, ₹2 for wheat and ₹3 for rice per kilogram will now get 35 kg of foodgrains a month free of cost for the next one year, and others will get five kilogram free each month till December 2023. The Centre has estimated an additional amount of ₹2 lakh crore for the scheme.
Speaking after the Cabinet meeting, Union Food Minister Piyush Goyal said the move was yet another reflection of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pro-poor stand. He said that for 28 months, the Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) ensured five kg of foodgrains for free for the poor. “This is another remarkable decision of the government. The Prime Minister has taken a decision to provide free foodgrains for 81.35 crore people who are covered under the NFSA,” Mr. Goyal said, adding that the entire expenses of the scheme would be borne by the Centre.
Mr. Goyal said though the economic situation after the pandemic was normal, a decision was taken to extend the benefits of the Antyodaya Anna Yojana, PMGKAY and the NFSA to more people by merging them. The PMGKAY, launched during the lockdown in April 2020, was scheduled to end on December 31, 2022.
The Centre has been maintaining that the country has adequate storage of foodgrains to meet the welfare schemes. The Opposition has also been urging the Centre to provide foodgrains for needy people considering the economic situation, inflation and unemployment. The ruling BJP had used the schemes as a point for political campaign in the recently held Assembly elections too.
National Food Security Act
Beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act fall into two categories: Priority Households (PHH) and Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) households, each of which is entitled to 35 kg of food grains each month (5 kg per person per month). Wheat costs Rs. 2 per kg, rice costs Rs. 3 per kg and coarse grains cost Rs. 1 per kg.
There has been no revision in the prices of the foodgrains in the Union Budget 2022. The PDS Issue prices of rice, wheat and coarse grains will continue to be sold at Rs. 3, Rs. 2 and Re. 1 per kg, respectively.
- The Act was signed into law on 12th September 2013 retroactive to 5th July 2013.
- The Act is in line with Goal Two of the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations General Assembly.
- Goal 2 seeks sustainable solutions to end hunger in all its forms by 2030 and to achieve food security.
- The aim is to ensure that everyone everywhere has enough good-quality food to lead a healthy life.
- Schemes such as the Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS), the Public Distribution System (PDS), and the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) are included under the Act.
- The Act is being implemented by all the States and the Union Territories.
The substantial data facts about NFSA:
|Number of Beneficiaries under NFSA||81.35 crores (As of 13th July 2022)|
|Central Allocation under NFSA||43.94 Lakh Metric Tonnes|
|State Allocation under NFSA||32.99 Lakh Metric Tonnes|
|Total Distribution||25.31 Lakh Metric Tonnes|
Objectives of the National Food Security Act
The Act provides for food and nutritional security in the human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to an adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices for people to live a life with dignity and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.
Salient Features of the NFSA
The major features of the Act are described below:
- Coverage: The state-wise coverage was determined by the NITI Aayog based on the 2011-12 Household Consumption Expenditure survey of NSSO.
- The Act legally entitled up to 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population to receive subsidized foodgrains under the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS).
- About two-thirds of the population, therefore, is covered under the Act to receive highly subsidized foodgrains.
- The food grains would be provided at highly subsidized prices under the Public Distribution System.
- The Act ensures nutritional support to women and children. Pregnant and lactating women would be entitled to nutritious meals, free of charge under the MDM and ICDS schemes.
- Children in the age group of 6-14 years would also be entitled to free nutritious meals under the MDM and ICDS schemes.
- Maternity benefit of not less than Rs.6000 is also provided to pregnant women and lactating mothers.
- The Act also empowers women by identifying the eldest woman of the household as the head of the household to issue ration cards.
- The Central Government aids the States to meet the expenditure incurred by them on transportation of foodgrains within the State and also handles the Fair Price Shop (FPS) dealers’ margins according to the norms.
- There is a provision of a food security allowance to the beneficiaries in the event of non-supply of food grains.
- Transparency: Provisions have been made to disclose the records related to the PDS to ensure transparency.
Who are the beneficiaries of the National Food Security Act?
