04, Sep 2019 | Teesta Setalvad
In the second part of an exclusive conversation with CJP Secretary Teesta Setalvad, the deputy general secretary of All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) Roma Malik highlights the complex and tedious process of filing claims under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. Under the Act, communities can claim Community Forest Rights and Individual Forest Rights.
In the first part of the conversation, Roma spoke about the illegality of the Supreme Court order of February that had initially ordered the eviction of over a million forest dwellers. The order was stayed later and states were asked to submit documents around the process that was followed to reject the claims of the communities. The first part of the detailed conversation can be read/ watched here.
In the beginning of August, the SC directed states that did not file compliance affidavits on the matter of implementation of the FRA, 2006, to do so within a fortnight. Wildlife First v/s Union of India- a batch of petitions filed in 2008 challenging the constitutional validity of the FRA came up for hearing on August 6. The next hearing has been scheduled for September 12, 2019.
CJP stands with the millions of Adivasis whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by this draconian move by the Supreme Court. We are working to ensure the forest rights of Adivasis in Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh, and to deepen our understanding of the Forest Rights Act and support Adivasis’ struggles across the country. Please support our efforts by donating here
As many as 15 different petitions were filed by various sections of intellectuals, academics, activists, forest dwellers and Adivasi organisations challenging the Wildlife First petition which is not only anti forest dwellers but also a threat to the sustenance of forests. Interveners were also permitted to address the court and file written arguments on crucial issues that require deliberation. Detailed arguments are likely to resume in the month of September. Adivasi women leaders, Sokalo Gond and Nivada Rana backed by the All India Union of Forest Working Peoples (AIUFWP) and Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) have also intervened.
Earlier, in February 2019, a Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra ordered the eviction of Adivasis and other forest dwelling communities from forest regions, whose claims for entitlement were rejected by the Forest Department. This put millions of Adivasis’ homes and livelihoods under threat. The judgement of the Supreme Court was criticised not only for being unconstitutional in that it violates schedules V, VI and IX of the Constitution, but also because it turns established jurisprudence on its head. After protests and stiff resistance from various quarters, the order was stayed on February 28, 2019.
Worse still, the ongoing sinister plans of the incumbent and outgoing Modi government in attempting to bring in an all-encompassing Forest law that snatches away the “recognition of rights” Forest Rights Act, 2006, has complicated matters further. News reports of this plan surfaced while electioneering was on and has not received the attention that it deserves.
The General Secretary of the All India Union for Forest Working People (AIUFWP) Roma spoke with CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad on some of these pressing issues.
Roma Malik is known for working closely with the forest dwelling communities in Uttar Pradesh (UP). She is also known for liaising with local authorities and the judicial system to bring to force, a just framework for the enforcement and implementation of forest rights of the indigenous people of India. She is the leading figure of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) and its general secretary. The AIUFWP boasts of a robust woman leadership from village and gram panchayat upwards.
The first part of the detailed conversation can be read/ watched here. Part two of this conversation may be viewed here:
Teesta S: What you are saying is very interesting, that on one hand there is the Constitution, that is, there are the Vth and VIth Schedules of the Constitution. Except for the North-East the Vth schedule is applicable to all the scheduled tribe areas and gives them a special status; and, on the other hand there is the 1927 [Forest Act], which is anti-constitutional; the forest department was given this authority (over landed) that was bestowed upon them by the colonial powers. And then there is the police and bureaucracy which are committing atrocities on the people.
So, we will talk about Lilasi, which is a good example of how this law has not been enforced.
Roma: Why is the law not implemented? We have to go into the background of this huge resource which recognises the rights of the people. They are eyeing [the land] like hawks, because [this area, Sonbhadra] has minerals, gas, forests, wood, coal, mining, all sorts of things that they want to loot, and they are building their capital on this.
So, on the one side, there was struggle to implement the law, the consequence of which (the struggle) has been that we have had to go to jail twice. We brought out handbills, pamphlets to implement the forest rights act in 2007. And one month later, we were put inside jails saying, “You are Naxalites and that’s why you are distributing this parcha.(pamphlet)”
The government, which passed this law, the officials from Sonbhadra–an area rich in minerals, with a very big corporate presence, and big mines, that is how Sonbhadra looks. (Despite this wealth on the one hand), the Adivasis are the poorest there and it has one of the most bitter land disputes—and there the officials that have propagated this myths that protests and land disputes are “by Maoists”.
