Covid-19 and Adivasi Empowerment: CJP’s unique contribution How have eight months of the Lockdown impacted India’s Forest Dwellers & Adivasis?
22, Oct 2020 | CJP Team
During the nationwide Lockdown that was announced in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, CJP found that hunger that had gripped urban India escaped our communities living in the forest as they continued their cultivation and had some measure of control over the resources and minor forest produce.
We at CJP with our partners the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), also found that despite the Lockdown, especially from June 2020 onwards, these Adivasi and forest dwelling communities continued to face threats, intimidation, physical attacks and even sexual assault allegedly at the hands of local police and administration officials.
Among its four pillars of action, the land and livelihood rights of Adivasis and traditional forest dwellers, is one. CJP, with its expertise in navigating cases of human rights violations in the courts and beyond has been active on the issue; partnering with the All India Union of Forest Working Peoples (AIUFWP) since 2017 to battle any setback to these rights in the courts. This includes legally fighting back against malicious prosecution of leaders of the community and defending the Forest Rights Act, 2006 in the Supreme Court. We stand with the millions of Forest Dwellers and Adivasis whose lives and livelihoods are threatened. Please support our efforts by donating here.
These included violent attacks upon Tharu women in Dudhwa National Park and Van Gujjars Rajaji National Park at the hands of the forest authorities. Threats and attacks were also reported from Lilasi in Sonbhadra and Adivasis living in the Kaimur region of Bihar.
CJP along with AIUFWP then approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the National Commission for Women (NCW) and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) Commission in all these cases ensuring some amount of pushback and protection to our communities. In cases where Van Gujjars in Uttarakhand or Kaimur Adivasis have faced police brutality and jail, we have worked ceaselessly to ensure their release. The CJP Team documented these attacks, petitioned authorities and continued relentlessly in the legal advocacy for the communities that we stand with.
Using Technology to Empower the Oppressed
Since June 2020, CJP actively facilitated the use of technology to ensure monthly meetings with district and village activists to chalk out strategies for struggle and further mobilisation to ensure protection of rights of the forest dweller. After some extremely successful meetings where we had the active involvement of women and men leaders of local formations and the AIUFWP from Chitrakoot, UP, Sunderbans, Kalahandi, Orissa, Sonbhadra UP, Dudhwa and Rajaji National Park regions of Uttarkhand and UP, Kaimur, Bihar and also Maharashtra, CJP-AIUFWP organised a two-day Webinar Forest Rights Movement & Covid-19 on August 7 and 8, 2020.
Since then this technology driven interaction has taken a focussed and fascinating turn:
Most recently, CJP-AIUFWP conducted a three-part virtual training programme to talk about legal rights, Constitutional rights, the Adivasi freedom struggle and the filing of community forest claims. We have created Videos and Power Point Presentations that can be thereafter used at the local level for further dissemination. The need for local communities to understand the legal system has increased in past months when clashes between forest departments and Adivasis and forest dwellers has been on the rise.
Need for Legal and Para-legal Training
CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad said, “After the Forest Rights Act of 2006, powers that were already provided in the Constitution became available to the Adivasi communities in the form of new laws. However, unless each of us understands the legal intricacies and communicates them to others, this law will not be effective.”
CJP-AIUFWP Training Programmes – Shape and Form
Apart from providing necessary legal support, the organisation also decided to provide training programmes that would explain the Forest Rights Act in a simple manner and accordingly communicate it to other people at the grassroot level.
CJP developed a three part podcast by October 19, 2020. In one of these, Setalvad highlighted the recognition of land, livelihood, self-governance and cultural rights accorded to India’s Adivasis and Indigenous Forest Dwelling Communities under Schedule V, Schedule VI, Schedule XI of the Indian Constitution. While contextualising their rights within the fundamental rights of equality and freedom and non-discrimination (Articles 13, 14, 15, 15, 17, 19, 25 – 30), she reiterated that, “Until the oppressed agitate for their rights and claim them, no government or bureaucracy will grant these easily.”
A part of the podcast may be heard here.
The collective intervention in the Supreme Court (August 2019) by Adivasi women leaders Sokalo Gond, Nevada Rana, AIUFWP and CJP is an example of this growing legal assertion in the Courts. Apart from the Intervention itself, the CJP’s legal team ensured that the highest court is apprised of the situation on the ground.
Setalvad also shed light upon various other laws that affect forest-dwellers indirectly. In August 2020, at the Webinar, ‘Forest Rights Movement and Covid-19’ webinar, speakers like Sanjay Garg, Working President, AIUFWP (also SP MLA from Saharanpur) advocate Mihir Desai and professor Geetanjoy Sahu had talked at length about the laws brought in to thwart the application of the Forest Rights Law. Amendments made in 2015 and 2020 to the colonial, Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation Act), 1957, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016, the National Waterways Act, 2016, the Environmental Impact Assessment Act, 2006 (EIA 2020) seriously thwarted attempts to re-claim lands and livelihood.
Further details of the webinar may be read here.
At the October 19 training, AIUFWP General Secretary Ashok da Choudhary talked about the history of the Forest Rights Act of 2006 and the Adivasi struggle as part of the CJP-AIUFWP virtual training programme.
