Conflict of interests

Published : Feb 29, 2008 00:00 IST

At Pipalkhura, forest Department personnel destroyed tribal homes and took away their belongings.-DIONNE BUNSHA

At Pipalkhura, forest Department personnel destroyed tribal homes and took away their belongings.-DIONNE BUNSHA

As the phase of implementation of the law approaches, there is palpable unease among the tribal populations.

At Pipalkhura, forestBy Dionne Bunsha in Burhanpur district

THE road to Pipalkhura is long, rocky and dusty. Across a parched, hilly landscape occasionally broken by a village, farm or bazaar, we make our way to this remote village in Madhya Pradesh. Suddenly, we see a cluster of white tents breaking out of the brown earth that is all Pipalkhura has been left with. Tents and blankets.

A huge team from the Forest Department destroyed 55 houses on January 11. Their machines bulldozed our homes, and then they set it all on fire. They took everything our livestock, chickens, foodgrains, utensils, bedding, and left us bare in the cold, said Shankar Bahadur, a Barela Adivasi who is considered an illegal encroacher in this dry, degraded forest, where the only sign of forest is a sprinkling of trees. When their leaders made a complaint about the demolition in the State capital of Bhopal, the tehsildar (local revenue official) sent them tents and blankets. Small consolation in the biting cold here, where night temperatures touch zero.

Every three or four months, the Forest Department tries to clear us out. They take our crops, set our homes on fire and leave. They say we are illegal encroachers, but we were born and brought up here. Our elders came here from Khargon [a neighbouring district] because there was no land in that village. If we cant stay here, where else can we go? Why did they [the forest guards] take our money and let us settle when we first came here?

Just before the coming into force of the Forest Rights Act in January 2008, the Forest Department of Burhanpur district demolished seven villages. Uttarkumar Sharma, the District Forest Officer (DFO), says that they are encroachers who can claim no right over the land but are trying to take advantage of the new law. The Adivasis say that the Forest Department is trying to get rid of them to deny them their legal rights.

The conflict turned violent in Bomliapat, where 47 homes were broken, including a school run by the Adivasi Ekta Sanghatan (AES), a non-governmental organisation that the DFO has labelled naxalite. Four people were injured in police firing, of which one, Damidia Harlia, lost his eye. We even took him to Delhi for treatment, but they could not do anything to take the bullet out of his eye. He has lost his vision forever, says Vasant Jamra, a local activist of the AES.

At most of the eviction sites, the forest guards looted in one days time and never returned to guard the forest. If they were truly interested in guarding forest land, why did they not return the next day?

They took everything. We slept out in the open in the freezing cold, and borrowed food from others in the village whose homes were not broken, says Junabai Bhangda. We have been living here for around 15 years. Earlier, we were in the neighbouring village of Mandwa. But there was no land there, so we came here.

Across India, atrocities are part of the daily grind for Adivasis, and Burhanpur is no different. The Forest Department here has a long history of terror and abuse. Over the years, several cases have been filed against them for illegal arrests and torture of tribal people.

The DFO dismisses all these accusations as lies and says that his personnel fired in self-defence. There is a law and order problem in these villages. My team cannot enter them to carry out their work without being stoned. We were surrounded and had to fire six rounds to leave the place, said Uttarkumar Sharma. We have not demolished a single structure in the past six months. These accusations are totally false. Yet, he admits that there have been violent skirmishes. In the past seven years, three Adivasis have been killed in police firing and one forest guard was killed during an anti-encroachment drive.

Starting from 1999, we have been removing these encroachments into the forest, says the DFO. People come from nearby Khargon and Sendhwa. They are not originally from this place. They are encroaching on the rights of villagers who are already settled here and have to suffer on account of these illegal occupiers of the forest. Of the 1,90,000 hectares of forest land in the district, 40,000 ha was encroached; the Forest Department has managed to remove half of the encroachers, he estimates.

They are trying to take advantage of the Forest Rights Act, but we do not consider them eligible under the Act, says Sharma. We have been instructed by the State government that only those residing for at least three generations (75 years) from December 13, 2005 are eligible. The gram sabhas will decide, but I expect that we shall find very few Adivasis who will be eligible.

Who is eligible depends on how the government chooses to interpret the new law. The Act clearly states that Adivasis should be given the rights denied to them. Adivasis have been in Burhanpur for generations, even before the Mughal rule. They know no district boundaries and move within the forest in search of land in order to survive. To say that they are encroachers is ridiculous, says Bijaybhai from the AES.