Thankfully that time the Mayawati government was in power. A slogan, “Jo zameen sarkari hai, who zameen hamari hai” (the land that is with the government that land belongs to us) was mentioned us in the parcha (pamphlet) [that we distributed]. The slogan translated into: [the government land is our land]. They made the FIR on the basis of this slogan and the judge asked us, “Why are you raising these slogans?”
I told the judge, this is not my slogan, Judge Saheb. This slogan has been given by the state’s Chief Minister [Ms. Mayawati] and her guru, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, why don’t you bring them to court? Do you have the courage to bring them to court? On this, the judge immediately said, “Bail denied”.
So this kind of system exists in the forests. And the question is that these FIRs that are lodged are lodged in a very weird manner.
Teesta S: We have seen that as many as 50-60 FIRs are lodged, even today the 1927 law [Indian Forest Act, 1927] is being used [to implicate people] [despite the fact that the 2006 Forest Rights Law was enacted to remedy the situation created by the 1927 Act].
Roma: Yes, and in one FIR, as many as 200-500 people are named [as accused]. A criminal record is being created against the entire community. And all of them are under-trials. If they are saying that my name is there in 50 FIRs, the names have been placed in such a way that in some FIRs my name comes before some others, and in some, later.
Sometimes, with my name there is Lalti’s [forest rights activist] name which will be mentioned, at others, Shobha’s [forest rights activist] or sometimes Shyamlal’s; these are all one-sided FIRs. And they say that so many trees were cut, but they implicate us in sections from the IPC [Indian Penal Code] and Forest Act. How can you use two different laws for one case? That too use sections of the law that violate the Schedules of the constitution? And you [the government] are doing this after the Forest Rights Act [FRA] is already in force; a law that states that you can show evidence of your possession and presence here while claiming land.
So by accusing as many as 500-600 people of being criminals, you are perpetuating the historical injustice. So who is supposed to look into this? And by creating more pressure here, who are you strengthening?
On the one hand, though they [Adivasis] are being accused of being Naxalites, they have chosen the democratic path, nobody likes to pick up weapons, but what are your efforts to bring people [to this path], you are, once again perpetrating atrocities on the people. Just like the British. Even the British didn’t commit so many atrocities, of the kind that are being perpetuated today. So that’s the debate. The conflict with the Indian state has not been resolved yet.
To resolve it, till the time the struggle does not expand from below [such a resolution will not happen]. So the claims that we have filed… see, filling a form is very easy, you go to a bank, the official will ask you to sign at designated places and will ask people to go back to their homes saying that the passbook will reach their homes. But this form [to submit claims] is not like this. Here you have to submit records, historical records. That this is my claim, this land belongs to my ancestors, the documents that have to be submitted, there is no support from the government or officials.
So, since the matter in question is claims over land that is why this law is not being implemented. When it’s the question of money, the government gets good publicity by handling [or giving away] money, in which the contractors benefit. But this is the matter of handing over the land and as per community rights, you have to give the management of land that belongs to the Gram Sabhas to that Gram Sabha itself. And that is why it’s such a big problem.
One day before the Supreme Court order, they sent an amendment to the Forest Conservation act, which laid down –in contravention of the law passed by parliament –that for approvals to any projects, they don’t need the approval of the Gram Sabhas. So you are reversing this, the very basis of the FRA 2006.
What happened in Niyamgiri, in POSCO? You have reversed this and given the order and denying their rights that is why it was important for us that those people who are struggling, should form aSangathan [organisation]. Here in the Adivasi regions, there are restrictions on even forming organisations.
[We thought] that it was very important that claims should be filed in a proper manner.
Teesta S: And there was no support from the government in filing these?
Roma: No, there is no support from the government. It’s left on the people that they should file the claims. And that they should know [the process, on how to file these claims]. That, they should know the process, their history. They need records. And to collect it [these records] properly they need support. For instance, the forest departments own working plans, management plans from the colonial times, which have documented, the kinds of herbs, flora, fauna, and the rights of people. What were the rights of people? What were the rights of animals, rights of people on farms and agricultural lands etc. at the time?