The Act covers two-thirds of the entire population under two categories of beneficiaries:
- Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) households
- Priority Households (PHH)
- AAY households encompass the households headed by widows or disabled persons or persons aged 60 years or more with no assured means of subsistence or societal support.
- It usually takes into account the households of those below the poverty line too.
- It also includes support for women and children.
- NFSA gives the right to receive food grains at subsidized prices to people belonging to eligible households, i.e., the PHH. A major section of the ration cardholders in the priority sector comes under this category. This is an effort to alleviate poverty.
- The work of identification of eligible households within the coverage under TPDS determined for each state is to be done by the states and the UTs.
State Ranking Index for National Food Security Act
About State Ranking Index for NFSA
After consulting with states, the State Ranking Index for NFSA was created to track the implementation of the NFSA and other reform measures across the country. The Index emphasises the initiatives made by States and UTs, fosters cross-learning, and scales up reform initiatives by all States and UTs. The Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) Distribution and procurement will be covered by the Index in the future. The current Index focuses on NFSA Distribution. The amount of hunger, if any, malnutrition, or both, in a certain state or union territory is not, however, reflected by this statistic. Three major pillars that span the full NFSA implementation through TPDS are the foundation of the Index.
- The NFSA, which assesses coverage, targeting, and Act provisions, forms the first pillar.
- The second pillar analyses the delivery system while considering the distribution, transportation, and last-mile delivery of foodgrains to Fair Price Shops (FPS).
- The department’s nutrition activities are the subject of the third and final pillar.
NFSA’s State Ranking Index for 2022 in the General Category
|State/Union Territory||Index Score out of 1||Ranking|
|Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman Diu||0.787||5|
NFSA’s State Ranking Index for 2022 in the Special Category (North-Eastern states, Himalayan states and the Island Regions)
|State/Union Territory||Index Score out of 1||Ranking|
|Jammu and Kashmir||0.564||10|
|Andaman and Nicobar Islands||0.562||11|
Significance of Food Security
The concerns regarding food security in India can be traced back to the experience of the Bengal Famine in 1943 during the British Colonial Rule. Food security is of utmost importance to a nation as it will also have a positive influence on the other aspects determining the growth of a nation:
- It boosts the agricultural sector.
- It also aids the government to regulate food prices.
- A boost in the agricultural sector would result in more job opportunities, as agriculture is a labour-intensive sector. This would enhance economic growth and result in the reduction of poverty.
- Access to nutritious food would enhance the overall health of the public.
- Food security is also important for the global security and stability of the nation.
Significance of the National Food Security Act
The concept of food security at a global level indicates access to basic, nutritious food by all people, at all times. It is characterized by the availability, access, utilization, and stability of food.
- There is no explicit provision in the Indian Constitution for the right to food.
- Until the enactment of the NFSA, the fundamental right to life under Article 21 was interpreted to include the right to live with human dignity, which may include the right to food and other basic necessities.
Obligations under NFSA
The NFSA states in detail the obligations of the Central government, the state government, and the local authorities.
1. Obligations of the Central Government:
- The Central Government shall allocate the required food grains from the central pool to the State Governments under the TPDS.
- The Government would have to allocate the resources keeping in mind the number of persons in the eligible households.
- The Central Government would also provide for the transportation of food grains as per the allocation to the State Governments.
- Assist the State Governments in meeting the expenditures incurred by the State Government towards intra-state movement, handling of the food grains, and the FPS margins.
- Create and maintain storage facilities at various levels.
2. Obligations of the State Governments:
- The State Government shall be responsible for the implementation and monitoring of the various schemes.
- Organize intra-state allocations to deliver the allocated food grains to the beneficiaries.
- Determine the eligible households and the beneficiaries and ensure that they can avail themselves of the benefits of the schemes.
- Create and maintain scientific storage facilities at the district and block levels to store the allocated food grains.
- Establish institutionalized licensing arrangements for the FPS under the Public Distribution System (Control) Order, 2001.