The irony is that the Forest Department sees only the most deprived Adivasis as encroachers, whereas contractors and corporates who exploit the forest wealth are welcome. Sharma boasts how the Forest Department provides the Madhya Pradesh government with Rs.500 crore of revenue every year.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests has diverted 1,133,123 ha for non-forest purposes from 1980 to 2006, of which more than half has been in the past five years, points out Madhu Sarin, activist with the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, which is fighting for Adivasi rights. Almost the same area 1,343,000 ha of forest land is under encroachment in the country, of which the government has regularised only 3,66,000 ha.

From 2002 to 2004, the government removed encroachers from 1.52 lakh ha of land. If you assume one hectare per family, 1.5 lakh families who have lived there for generations have been displaced. But we never hear of the removal of multinational corporations, or the Tatas or the Birlas, says Sarin.

In the new, Shining India that is envisioned, business is always welcome. And Adivasis are a nuisance in this vision of progress and need to be dealt with firmly.

By T.K. Rajalakshmi in UdaipurThe forest boundary

SHIVA RAM, Nima Ram and many others of Karmela Phala hamlet in Padrada village have reasons to be worried. Despite having lived in the village, in Gogunda block of Udaipur district in Rajasthan, for over three decades, they have no entitlements and face routine harassment by officials of the State Forest Department. Not only have cases been filed against them for encroaching on forest land, but they face threats of eviction regularly. Nearly 70 families in the village stand affected owing to the non-implementation of the legislation enacted for their benefit. They have complained to the Sub Divisional Magistrates office, hoping for redress under the new law.

Takhat Singh Chauhan of the same village, protests against the Forest Rights Act. It is going to create problems in the village if the tribal people start demanding our land. The law should be fair to everyone. I am not a big landlord. My condition is as bad as theirs. I work hard and even go abroad for work, he said. He clarified that by abroad, he meant Mumbai. Implicit was the notion that the tribal people were not only lazy but lacked enterprise.

In Visma village in the same block, Prabhu Garasia is unsure if the Act will help him. Prabhu does not have the legal rights to the land in which he has lived for over 40 years. The Forest Department even threatened to take away this land and include it within the forest boundary.

Twenty-one villagers of Kurra have now written to the All India Kisan Sabha, requesting its intervention in order to get them the rights of cultivation and residence of their lands. A few months before that, five villagers from Suwali in Jhadol block wrote to B.L. Singhvi, district secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist), requesting the partys intervention in winning them the rights to the land they had lived and cultivated for almost three decades. They complained that the Forest Department had begun constructing boundaries in their area and were growing the jatropha plant as part of the biofuel initiative of the State government. An Udaipur-based organisation called Astha had also received such complaints over the past several years. But ever since the passage of the Act, the complaints have become more frequent and desperate. The forest boundary is a much-hated word here.

Lakharoopa Garasia, who lives in Phala Balavira, Gogunda, was tortured by Forest Department personnel for sowing maize on what is forest land. There is a boundary, or kot running through his land now. Ironically, the wall was constructed as part of work commissioned under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Lakhas father had written to the District Forest Officer in the 1960s to regularise the plot of land but there was no response.

In 1980, as many as 56 residents of Hyala village were evicted from their plots when the Forest Department claimed the land was its. The gram panchayat had recommended the allotment of pattas or land titles to the tribal people but nothing happened.

According to Singhvi, two years ago, at Palaswa village in Gogunda block, the wells of two tribal families were dug up; in Patia village of Kherwada block, 200 families were evicted; and at Bichiwara village in Dungarpur, families who have been in possession of their lands for over 60 years now face the threat of eviction. Similar stories of intimidation have been reported from Jogiwar and Talao Bhamra villages in Kotara tehsil; in Ambasa panchayat in Jhadol tehsil, cases have been registered against 27 persons.

For more than two years, the State government refused to recognise the Bill that guaranteed rights to tribal people and other forest-dwellers. Even after its enactment last year and the subsequent notification of rules early this year, there has not been much state initiative to create awareness about the Act. The conflict between the Forest Department and the tribal people has increased because the former is keen to declare as much land as possible as forest land before the Act takes effect. The planting of jatropha on degraded land was one way of evicting the tribal inhabitants.

