Forest Rights

Tribal struggle

Print edition : April 28, 2017

What remains of the huts that the tribal people had constructed in the Diddalli forest, which were demolished. Photo: Ravi Sharma

A woman outside her temporary shelter put up by the government. Photo: Ravi Sharma

Temporary shelters built by the government. Most of the tribal people have gone back to their homes in the coffee estate labour lines. Photo: Ravi Sharma

Tribal people evicted from reserved forest land in Karnataka’s Kodagu district have not relocated to the sites offered by the government and insist on three acres of land for each family in the Diddalli forests.

IT may have all begun rather simply and without fanfare. But it was a powder keg waiting to explode. The Diddalli reserve forests are a moist, deciduous and thickly wooded area which, according to government notifications dating back to 1891, is part of the 36.96 sq km Devmachi Reserve Forest of the Thithimathi Range in Kodagu’s Virajpet Forest Division. No one raised an eyebrow when, in June last year, 38 Jenu Kuruba tribal people protesting against what they saw as apathy by the Karnataka government in allotting them house sites made a representation to the local forest officer requesting that they be allowed to erect eight makeshift sheds using plastic sheets, thatch and sticks in the Diddalli forests. The Forest Department was perhaps the least concerned. An attempt by tribal people to erect four sheds in the Diddalli reserve forests had been swiftly dealt with in April 2016.

The representation from the 38 signatories, who claimed to be workers of coffee plantations in and around Virajpet (most continued to live in the accommodation provided to them on the coffee estates—the labour lines) stated that they had “placed sheds in the Diddalli reserve forest as a mark of protest since their repeated requests and applications [to the Revenue and Social Welfare Departments] to allot them houses and other benefits under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, had not been favourably accepted”. They said they would move out of the reserve forest once the officers concerned visited them and alternative residential sites were provided. The signatories reportedly told forest officers that they wanted a “medium” to highlight their struggle for sites.

A forest officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Frontline that “the illegality [encroachment] was immediately brought to the notice of the Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police, and an FIR [first information report] filed”. But the police only cited their preoccupation with other matters including, in later months, the Cauvery agitation and the movement against Tipu Jayanthi celebrations. They failed to provide forces that would have allowed the Forest Department to remove the shelters. By late November, the number of encroachments swelled beyond 100, and the tribal people had cleared the undergrowth on some 60 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of the forest. The local media were highlighting the issue. The Deputy Commissioner announced that a survey would be conducted to ascertain which of the tribal families were genuinely from the Diddalli forests.

Witnesses say that the announcement of a survey by the Revenue Department prompted a large number of tribal families to make a beeline for the forests and erect shelters. Most of them continued to stay elsewhere, but they hoped to get themselves included in the survey and thereby benefit from any government packages provided under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

In early December, the Forest Department eventually cleared the rudimentary shelters, which had by then swelled to over 200, with 577 families claiming to being indigenous to the Diddalli forests. The move opened a Pandora’s box. The sorry plight of the tribal people in Kodagu district got publicity and brought in its wake a fair share of politics. The tribal people now demanded three acres of land for each family in the Diddalli forests. There was a nude protest by two tribal people and much obfuscation of facts as vested interests hijacked the issue. There was support for the tribal people, as well as criticism from environmental groups. The number of families claiming to be from Diddalli rose to 611. But most importantly, as M.B. Prabhu, social activist and Director of the Indian Institute of Tribal Education, Nagarhole, says, the eviction issue exposed the absence of any concrete and time-bound plans by successive Karnataka governments for the resettlement of tribal people. Explained Prabhu: “While schemes like the Integrated Tribal Development Projects and the Tribal Sub Plan are there on paper, implementation, especially by the lower levels of officialdom, is found wanting.”

The issue also tossed the Congress government in Karnataka into a predicament. It has abruptly drawn attention to the hardships that tribal people face even as the government tries to hammer out a solution within the ambit of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, taking into account the humanitarian and sensitive nature of tribal rights. The government must walk a political tightrope between accommodating tribal demands and not antagonising the local non-tribal population. Any rehabilitation measures announced by the government for these tribal people will also be watched keenly by the almost 3,000 tribal families in Kodagu district.

In February, the government announced that sites would be provided to those who could prove that they were bona fide tribal people from the district, not just the Diddalli region. The Kodagu district administration went about earmarking 6.7 acres of land for 181 sites in the Basavanahalli area of Kushalanagar Hobli, 10 acres of land in Rampura (171 sites) and 7.50 acres in Kedumullur gram panchayat limits, near Virajpet (176 sites). It submitted a Rs.6-crore proposal for the rehabilitation of the 528 tribal families that were proven to be bona fide residents from the district. Speaking to Frontline, Deputy Commissioner of Kodagu Richard Vincent D’Souza said that while borewells and water storage tanks were ready, roads and electricity were just a few days away. “The occupation certificates for the sites are ready. These tribal people have to come forward and accept them. The government will also construct houses for them.”