3. Obligations of the local authorities:
- They shall be responsible for the effective implementation of the Act.
- They may be assigned additional responsibilities by the State Government for the implementation of the TPDS.
- The local authorities would be responsible for discharging the responsibilities allotted to them by the State Governments.
Challenges to Food Security
There are a plethora of challenges to battle food security, a few of them are:
- Climate Change: the increase in the global temperatures and the capricious rainfall makes farming difficult. A change in the temperatures not only impacts the crops but the other species which are reared for food such as fisheries, livestock, etc.
- Lack of Access: there is a lack of access to remote areas. The tribals and other communities living in remote areas do not get the opportunity to avail of the benefits of the schemes implemented for food security due to lack of access.
- Over-population: A substantial increase in the population when not accompanied by an increase in agricultural production results in a shortage of food.
- Non-food crops: crops grown for commercial purposes such as biofuels and dyes have reduced the area under cultivation for crops.
- Migration from Rural-Urban cities: This causes a problem as it leads to a lot of confusion as to which PDS shop to buy the subsidies from.
The effective implementation of the NFSA remains with the states/UTs and as governance differs from state to state, the effectiveness of the implementation would also differ in each state.
- Lack of Transparency: According to a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) audit conducted in 2016, the wrong people were benefiting from the NFSA.
- It accuses many states of implementing the NFSA despite owning the information that their beneficiaries list is spurious.
- Leakages in PDS: a leakage indicates that the food grains do not reach the intended beneficiaries. The leakages may be of three types:
- pilferage during transportation of food grains
- diversion at fair price shops to non-beneficiaries
- exclusion of entitled beneficiaries from the list.
- Storage: According to the CAG audit, the available storage space was inadequate for the allocated quantity of food grains.
- Quality of food grains: people often complain that the quality of the food grains is not up to the mark and that the grains sometimes have to be mixed with other grains to be edible. Complaints stating that the grains also consist of non-food particles such as pebbles have also been registered.
A critical point in the debate over NFSA is that it doesn’t guarantee a universal right to food.
2. Cabinet approves pending OROP revision for veterans
The pension revision for personnel has been delayed since July 2019; according to the Defence Ministry more than 25.13 lakh persons, including 4.52 lakh new beneficiaries, stand to gain
The Union Cabinet on Friday approved a pension revision for retirees from the armed forces and their families under the One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme, which has been delayed since July 2019. Arrears will be paid from July 01, 2019, to June 30, 2022, which is approximately ₹23,638 crore as per the applicable dearness relief, the Defence Ministry said.
“Pension of the past pensioners would be re-fixed on the basis of average of minimum and maximum pension of defence forces retirees of calendar year 2018 in the same rank with the same length of service,” a Defence Ministry statement said.
More than 25.13 lakh people, including over 4.52 lakh new beneficiaries, armed forces pensioners and family pensioners will benefit, it said.
Armed forces personnel with a retirement date up to June 30, 2019, excluding premature retirees with effect from July 1, 2014, will be covered under this revision, the Ministry said.
Against the backdrop of delays, veterans had taken the legal route to pursue the revision. The case has been repeatedly delayed with the Government asking for more time in the Supreme Court.
One Rank One Pension implies uniform pension to personnel based on rank and length of service, and irrespective of the date of retirement.
Pension for those drawing above the average shall be protected and the benefit would also be extended to family pensioners, including war widows and disabled pensioners, the Ministry said.
Arrears will be paid in four half-yearly instalments. However, all the family pensioners, including those in receipt of special, liberalised family pensions, and gallantry award winners, shall be paid arrears in one instalment.
The estimated annual expenditure for the implementation of the revision has been calculated as approximately ₹8,450 crore based on 31% Dearness Relief (DR).
Arrears from July 1, 2019, to December 31, 2021, have been calculated as over ₹19,316 crore based on DR at 17% for the period from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2021, and at 31% for the period from July 1, 2021, to December 31, 2021. This expenditure is over and above the ongoing expenditure on account of OROP, the statement added.