The biodiesel fuel policy of the State government is another tool for harassment. According to the policy, a District Collector can grant up to 20 leases for up to 100 hectares of government land each for biodiesel plantations. The lease can be granted to below poverty line (BPL) groups, private companies, cooperative societies and panchayats. The guidelines stipulate that private companies can be granted 30 per cent of the land in each district.

According to information compiled by Astha, the policy has had a devastating impact on the lives of the tribal people. The policy also violated the Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, or PESA, as there is no provision in it to consult local bodies. Not only has the threat of evictions increased, but actual evictions are taking place; non-existent boundary markers have suddenly surfaced; houses are demolished; trenches are dug; and social conflicts between BPL families have arisen owing to the selective allotment of land under the policy. In some blocks, upper-caste panchayats have used their clout to evict Dalits as well as tribal people. The problem spread to several blocks in Udaipur. There were instances of harassment in other districts in southern Rajasthan as well from Banswara, Dungarpur, Sirohi and Pali. On Mt Abu Road, in village Jamori, Sirohi district, 200 families received eviction notices. Overall, the number of affected tehsils where tribal people were being harassed began to increase. Complaints also arrived from Kumbalgarh, Kherwara and other sanctuary areas in Udaipur.

Under the recently notified S.T. and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Rules, 2007, the gram panchayat is supposed to convene a gram sabha from which a forest rights committee of a maximum of 15 members would be constituted. The Rules stipulate that only one-third of its members shall be from the S.T. community. This, observers feel, is an injustice.

The District Collector of Udaipur, Alok Kumar, told Frontline that he was yet to receive any order regarding the implementation of the Act. He was equally unaware of complaints regarding harassment and eviction faced by tribal people.

Rajasthan has an S.T. population of 12.6 per cent. A high proportion of it lives in the districts of Udaipur, Dungarpur and Banswara; in Kumbalgarh block in Rajasamand district, Pratapgarh block in Chittorgarh district, Bali and Desuri blocks in Pali district and Abu Road Block in Sirohi district. In the tribal-sub plan areas, the decadal growth in population (1971-81; 1981-91) has seen a sharper decline than that of the rest of the population. While the average population density in the State is 129 per square kilometre, in tribal areas it is only 16. The landholdings are very small, much less than the district average. .

The issue of regularisation of pattas is not new. On September 18, 1990, the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued circulars to resolve the disputes over forest land between the State and the tribal population. The circulars gave guidelines to the States to regularise pre-1980 encroachments; review disputed settlements; convert forest villages into revenue villages and regularise leases, pattas or grants involving forest land. The directions were not implemented for 12 years. In 1991, the State government issued a notification stating that the regularisation of forest lands that were in the possession of tribal people, prior to July 1, 1980, would be done. The process was to be completed in six months. The notification was not made public for four years by the Forest Department, as a result of which it expired. Apparently, Astha found that only 11 persons had been considered eligible under this notification.

Meanwhile, on the ground, there was growing anger against the apathy of the State government. In 1995, this resentment took the shape of a struggle called the Forest Land Peoples movement. With the support of Left parties in the State, this front is now determined to get the new legislation implemented.

By Venkitesh Ramakrishnan in RanchiA tribal woman

IT was the same everywhere you travelled across Jharkhand in the latter half of January and in early February. At scores of small meetings in villages, members of the tribal and other forest-dwelling communities sat with neatly bound copies of the Hindi version of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), discussing its provisions with political activists and forest rights campaigners. The meetings highlighted the positive dimensions of the Act and suggested ways and means to implement them gainfully while at the same time identifying the problems and discussing how these could upset the very objectives of the legislation.

A recurrent theme in the meetings was unity. The FRA has come about after a long, united struggle, and unity of purpose and organisation are essential if it is to be implemented properly, was the refrain.

Unity was the most important message that came out of the activists meeting at Chandwa in Latehar district, too, when Frontline caught up with it on the last day of January. Informally chaired by Bharat Jan Andolan activist George Monipally (locally referred to as the Dhoti-clad Father), the meeting had participants from almost all the development blocks in the district.

Before analysing the FRA clause by clause, it was unanimously agreed that tribal and other forest-dwelling communities would not fight among themselves about the location of the gram sabha nodal centre, which would oversee the implementation of the FRA. Those who have tried for years to stall the very passage of the FRA are now constantly on the lookout for opportunities to freeze its implementation. This is something that one needs to watch out for, Father George said.