That time, the British had cadastral maps. It’s important to attach these documents. Then comes the gazetteer, so the law has a provision where you have to give documents for three generations. In Gram Sabhas, the population is mixed, at many places Adivasis are listed as STs [Scheduled Tribes] and at some places they aren’t. So then they are counted as OTFDs [Other Forest Dwellers]. There is another kind of misconception that has been spread about this. That one needs documents dating back to 75 years even though it’s not been mentioned in the Act. In fact the number 75 itself isn’t mentioned. It talks about three generations and three generations could even be counted as 25-30 years. So some claims have been rejected on the basis of the [supposed] 75 years. That’s why it’s important to attach the gazetteer. That’s why we have collected the gazetteer and attached it.
Teesta S: And what does the gazetteer say?
Roma: Not only three generations, it can give us a background of as long back as ten generations. Because it has the record of an area, whether those be the Gonds, or Baigas, or Chamars, Dalits, Bhuiyans; whoever has stayed there. It [the gazetteer] may not have individual names, but it has the records of the tribes and castes that have been staying over the land since generations. It goes as far back as Akbar’s period of rule. We collected those, for all our collective claims, and then we prepared maps, before we submitted our claims.
For example, if our Gram Sabha has a jungle of 700 hectares area, then we have to indicate it in the form of maps. People have made those maps on their own by demarcating the areas such as the places where they go to fetch water, the cattle grazing fields, the areas where they go to collect wood, where the border [of one village] will meet with the border of other villages.
They have made lists of herbs and forest produce; counted trees. So [we] attached a copy of the working plan, and one copy was attached by Gram Sabha. Then the photos of claimants were attached to all of this.
Teesta S: Meaning, it was done so systematically?
Roma: Yes and the resolution of the Gram Sabha was also provided: Tola wise, forest rights committee was formed. And all the documents were sent till the Sub Divisional Level. We were preparing files, one after the other, as it takes time. For example, to collect the gazetteer we need to go to Delhi, Shastri Bhavan. Then we need to go to Dehradun and Nainital to get the working plan. For that too, we don’t have any support. People collected their money to gather all these documents.
In Uttar Pradesh, there was an IAS officer, Amir Hasan who wrote a book on forest administration (Tribal Administration in India, 1988), in which he wrote about how the forest departments looted the lands of Gram Sabhas; this entire history is documented there. The book mentions the complete background of Adivasis and the manner in which they were denied their legitimate ST status. We attached those parts [of this book as reference] as well. And all the false cases that have been filed against the villagers, or the cases that the villagers filed, or the orders that they received; we attached everything [in the claims as evidence].
These 16 Gram Sabhas, [people from all of these prepared such documentation] and we were preparing [to file for claims] on March 23, 2018 in Chandauli, Mirzapur, Chitrakoot (Uttar Pradesh) and Bihar. So when the people from 16 districts went to file claims on March 23, 2018 in Sonbhadra, it was like a festival and at least 4000-5000 people went together for this.
This was seen and responded to, in a very offensive manner. And they [the authorities] started a build-up to stop it. They started with targeting Lilasi village. Portions of lands of Lilasi village belonged to the forefathers of the Adivasis, and they even used to cultivate the land till eight to ten years back. They were displaced from their land by the forest department and the same land was allotted to the feudal sections there, on which they constructed their homes. The Adivasis were opposing this. They simply filed claims [for this land].
[To counter these legitimate claims], [they—the authorities– framed] the women and they were [falsely] shown to be cutting trees with Hasiya in their hands and wearing badges of the [AIUFWP] union around their necks. While taking their pictures [the photographer] told them that they will get work as per NREGA. This photo was made to go viral and women were portrayed as cutting forests. And then the FIRs were lodged on them.
Teesta S: Yes, we were together that time and were calling up people.
Roma: Yes and because of this, they had to release people [who were detained]. They were frustrated with that. And, the SHO along with others went inside the village on May 27, 2018 and started beating up people, at Sukhdev’s place, at others’ places. The villagers defended themselves.
As a response to this, they were implicated in false cases and Section 307 was applied on them, and even us. So in this manner, the process to recognise the community rights of the people was stopped. The District Magistrate, when a committee went for a visit, said that this is an attempt to capture the land and supported the people who had, in fact, attacked the villagers.
So I think they had inkling about what was going on in the Supreme Court and that’s why they wanted that the entire process of claiming lands as per the FRA should come to a halt. And that people should be terrorised. Today also, the villagers are told not to go to certain places or protest.