One Rank One Pension Scheme
One Rank One Pension (OROP) implies the payment of the same pension to armed forces personnel for the same rank and the same length of service, irrespective of the date of retirement.
- To explain this system, let us take an example. An officer who has been in service for 15 years (from 1985 to 2000), and retired in 2000 would get the same pension as an officer who retired in 2010 and was in service from 1995 to 2010 (15 years).
- Before this system, the prevailing system for calculating the personnel’s pension was based on the last salary drawn.
- Here, the length of the service did not matter and what was taken into consideration was the last salary received by the personnel.
- The problem here was that a lieutenant general who retired in 1995 would be receiving a pension that is almost 10% lower than a colonel who retired after 2006, even if they had the same length of service.
- To take another example, a jawan who retired in 1995 would get almost 80% less pension than his counterpart who retired after 2006.
- The demand for OROP by ex-servicemen was to get rid of this disparity in pensions.
- Even though this demand of the armed forces retired personnel has been in the picture for many decades, the topic has gained traction among the mainstream owing to the political parties taking it up in their election manifestos.
Arguments in favour of OROP
Some of the arguments in favour of OROP are discussed below.
- With every pay commission, the difference between the pensions of present and past pensioners has grown wide. Veterans argue this is an issue of justice, equity, honour and national security.
- A lower pay status as compared to their civilian counterparts leads to the military personnel having lower morale. This will also affect the serving officers and soldiers.
- Armed forces personnel typically have shorter careers since about 80% of the soldiers compulsorily retire between the ages of 35 and 37. And, about 12% of soldiers retire between 40 and 54 years. This means they retire at far younger ages when compared to the usual 60 years in case of civilians. Therefore, adequate support is required for military personnel to sustain a dignified life.
- OROP has to be seen in the light of making the armed forces an attractive choice of career for young people. This scheme will go a long way in preventing young people from being lured into private enterprises and other civilian government jobs.
- Another argument in favour of this scheme talks about the moral obligation of the state and society in giving back to the armed forces who sacrificed their youth for the sake of the country.
Arguments against OROP
Some of the important arguments against the One Rank One Pension scheme are discussed below.
- The implementation of this scheme will entail a huge financial burden on the exchequer. The annual financial burden is expected to be between 8000 to 10000 crore. And, this amount will increase with every revision of the salaries.
- Some argue that the comparison with civilians is not correct as the armed forces receive many other allowances that are not given to civilians. They get dedicated army schools, colleges, hospitals, subsidised food and beverages, quotas for children in universities and schools, etc. the equivalents of which are not accorded to civilians anywhere.
- Similar demands can also be made by the other paramilitary forces like the CAPF, Assam Rifles, SSB, etc. The police forces have also started making similar demands as even their conditions of service are often tough.
- The implementation of this scheme can also be an administrative challenge due to the lack of records going back decades.
One Rank One Pension Issue Origins
Since independence, the model of deciding pensions for the armed forces had been the ‘one rank one pension’ model for 26 years.
- In 1973, the Indira Gandhi-led government terminated the OROP model.
- Also, the Third Pay Commission reduced the pensions of soldiers while increasing the pensions of civilians.
- In 1986, the Rajiv Gandhi-led government implemented the Rank Pay Scheme in the wake of the Fourth Pay Commission. This brought the basic pays of seven officer ranks in the army (and their equivalents in the navy and the air force) down by fixed amounts designated as rank pay.
- This caused reduced pensions for many personnel of the armed forces in 1986 and later years. Also, this caused an asymmetry in the pay scales of armed forces officers and their equivalent officers in the Indian Police Force (IPS).
- Considering the demand of the veterans, the government appointed the Koshiyari Committee.
- The Committee was a 10-member all-party parliamentary panel.
- It was chaired by Bhagat Singh Koshiyari.
- It submitted its report in 2011.
- The Committee accepted the veterans’ demand of OROP and stated that equal pension should be paid for an equal length of service of the same rank, irrespective of the retirement date. Also, any future increase in the pension rate should be automatically passed on to the past pensioners.