Both organisations have together thought it necessary for Communities to empower themselves with the nitty gritty of law and procedure to combat atrocities like the recent Bihar police firing at Kaimur. Ashok Choudhury explained during the programme that the clashes were a direct result of the movement to enact and realise the rights granted under FRA 2006 that had robbed the forest department of the powers given to them by colonisers. During the talk, he also mentioned laws like PESA which were empowering but were being diluted by some regimes.
The full podcast of the event may be heard here.
Owing to the criticality of various provisions of the FRA 2006, the Training CJP-AIUFWP discussed at length the efforts made to make community claims over lands historically tilled and nurtured by communities, as laid down in the law. AIUFWP Deputy General Secretary Roma and Adivasi women leaders Sokalo, Nevada, Sevania explained how the law allows for forest claims by entire communities with women in leadership roles. They discussed how communities should maintain well-documented files to strengthen their Gram Sabhas and Forest Rights Committees and record the regular meetings of these.
Roma spoke at length and emotively explained the implications of the various sections of the Forest Rights Act 2006. For example: Sections 2, Section 3, Section 4, Section 6, Section 7, Section 8, Section 9, Section 11, Section 12 and Section 13 that dealt with the responsibilities of Gram Sabhas and the provisions which protect forest-dwellers from administrative abuse as shown below.
Prior to the training CJP and AIUFWP together prepared a detailed PPT that has now become a valuable resource for the community.
The full programme may be viewed here.
CJP stands with Adivasis
Members attending the event applauded the organisations’ efforts to educate people about their legal rights. However, apart from training programmes, CJP has also fought alongside the communities during their legal struggle. The organisation was the first to notify the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) about the atrocious firing in Adhaura, Kaimur district by Bihar police on a group of protesters from Kaimur Mukti Morcha. In their petition, they narrated how forest department officials “allegedly employed means like encroaching upon agricultural lands of these Adivasis with the intention of evicting them from villages of Adhaura block such as Gullu, Guiya, Dighar, Bahabar, Pipra, Sainagar, Sodha, Bahera, Dumrava, Sarainar,” since the beginning of the lockdown.
In the same plea, CJP also reported the destruction of 50 Adivasi houses in Sarainar. They also mentioned how government officials in Gullu allegedly dug pits in their farmlands under the pretence of afforestation.
The entire report may be read here.
India’s indigenous and forest dwelling communities continue to battle for freedom, even in the twenty-first century. Their struggles are older than the country’s freedom movement, contrary to the mainstream narrative of Indian history. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 – amended in 2012 – is the most recent testament to their movement and persistent struggle to democratically agitate and claim land and cultivation rights.
The emancipatory law not only recognises, acknowledges and protects the land, livelihood forest and cultivation rights of Adivasi communities, it recognises women entitlement and ownership of these. It gives meaning to Schedule V, VI and IX of the Constitution that recognised self- governance, land and cultural rights of Adivasis and Forest Dwellers. Enacted after decades of struggle, thirteen years ago, the law (FRA 2006) required –as do emancipatory laws enacted to further social justice and empower India’s most marginalised— that the central Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MOTA) created in year 2000 and Tribal Ministries within state governments, to educate its own bureaucracy of the provisions under this law. Instead, the forest department, police officials and politicians continue to thwart the realisation of the objectives of the law.
Yet, few people are cognisant of their legal rights either under this law or even under the Constitution of India.
Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) and the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) have been working to create an awareness among tribal communities about their own rights and powers and support their demands for land ownership. During the coronavirus pandemic, they have worked to sensitise people about forest rights as well as various provisions of law.
Passing the mic
CJP helped amplify voices of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand activists such as Sokalo Gond and Rajkumari Bhuiya, Mustafa Chopra and Noor Jahan, Tarun Joshi and Meer Hamza who talked about how forest department officials, police force and state governments were abusing their power to take advantage of the lockdown and crush the morale of the forest-dwelling communities. Noor Jahan narrated her own experience of being dragged and extorted however, all activists alike reaffirmed their dedication to the movement.
“We have a right to out jal-jungle-jameen and the government cannot take advantage of the pandemic to hand it over to big corporations,” said Bhuiya.
The organisation also celebrated women activists who had contributed greatly to the movement.
The second part of the webinar series talked to activists from other parts of India such as Shiba Sunwar from West Bengal, Pushpanjali Sathpathy from Orissa, Manish Dhinde from Maharashtra and many others who talked about adivasi’s relationship with the authority in other parts of the country as well as the impact of the lockdown on their livelihood.
Learning about forest rights during COVID-19
Our association with India’s Adivasis and Forest Dwellers be it in Aarey Colony, Mumbai or with partners AIUFWP nationally will only grow. What we feel particularly gratified about that our Team has not rested during the Pandemic: we used this period to technologically and legally empower them!
Right from the beginning of the ‘Janata Curfew,’ CJP talked about forests, the lifelines of India, suffering due to rapid industrialization, increasing land encroachment by government and its effect on the indigenous communities belonging there.
We remain committed to this goal and mission. We are a democracy in the making in its fullest sense! The knowledge of and expertise in the law and Constitutional morality needs to reach our most marginalised sections. It is only when we together achieve this that, Indian democracy will be truly alive and kicking!
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