Defending Forest Rights in 2021 CJP and AIUFWP stand by Adivasis and forest dwellers amidst mounting challenges
27, Dec 2021 | CJP Team
As the Covid-19 pandemic continued to pose new threats via more infectious and deadly variants, Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) and the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) worked hard to ensure it did not allow vested interests and their stooges in the administration an opportunity to snatch away Forest Rights of Adivasis and forest workers.
2021 concludes on a bittersweet note, given how while one the one hand, people multiple villages filed community land claims under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (called Forest Rights Act or FRA), on the other hand, Adivasis in Madhya Pradesh faced eviction during the monsoon, their meagre property ruined in the process. Here’s a look back at the highs and lows of a turbulent year.
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.
Making history in Chitrakoot
In one of CJP’s greatest achievements this year, was aiding forest rights defenders from eight villages file community land claims in Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh. What is unique was how claimants in the 20 community forest rights claims filed so far are women, and it was the vibrant mobilisation spearheaded by women in Chitrakoot that helped in the collation of various legal documents, and brought people in these eight villages and 248 families are closer to getting benefits as per the FRA.
One of the re-elected Vice Presidents of the All India Union of Forest Working Peoples (AIUFWP) and also CJP Secretary Teesta Setalvad minces no words, calling the entire process “government’s work, done by the organisation”. The claims realised Adivasis’ fundamental rights to a life of dignity by identifying them as the rightful claimants of the land.
“We have put together files of 18 villages, out of which 8 are complete and 10 are work in progress. This is a painstaking process and some of the grassroots workers are facing difficulties,” says AIUFWP deputy general secretary Roma. This is no mean feat, given how there is a vast difference between urban and rural India, and the absence of the smallest of conveniences that city folk take for granted, can prove to be major hurdles of villagers fighting for their rights.
Our campaign was sustained amidst the pandemic via weekly webinars, wherein CJP’s legal team empowered community members with correct information pertaining to how to file claims, correct documentation required such as identification certificates, residential proof, detailed records of each and every tree and stone in their area, to stake their claim.
“It was difficult to get the necessary documents, often simple things like getting photocopies would prove to be stumbling block as these are rural areas,” says Amir Khan Sherwani. “We have to collect and fill out all necessary forms, giving details of the exact amount of land to which the claim is being made, then attach all relevant documents and proof, and then get them all verified,” he explains.
All this while, both CJP and AIUFWP also approached multiple human rights bodies like the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), National Commission for Women (NCW) and National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) to end the alleged tyranny of the forest department and local authorities upon Adivasis and forest workers.
However, aware of the judicial insensitivity regarding forest-dweller rights as per the Forest Rights Act 2006, CJP also plans to approach high courts in various states with these documents to reassert forest rights of the communities living in those regions for decades.
Read more here.
CJP’s legal resources empower the common man
CJP’s legal resources have been widely appreciated by Adivasi folk over the years since the compilation makes processes understandable by shedding overly-complicated terminology. This year, the organisation highlighted an important distinction between forest resource rights and land rights as per the Forest rights Act.
To summarise, community forest resources, as per the Forest Rights Act, is a customary common forest land within the traditional boundaries or seasonal use of landscape which includes reserved forests, protected forests and similar traditional grazing land. Meanwhile, land rights include right of ownership, settlement, right to hold and live in the forest land either individually or as a group.
The distinction is crucial when dealing with legal cases against the forest department or other government officials, who take advantage of tribal folk’s inaccessibility to legal provisions and arbitrarily attempt to remove communities from ancestral land. Read more here.
Another reason why CJP Team develops these legal resources is to raise awareness about the covert ways in which stooges of vested interests amidst the administration try to take away the autonomy of forest land from Adivasis.
On June 22, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) invited consultancy organisations to comment on a draft amending the draconian Indian Forest Act 1927. The government did this despite earlier attempts in March 2019 to introduce an amendment that would override the FRA – a law enacted after a century and a half long battle of India’s indigenous people. For this reason, CJP prepared a community resource that tracks the recent history of environmental laws in India. The same may be read here.
Additionally, CJP highlighted a study on Jharkhand Adivasis, showcasing how the state’s tribals are penalised and framed as “Naxalites”. Titled ‘Impoverished Adivasis Hunted as Criminals,’ the study talks about how many Adivasis, Dalit and other backward castes have been trapped in several false cases when they attempted to exercise their constitutional and human rights. The paper also incorporated the role of caste in such cases.
Another community resource shared by CJP is the paper ‘India’s Indigenous People: A life of struggle’ by Faizi and Nair that looks into the issues faced by indigenous people, including surviving the devastating impact of climate change.
Attack on Khandwa Adivasis
On July 21, Madhya Pradesh’s Khandwa Adivasis suffered a brutal attack wherein mobs armed with JCBs and police personnel rampaged a small hamlet occupied by over 200 people. Residents were forcefully evicted during the monsoon season with their rations and property utterly destroyed. Read more here.