- Finally, in 2014, the government passed the order of implementation of the OROP scheme.
3. EDITORIAL-1: Alleviating the scourge of private healthcare
India ranks poorly on multiple health financing indicators. Its public health expenditure as a percentage of its GDP (1.28%) and share of general government expenditure dedicated to health (4.8%) remain akin to the poorest countries. Per capita health spending growth has not kept pace with rising incomes. Private spending still constitutes nearly 60% of overall expenditure on health.
This is driven by the dominant role of the private health sector. Yet, the discourse on addressing high healthcare costs remains limited to what the government can do to share the personal expenditure burden. It automatically becomes an issue of increasing government spending to reduce personal spending.
The private sector in India is inexorably dispersed, with marked inequities between rural and urban areas and widespread market failure. Creating organised networks of providers like health maintenance organisations (HMOs), which can be regulated easily, has been envisioned in recent policy pronouncements. However, unlike in the U.S., where managed care models arose in response to cost pressures, the typical Indian context of income disparities, backwardness, and under-regulation incentivised the private sector to differentiate into a host of organisations of varying sizes and scopes, each serving its own customer base. These often provide care at apparently inexpensive rates but of dubious quality. Such contexts offer few natural incentives for consolidation. Achieving this solely through public health insurance is a mammoth task.
In such a scenario, initiatives that seek to make private healthcare more affordable without affecting care quality assume importance. This is likely to encompass a wide range of policy instruments that alter the operating conditions of the private sector. Moreover, such policies have to be enshrined in our national health policy. This should not be confused with driving public funds into public-private partnerships. Rather, we need overarching policies that drive down private healthcare costs even for the self-paying consumer with little or no government subsidy.
Public health insurance schemes have often been reproached for imposing unreasonable package rates on empanelled private providers with a weak regard for actual costs of care. A good start can be made by incentivising and propagating many business process innovations (BPI) that lie scattered across the healthcare landscape such as the cost-reducing innovations by Aravind Eye Clinic and Narayana Hrudayalaya. Such BPIs are confined to a few philanthropic organisations and find little mainstream policy or research attention. Again, while the healthcare ecosystem does not naturally incentivise such innovations, regulatory and economic policy signals can be facilitative. There is already an emergent drift towards value-based healthcare, which seeks to improve patient outcomes for the money spent. Task shifting in healthcare is an evidence-backed instrument to hold down costs, especially in under-resourced settings. The National Commission for Allied and Healthcare Professions Act, 2021 can be a boost in this direction. Widening the ambit of practice of nurses and allied personnel should be a strong emphasis of health policy, along with concurrent mainstreaming of such practice roles across the private sector.
Healthcare provision in cities bespeaks the stark market failure in healthcare. The booming number of providers in cities has only served to drive prices up, but this is no necessary evil. For instance, some countries like Canada have conceived regional health boards that organise care equitably within regions, exploit economies of scale, and bring down healthcare costs. Such boards should have adequate representation from communities and enough power to determine local policy and resource allocation, impose caps on the maximum number of healthcare providers, and build working networks of care. They can address many health system maladies. Creating affordable and effective private health insurance products is another important option.
The Indian healthcare story has seen a double whammy of regulatory infirmity and unfulfilled economic promises. We cannot go soft on the former even as the latter continues to falter. For instance, many States have their own Clinical Establishments Acts that are stuck short of full implementation. Strong political will and the purging of unnecessary restrictions is needed to allay resistance. The high costs of medical education trigger cost recovery through resource-intensive ways of practice. While multiple steps to reduce entry barriers in medical education have been taken lately, medical education costs have sharply increased over the past decade or so. This warrants policy attention.
While we endeavour to make private healthcare more affordable, caution must be exercised that it doesn’t substitute adequate public spending on health. No country in the world has ever achieved universal healthcare through predominantly private means. Affordable private healthcare must only come to supplement strong public healthcare, while in turn having a complementary effect in enhancing the efficiency of government health spending.