Tribal rights activists say it is nothing short of an awareness campaign that is going on in most parts of Jharkhand. In all probability, said Shankar and Priya Gopalakrishnan of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a federation of social organisations advocating the cause of tribal forest-dwellers, the awareness campaign in Jharkhand would be one of the strongest. The reasons are not far to seek.

By any yardstick, no other State in the history of independent India would have seen the displacement of tribal people and forest-dwellers on a scale that Jharkhand has in the past six decades. Studies by organisations such as the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) state that over 74 lakh tribal people in Jharkhand have been displaced out of their natural habitat on account of different private and public sector projects initiated between 1950 and 1990. Of these only 18.45 lakh persons were rehabilitated.

Organisations associated with the government, including the State Planning Commission, put the number of the displaced in Jharkhand from 1951 to 1995 at 15,03,017. As many as 6,20,372 of them belong to the Scheduled Tribes (S.T.), 2,12,892 to the Scheduled Castes (S.C.) and 6,76,575 to other categories.

Though the statistics may differ, there is little doubt that displacement has caused misery to vast numbers of people in the State. The displacements have generally been in the name of large-scale industrial, mining, irrigation and power projects. These include public sector projects such as Heavy Engineering Corporation Limited (HECL) and private sector enterprises such as Tata Iron and Steel Company in Jamshedpur.

Babulal Mahatos family, comprising his parents and brothers, owned about 18 acres (1 acre = 0.4 hectare) of land in Pundag village in Ratu block of Ranchi district. The acquisition of land for HECL in the 1960s resulted in the family losing most of its land. Babulal says the compensation that the family got for the land at that time was less than Rs.10,000 and that there was no further rehabilitation. The family moved the court, but the case has been pending for over a decade and a half. Today Babulal makes a living as a casual labourer in agriculture and construction.

Not far away, in Murma block, Premnath Mahato, another displaced forest-dweller, makes a better living by running a medical shop and selling insurance policies part time. His larger family had to give up approximately 50 acres of land for HECL. He, too, has been awaiting court orders for over a decade for adequate compensation and rehabilitation.

According to the human rights activist Thakur Prasad, the long history of displacement has made the tribal people and other forest-dwellers wary of any development project. For them, development projects advanced by various governments are nothing but ploys to take away their fertile, mineral-rich land and hand it over forcibly to avaricious industrialists and business houses, he said.

After the formation of the Jharkhand State seven years ago, the new government has signed over 42 memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with global investors, including Mittal Steel, Tata Steel, Jindal Steel and several power companies. The cumulative worth of the projects is Rs.1,70,00 crore; approximately 48,000 acres of land is estimated to be required for the projects. Many of the proposed projects are in the mineral-rich Kolhan region. Informal estimates have it that at least 10,000 families would be displaced in Kolhan alone in addition to widespread deforestation.

Jharkhands history of displacement has accentuated these apprehensions and this has led to the eruption of a number of local resistance movements against many projects. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Bhoomi Raksha Gramin Ekta Manch, the Moolvasi Adhikar Morcha, the Adivasi Adhikar Morcha and the Jharkhand Mines Area Co-ordinations Committee have taken the lead in many areas. Political organisations such as the Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha (JMM) and the Left parties the CPI (M), the CPI and the CPI(ML) are also associated with these movements in many places. The extremist Communist Party of India (Maoist) has expressed solidarity with the movement against displacement. The resistance against the new industrial-mining projects has been so strong that most of the MoUs have become non-starters.

In this context, the notification of the FRA has accorded a new strength to the advocates of the rights of tribal people and forest-dwellers. Said Suresh Kishore, a Jan Andolan activist from Chitarpur in Latehar district, where resistance against land acquisition for a private power project is on: Certainly, the FRA has given us a new instrument to fight for our rights, but we need to use it judiciously.

According to Kishore, even the geographical parameters of Jharkhand demand that the tribal population and other forest-dwellers stand united. For, the majority of forest-dwelling areas in Jharkhand are close to revenue villages. Forest-dwellers are geographically proximate to one village or the other and sometimes develop a kind of affinity to these revenue villages. This might lead to an insistence that the nodal implementation centre should be set up in one favourite village or the other.

Points like this were, of course, well taken at the meetings at Chandwa and other places. A lot in terms of implementation would depend on the commitment of the bureaucracy as well as the vigilance of social and political activists.

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