Working with the Jagruk Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS), CJP and AIUFWP organised a virtual press conference on July 26 to help residents voice their ire against this brutal abuse of their constitutional rights. Once again, women leaders shone through in voicing their anger and demanding that authorities respect the court order barring displacement and eviction of tribals while the country still reels from a health crisis. Read more about it here.
AIUFWP’s 2nd National Conference
After a year of diligent work in the field of forest work, AIUFWP and CJP took stock of the journey so far on December 1, 2021 during the AIUFWP’s Second National Conference in New Delhi.
Following two deadly waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, the AIUFWP discussed the state of livelihood of forest communities, landless farmers, tenant and migrant laborers, and fishermen folks during the three-day conference. Keynote speaker Setalvad showered praise upon the women leaders of the Union who worked at the forefront of this movement on-ground.
Assuring CJP’s continued support for the battle for jal, jangal, zameen, Setalvad highlighted AIUFWP’s earlier demand to hold a special Parliamentary session about FRA enactment and hindrances caused by forest department and police. This is similar to farmers’ demands for a special Parliamentary session since Adivasis too played a major role in farmers’ victory this year.
Over the past months, CJP worked with AIUFWP to help amplify the voices of grieving communities like the Khandwa tribals whose lives were upended without warning on July 21.
The two organisations’ intertwined histories are personified by the newly-elected AIUFWP President Sokalo Gond. The trailblazer along with fellow activist Nivada Rana had previously moved Supreme Court against its 2019 order calling for the ‘eviction’ of millions of Adivasis and forest-dwelling communities. Sokalo and Nivada opposed the court order for its abusive attitude towards Adivasi folk’s constitutional rights. Their plea was compiled and backed by CJP and AIUFWP.
It is noteworthy that CJP had helped with the release of Sokalo Gond in 2018 after she was arrested in a clandestine manner along with Kismatiya Gond and remained incommunicado for months as they were being held illegally under trumped up charges following an incident in Lilasi where authorities inflicted shocking violence against women of Lilasi village in May 2018. Sokalo and Kismatiya were illegally detained and kept behind bars for months until a sustained campaign by Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), including a habeas corpus petition before the Allahabasd High Court helped secure their release.
Recalling the same, Sokalo said, “The forest department officials used to beat us and try to gang up on us in the beginning. We had some hard times. These officials are still looting us and no one holds them accountable. However, we – especially women – will fight for our constitutional rights.”
Still the battle is far from over as 24 percent of India’s land remains with the forest department. During the national conference, it was highlighted how 7,000 villages are still not recognised as per their revenue to enjoy FRA benefits. Learn more about the national conference here, here and here.
Amplifying voices on-ground, passing the mic
Around September, CJP was proud to showcase the benefits of amplifying (rather than speaking for) the voices of grassroot-level rights activists. CJP Grassroots Fellow Mohammed Meer Hamza used the CJP platform to researched and wrote about the Van Gujjar community to which he belongs, reaping great rewards.
His report on the Uttarakhand Forest Department’s alleged attempts to plant non-native trees and its dubious impact on the ecology and dependent people garnered widespread attention. Later, he was invited to speak at two public programmes on forest conservation and the Van Gujjar community’s contribution in protecting and promoting forests. Hamza says that it may have been the first time that a Van Gujjar was invited to such an official function, that too as a speaker!
“The CJP fellowship has helped empower not just me as an activist, it has helped open up a window for my people, whose stories are now being shared widely,” he said.
In August he also spoke about how the fellowship gave him a leadership identity and powered his activism. The clout has also eased his talks with officials when formally inviting them to Van Gujjar programmes. CJP also helped with the smooth functioning of these events by arranging for mics and posters.
“The community also saw the impact of CJP’s initiatives when recently, it was the High Court that came to their rescue and provided relief to many migrant labourers who said they had been harassed by the divisional forest rights officers. As a CJP fellow, I met activist Arjun Kasana who then filed a public interest litigation with the Nainital High Court seeking that the community be helped,” said Hamza.
CJP is proud to work with such young trailblazers and boost their contributions in the forest rights assertion campaign. Read more about Hamza’s experience here.
We remain committed
On International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, CJP highlighted this issue in Setalvad’s video message wherein she talked about India’s forest-dwelling communities, Adivasis, indigenous tribes and the brutal abuse faced by them due to heavy displacement, developmental projects sanctioned by the governments and forest departments.
CJP will continue to stand alongside the community in their struggle to realise their rights and correct a historical injustice that has continued since colonial times.
History created as forest land claims are filed for 8 villages in Chitrakoot
Forest resource rights vs. Land rights under Forest Rights Act
AIUFWP: New leadership, same values
CJP impact: A fellowship, that encouraged communities to cross communication barriers
How the Adivasis are fighting against illegal eviction in Khandwa