4. Esitorial-2: Once a forest, now a settlement
On November 5, land deeds were ceremonially handed over to 1,301 Bodo families in the Charduar Reserve Forest in Assam’s Sonitpur district. Rahul Karmakar reports on the new developments and the older ethnic, communal and conservationist fault-lines being deepened
More than 25 years after he erected a thatched shelter, Dinesh Kerketary’s dream of building a house is taking concrete shape. The wooden support frames around the plinth beams of his 20-by-30 ft house-to-be were taken off a fortnight after he received a document granting him possession of a patch of “forest land under occupation” in north-central Assam’s Sonitpur district.
With the Sopai river flowing behind his 13-bigha plot, 54-year-old Kerketary worked out a safe elevation of his concrete abode in Gadajuli, one of about 270 villages in what used to be a part of the Charduar Reserve Forest. Thephagla(mad) river had inundated his plot thrice since 2009 when it changed course to flow between the southern edge of his plot and Batashipur, a settlement around a railway station that serves Dhekiajuli town 13 km south.
Kerketary was not among the people who first began occupying land in the mid-1990s by clearing the reserve forest. He moved in from nearby Sarsobari. “I was a landless farmer. I sniffed an opportunity to own my plot, but the fear of eviction never really let me sleep in peace until I received thepatta(land deed),” he said. He is relieved that the document will enable his son Paniram to get a permanent residence certificate to seek admission to higher education institutes.
Prabhat Brahma of the adjoining Dhimapur village, who is also constructing a concrete house, has 13 bighas scattered in four places. The largest of his plots, where he grows paddy, is in Gwjwnpur village. Thepattagranted to him does not have this 5-bigha plot. “When the government surveyors came to map the plots, my name was registered wrongly,” he explained. “But I am told that possessing that plot is a matter of time.”
Gadajuli and Dhimapur villages are under the Gadajuli Forest Rights Committee (FRC), one of 154 in Sonitpur district, mostly along the border with Arunachal Pradesh’s West Kameng district. All the FRCs are inhabited by the Bodos, the largest plains tribe in the Northeast.
Brahma’s paddy field, about 3 km north of Dhimapur, lies on the west bank of the Kengkra stream. A few metres beyond the east bank is Abwi Centre, a market established in 2000 and named after an unnamedabwi (‘old woman’ in the Bodo language) who set up the first shop there. A major rural market today, Abwi Centre is one of four villages — along with No. 5Kwdwmguri, No. 6 Sonajuli andThaiswguri— comprising the Abwi Kouseti FRC. “Abwi Centre has some 70 families whose hopes of becoming landowners have soared after many villagers in Batashipur got their land settlement done. After government officials came here during July-September to map the plots with GPS (global positioning system) devices, we think it is a matter of time,” Biswajit Basumatary, the vice-president of the Abwi Centre Bazaar Committee, said.
‘No option left’
On November 5, the land deeds were ceremonially handed over to the heads of 1,301 Bodo families across 15 of more than 70 FRCs in four occupied zones of the Charduar Reserve Forest. The certificates were distributed by two prominent Bodo leaders — Assam Textiles Minister Urkhao Gwra Brahma and Bodoland Territorial Council chief Pramod Boro, both former student union presidents and leaders of the United People’s Party Liberal, a constituent of the alliance government in Assam headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Also at the programme was Ashok Singhal, the State’s Irrigation Minister and the MLA representing Dhekiajuli, the Assembly constituency that encompasses the forest settlement area.
“The granting of thepattashas ended the struggle of the indigenous people to secure their land rights,” Boro claimed, while Brahma cautioned the beneficiaries to ensure that their parcels of land are not transferred to “wrong persons” in the future. The term usually refers to Bengali-speaking or Bengal-origin Muslims, some of whom were evicted from 1,410 hectares of the 22,403-hectare Lumding Reserve Forest in central Assam’s Hojai district in November 2021.
