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Times of India: Tribals use GPS to claim forest land rights

As seen on the Times of India

VADODARA: Amid their struggle to get forest land rights in Gujarat, tribals have found a friend in a gadget that gives convincing evidence about their claims over land under the Forest Rights Act. The tribals have started using Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to mark and measure the lands they till in the forest areas.

The process of such mapping had begun a couple of years ago, but today it has become a regular exercise in several pockets in south and central Gujarat to map plots cultivated by tribals. Such has been the success and word of mouth publicity of the experiment that activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh and Bihar asked those involved in the process to demonstrate it. Madhya Pradesh went a step further and its officials even sought a formal presentation on it to implement the process in its six tribal districts.

“We started the process after claims were being challenged by officials on flimsy grounds and they were not willing to accept a series of evidences that could have been considered to prove that a tribal was cultivating a plot of land. The matter was even taken up with Gujarat high court that said that satellite imagery other than that by Bhaskaracharya Institute of Space Applications and Geo-Informatics (BISAG) should be considered. BISAG’s images were not to be considered as it had got them done through an agency and the work was not convincing,” said Ambrish Mehta of ARCH Vahini, the NGO that is promoting the cause of land rights for tribals.

The tribals have so far measured 25,000 plots in this manner in over 250 villages. As many as 36 GPS instruments costing about Rs 14,500 each have been put into use for the process. To offset the cost, a claimant of land has to pay a mere Rs 60 to get the land surveyed using GPS.

“A surveyor would charge them much more. And if someone is not in a position to pay, we even let go of the amount,” Mehta said.

To authenticate the entire process, the maps are endorsed by the forest rights committee of the village or the gram sabha and these are then put up before the sub-divisional level committee that looks into the claims.

“Even otherwise, it is not possible to manipulate the images as they can be tallied with a satellite image of the area in any previous year to check if the claim is right,” Mehta said.

But the response of the state machinery has been mixed. In Narmada, Tapi and Surat districts such maps are accepted while in districts like Valsad and Dang, officials are refusing to accept them. “A resolution by the tribal development department that has issued orders to drop these is a major hurdle. This resolution is against the high court order,” Mehta said.

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