So far, the government has categorically ruled out resettling tribal people in the Diddalli forests. Civil rights and tribal rights activists such as Sirimane Nagaraj, Noor Sridhar, H.S. Doreswamy and C.S. Dwarakanath averred that the government, which ignored and even regularised encroachments (of around 190 acres) by owners of coffee estates, was evicting hapless tribal people. They also pointed out that the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, provided for the resettlement of tribal people in the Diddalli forests. Some tribal leaders, politicians and activists are also questioning the Forest Department’s stand that the area is a part of the reserved forest, claiming instead that it is government paisari (revenue land). They point out that Diddalli has an ashram school, a primary health centre, an anganwadi centre, facilities for water, and a connecting concrete road. They further point out that a few mud huts already exist and some forest dwellers have already been sanctioned up to five acres of land in the same area under the Forest Rights Act.

The district administration’s stand is that not only are the protesting tribal people not traditional forest dwellers, but they also have no documents to show that they are from the Diddalli reserved forests and hence are not eligible to be allotted land on the fringes of the reserve forest under the Forests Rights Act. Rather, they are from Kodagu district and have been working on coffee estates, staying in the line houses on the plantations. A senior bureaucrat said: “These tribal people have been lured with the promise of land by some vested interests who have already collected money. Before they encroached on forest land at Diddalli, the tribal people were residing in the line houses in the estates at Virajpet, Balele, Kutta, Gonikoppa and Siddapura. Almost all of them have gone back to the line houses and places of work. It is also pointless to talk about the school, which was built in 1964 before the implementation of the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. The initial demand was for a site. Now they are asking for three acres of land. There are around 10,000 homeless tribal families in Kodagu. It is neither practical nor legally possible for the government to hand out three acres to each family.”

But, according to the maverick politician A.K. Subbaiah, who has taken up the cudgels on behalf of the tribal people, the land where the sheds were constructed at Diddalli is revenue land earmarked for the landless. Subbaiah said: “Owing to the conspiracy of some influential persons the land has been declared as forest paisari. Though the said land was handed over for tree plantation, it can be taken back by the government whenever it is needed for a public purpose. Anyway the ownership of the land is yet to be handed over to the Forest Department. It is a conspiracy against the poor. The right to live has been denied to these tribal people. We are asking the government to establish eight or nine tribal colonies in this survey number itself and to give each family three acres of land. Just giving them a house is of no use. What about livelihood?”

But many foresters and environmentalists such as Chukkapalli Venkatasubbaiah, a retired Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Vigilance), contend that there is nothing in the 22 types of land tenures—forest or revenue—of The Karnataka Revenue Survey Manual (rules under which all government lands are dealt with) that is termed as “forest paisari”. The word paisari itself is unique to Kodagu district and was coined in 1901 by the Chief Commissioner of Coorg and is a generic term covering all sorts of government land, be it forest, tank beds, waste land or even rivers and streams. The Karnataka Revenue Survey Manual defines paisari land thus: “All waste and forest land which are declared to be the property of the government and which have not been notified as protected forest or as forest reserved”. Venkatasubbaiah is of the view that the State will be hard pressed legally to denotify or hand out land in the Diddalli forest. According to him, considering an area as forest or the area to come under the purview of the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963, it need not be a part of a “reserved forest”. “The Forest Act covers all categories of forests. The word ‘forest’ is not defined in either the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963, or the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. And the difference between a ‘reserved forest’ and any other category of ‘forest’ is only in the degree of restrictions that the area is subjected to but not in the nature,” he said.

He also cited an April 2010 ruling by the Supreme Court that said: “The provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, must apply to all forests irrespective of the nature of ownership or classification of the forest; two, the word ‘forest’ must be understood according to its dictionary meaning, and three, the term ‘forest land’, occurring in section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, will not only include ‘forest’ as understood in the dictionary sense, but also any area recorded as forest in the Government records irrespective of the ownership.” Environmentalists and conservationists also argue that if the government hands over land in the forests it will be opening the floodgates for more such demands. That might lead to serious degrading of forests in Kodagu, the predominant catchment area for the Cauvery river.

Karnataka’s Kodagu district has always been home to Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts), and they have been roughly classified as tribal people dwelling in coffee estates, tribal people living in colonies established by the government and tribal people living in forests. Politically and socially neglected, the 58,000-strong S.T. population of the district are mainly from the Jenu Kuruba, Beta Kuruba, Errava and Soliga tribes.

Coffee plantations of the region have been employing them for over 150 years. They are hired for an assortment of jobs including plucking, pruning, harvesting and sorting the bean. But in recent years, many of them have begun to look elsewhere for more lucrative and challenging employment opportunities. According to J.K. Saami, a tribal person who has been in the forefront of the Diddalli agitation, the working conditions in many of the plantations are dismal. He said that tribal people were often employed as bonded labourers, paid meagre wages and their children were denied educational opportunities. “That is why many tribal people have left their line houses. We want the government to give us land and opportunities for a decent livelihood. In many instances the monetary value of loans taken by tribal people from plantation owners is surreptitiously increased. When a tribal person is unable to pay back, he and his family are unable to leave the plantation. Most tribal people are looking for alternative sources of employment.”

The coffee planters deny Saami’s allegations, but they admit that conditions may be bad in a few estates. Wages vary from Rs.200 a day, when water and housing are provided, to Rs.300 a day for “outsiders”. But some tribal people told this correspondent that they were paid less than Rs.100 a day.

Planters, faced with a shortage of labour in recent years, have started looking at labour from outside the region, sometimes from as far as Odisha, Assam and even Bangladesh. This has meant that tribal people who have been living in line houses for decades must now vacate them if they do not want to work on the plantations.