Singhal said the beneficiaries were selected by the FRCs constituted by the Assam government, which scrutinised all relevant documents during the process that began with a review meeting on the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. The review meeting on October 5, 2021, at the Sonitpur Deputy Commissioner’s office, was chaired by Ranoj Pegu, the Minister for the Welfare of Plains Tribes and Backward Classes.Underlining the government’s duty to facilitate land rights liberally to the “deprived ST forest dwellers”, Pegu said the cases of land settlement rejected previously for various reasons need to be revisited and reviewed following due procedure and the eligibility criteria.
“There were a total of 3,600 applicants, but not all could submit proper documents. By December, we intend to increase the number ofpattaholders from 1,301 to at least 2,000 families and the process will continue for the remaining eligible families,” Deba Kumar Mishra, Sonitpur’s Deputy Commissioner, said. “Some people say they are not original inhabitants, but there is no way you can evict them even though the area used to be a forest. They are tribal people, sons of the soil. Moreover, the forest in the occupied patches is no longer in existence.”
Netra Jyoti Gayan, a forester in the Assam Forest Department’s Dhekiajuli Range, said his team was told to carry out a joint survey of the occupied forest land with officials of the Revenue Department. “We carried out the exercise for two months from mid-July and plotted the parcels of land with GPS devices. This was based on a list of FRCs and constituent villages provided by the district administration,” he said.
An FRC, comprising 10-15 people with a third required to be women, is formed to facilitate the process of settling a claim to land by a forest dweller after it passes through three levels of checks — a committee of the villages involved, the sub-divisional-level committee and the district-level committee. The Forest Rights Act Amendment Rules, 2012 give a list of 14 proofs a claimant can provide to prove occupancy of forest land before December 13, 2005. The evidence includes public documents such as census, maps, satellite imagery and government-authorised documents such as voter identity and ration cards. A statement of a village elder, other than the claimant, can also be submitted as proof.
Identifying a forest dweller
Sarat Basumatary, the spokesperson of the Sonitpur district unit of the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) that was formed in 2008, said his family took refuge in Gadajuli from Dhemaji district further east 26 years ago. His landless father used to work on the farm of an Adi tribal in Arunachal Pradesh across the interstate boundary.
“I was forced to stay away as there wasn’t any educational institution in this area. Today, the Batashipur, Belsri, Hugrajuli and Missamari areas we were accused of encroaching upon have 42 government-run schools, Anganwadi centres, a 14 km gravel road from Dhekiajuli railway station to the Arunachal Pradesh border, and an electricity connection,” he recounted.“We were provided ration cards and the adults, about 25,000 at that time, were enrolled as voters in 2004. If we are illegal settlers, why did the government provide all these facilities?”
“We have created a forest village and thus, the land allotment to the indigenous families is not illegal,” Singhal, the local MLA, said, crediting Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma for fast-tracking the permanent settlement of landless indigenous communities.
There’s a difference between forest dwellers and encroachers, countered Dilip Nath, a Dhekiajuli local waging a lone battle as a member of the green group Aranya Suraksha Samity. He has often taken the local authorities to court over large-scale deforestation, encroachment in protected areas and efforts to regularise the settlers on forest lands.
“There are only 14 recognised forest villages in Sonitpur district and we had no issues when 20-odd Bodo families were given settlement within the Balipara Reserve Forest yonder in 2016. But the people of Batashipur, Belsri and adjoining areas are not original or traditional forest dwellers. How can the government create a forest village?” he asked.
He showed records of the Forest Department undertaking 131 eviction drives from 1996 to 2005. The Forest personnel demolished six huts on August 28, 1996, in the Batashipur area only to find the number of settlers increase rapidly. On November 28, 1996, they destroyed 365 huts. This led to frequent conflicts between the settlers and the eviction teams, and in one such “battle” in 1997, a farmer named Hari Basumatary was shot. The residents of the villages under the Lakhijuli FRC regard him as a “martyr”.
By May 2002, the conflict expanded eastward to the 175 sq. km Sonai-Rupai area that was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1998. The conflict petered out with two cases of removal of huts of encroachers in the wildlife sanctuary, once a safe home for the rare pygmy hog, in January 2005.
“The Forest Department did not need to carry out the eviction drives if they are really forest dwellers,” Nath argued, emphasising the need to correctly identify original forest dwellers and limit land rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 to them. He added, for instance, that more than 40,000 people have been living inside the wildlife sanctuary for two-and-a-half decades because of political patronage.
“In 2010, the State government approved the construction of 38 schools under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan by violating the Wildlife Protection Act. All these schools are now polling centres, each with at least 1,200 voters,” Nath claimed.
Bibhuti Mazumdar, a Sonai-Rupai range officer, admitted that about 85 sq. km of the 220 sq. km wildlife sanctuary has been under encroachment. “But the squatters have not been regularised here unlike in the more flexible reserve forests. Issuing land deeds in the sanctuary will need the approval of the National Board for Wildlife,” he said.
The settlers of Batashipur received a shot in the arm when the FRA was passed in December 2006, with Bodo leaders realising that with the eviction drives having been stopped recently they could claim rights under the Act. A coordination committee of farmers staying in the reserve forests began communicating with the government. “We applied for land rights in 2008 and the FRCs were formed in 2009. Things began falling in place but no government until recently showed any seriousness in removing the uncertainty from our lives,” Rupnath Basumatary, the secretary of the Gadajuli FRC, said.
Sonitpur is believed to have borne the brunt of extremism in the 1980s and 1990s linked to the Bodoland statehood movement. Non-Bodos claim the Bodo leadership encouraged Bodos to shift from other parts of Assam to the proposed Bodoland areas to enable a Bodo majority. Many moved to the reserve forests of Sonitpur district.Extremist activities often prevented forest guards from patrolling critical areas.
According todata provided in the Assam Assembly in March, more than 70% of the 92,405 hectares of land across 12 reserve forests under Sonitpur East and Sonitpur West Forest Divisions are under encroachment.
Bodo community leaders in the Dhekiajuli subdivision of Sonitpur district, however, argue that rumours were spun to dehumanise the tribal people displaced by floods, economic hardship and ethnic clashes until the creation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council in 2003. This was upgraded to theBodoland Territorial Region (BTR)in 2020.
“Are we in the BTR today? Some activists are targeting us because we are Bodos who had, at one point in time, demanded Assam be divided 50-50 between us and the others,” Adim Swargiary, the president of the Batashipur unit of ABSU, said.(Sonitpur district borders the eastern edge of the BTR.)
Officials said Sonitpur was among a few districts where land allotment in forest areas was on hold for more than a decade. Other tribal communities such as the Mishing will be grantedpattain the Gohpur area of the adjoining Biswanath district, which was carved out of Sonitpur in 2015.
Thepattadistribution in Batashipur preceded the launch of Assam’s Mission Basundhara 2.0, a scheme for providing land rights through self-certification to indigenous people who have been residing in particular plots for long but do not have any official records. Launching the mission, Chief Minister Sarma asked the circle officers to distinguish the indigenous settlers from “organised encroachers”, citing Gorukhuti as an example of the latter.
Midway between Guwahati and Batashipur, Gorukhuti is a government-backed agricultural project on the Brahmaputra riverbank. The land for this project used to be inhabited and cultivated by migrant Muslims who were evicted amid violence in September 2021. Two inhabitants, including a minor, died in police firing during the eviction.
The opposition parties, chiefly the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), see in the process of grantingpattain occupied government land, including forests, a pattern for polarising voters. “The Chief Minister is communalising the land settlement issue by drawing a line between who he thinks is indigenous and who is not. He is indirectly targeting a minority community in order to please Nagpur (headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the anti-Muslim forces,” senior AIUDF leader and MLA Aminul Islam said.
Conservationists feel it may be too late to reverse the encroachment across Assam’s protected areas due to vote-bank politics. “But we can definitely save the green patches that still remain,” said Bibhab Kumar Talukdar of conservation and wildlife organisation Aaranyak.