23, Mar 2021 | CJP Team
Rights of Adivasis and forest-dwelling communities have always been a key focus area for both, Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) and our partner organisation All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP). We have been supporting these communities, especially their women grassroots leaders, navigate the complex labyrinth of bureaucracy and stake legal claim to forest land, in accordance with the Forest Rights Act, 2006. We have recently achieved a major milestone in our journey for justice.
Our teams have been toiling relentlessly in Chitrakoot, a forested region of Uttar Pradesh, even amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, putting together all documentation necessary to file community claims to forest land. To take stock of progress made, we convened an online meeting with the AIUFWP team as well as various community leaders and grassroots workers. The meeting was moderated by CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad and AIUFWP deputy general secretary Roma Malik. Veteran human rights defender Mata Dayal ji also joined the conversation as did activist Aamir Khan Sherwani.
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.
Claims filed by women
At present we are pursuing as many as 20 community forest rights claims filed by women in Chitrakoot. This is significant as women have seldom been accorded the same respect as men in agriculture, not only by society, but also by law. Their status as farmers is questioned, despite women bearing an equal, and often a larger burden of the work done in agriculture.
“From protecting the land and crop, to fetching water and wood, all this work is done by women,” says Roma shedding light on the contribution of women, who are unfortunately still seen only in the role of farmer’s wives and not farmers themselves… their existance reduced to being the property of their menfolk by a deeply entrenched patriarchal system prevalent in the local culture.
A common refrain among the women in this region is, “Jungle bhi mai, main bhi mai. Toh yeh pitrasatta, kahan se aai?” (Meaning: The forest is a mother, so am I. So where did this patriarchy come from?) The battle for equality in forest rights is therefore one of the most significant feminist endeavours of our times.
“Women have given strength to the organisation, therefore all claimants are women,” said Roma. “We are making history” she said, adding, “The work donetoday will have an impact for hundreds of years to come.”
Overcoming bureaucratic hurdles
“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,” said 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.
“It was difficult to get the necessary document, often simple things like getting photocopies would prove to be stumbling block as these are rural areas,” explained Amir Khan Sherwani. “W ehave 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 explained.
“They are working to finish the files that are pending. They have to attach maps, a list of herbs (jadi-booti) in the region, and a list of names of all claimants,” Roma explained further adding, “They will require signatures of the DM and the DFO.”
Sherwani explained, “We have also submitted the testimonies of three village elders from each village as proof. We submitted this with their signaures, copy of Aadhaar Card as well as signature of the president of the Village Forest Rights Committee, as this committee is accorded the highest respect in law. Their signature thus cuts away the bureaucratic flab, a rut that most land related procedures fall into.”
Sherwani then proceeded to read on such testimony from a village elder in Chitrakoot. It gives the name and age of the village elder apart from names of the village, the panchayat, the tehsil, the district and the state. It reads, “I (name), aged (age), hereby solemnly swear that I am an original inhabitant (mool-nivasi) of this village. The property (property number) has been in our possession and has been cultivated by us since the time of our ancestors. I know all the claimants well. They have been living here having built their homes, gardens, fields, wells etc. for generations. This land is our primary source of livelihood. I am making this statement with a sound mind.” The document is then dated and signed. A copy of the village elder’s Aadhaar Card is also attached. The village Forest Rights Committee seal is also put upon it.
But the process is tedious to say the least, with many a bureaucratic hoop to jump through, in order for these forest dwelling communities to get what is right fully theirs. To under stand just how long and complicated the procedure is, take a look at this presentation that explains the process.
“We are putting together details of the traditional occupation of people in forest areas from different states. We have already started putting together working plans in Dehradun. We are replicating the same process in Bihar (Kaimur) and Odisha as well,” informed Roma.
The working plan, which is prepared by the Forest Department, includes all rights of people as per law. In fact, the Forest Department has itself admitted that Adivasi communities have been living in the forests mentioned in the plan.
Having all these details helps the AIUFWP as well as CJP, especially when it comes to assisting claimants when they end up facing false cases or malicious prosecution. Many times, the first direct consequence of filing community claims is action by law enforcement authorities. We have brought to you many such instances where forest officials have falsely accused forest workers of deforestation and then used that as an excuse to persecute them, often using brute force.
“We are asking all forest dwellers, whoever wants a working plan, tell us. We will help you,” said Roma.
Conflict over resources, oppression of Adivasis and Forest Workers
“Ideally the village Forest Rights Committee should make working plans,” says Sherwani given how the forest workers are often at odds with the Forest Department. We have seen many such examples in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar and many other states.
CJP and AIUFWP have moved various rights bodies including the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), National Commission for Women (NCW) and National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) demanding justice for these communities that face systematic repression at the hands of the local administration that is often allegedly in cahoots with powerful corporates who want to usurp the land and its mineral wealth and exploit it for their private gain. Read all about it here, here and here.
Setalvad weighed in saying, “We must have a schedule for collecting all available working plans in the regions where we are assisting people file community forest rights claims. Additionally, I think we should go the high courts in various states with these documents to strengthen our case for forest rights for the communities that have traditionally lived there.” She added, “At present the judiciary needs to be urgently made aware of these laws as it rarely comes up. Even some of the best lawyers are woefully under-informed and aware about forest rights. Thus, we should educate our courts about this law.”
“We also need to highlight that there is a conflict over resources between the local administration and forest dwellers, in these regions that leads to oppression of forest dwelling communities. So, when we raise the subject of claims, we must talk about these atrocities as well. For example, in the case of Kaimur, we have highlighted our own fact-finding report,” said Sherwani referring to the incident of police firing on unarmed Adivasis who were protesting peacefully in Kaimur on September 10 and 11, 2020. CJP and AIUFWP had moved the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in the case. Read more here. The fact-finding report may be read here.
Observations by Mata Dayal ji
Mata Dayal ji is a veteran forest rights activist from Chitrakoot where he has been working to uphold and defend rights of oppressed and persecuted forest dwelling communities for several decades. His initial work with the Uttar Pradesh, Bhoomi Sangharsh Sudhar Adhikar Abhiyaan Samiti was for ‘shram’ and ‘zameen’ i.e workers and land.
“Until people don’t get rights to their land, they will not be able to have a meaningful source of livelihood,” he said explaining how he came to work in forest rights after recognizing they are an integral part of land rights. “We have worked to claim right to over 15,000 bhigas of land across 20 villages in Chitrakoot,” he said explaining how the Adivasis started cultivating land in the region and grew their own crops that provided healthy sustenance for the community and helped alleviate malnutrition among children and pregnant women in the region. “Earlier we were dependent on the Anganwadis, not anymore,” he said with a twinkle of joy!
Thus, forest and land rights are directly linked to improvement in the lives and health of local communities. He gave another example of cultivation and sale of the ‘Tendu’ leaf. “Back in the day, when things weren’t as expensive, the Tendu trade was worth 4-5 lakhs in the region. Now it is worth crores. Thus, when Adivasis and forest dwellers can cultivate and sell Tendu leaves, they end up strengthening their economic condition as well,” he explained. But this lucrative trade has also put these communities in the crosshairs of the forest department and local administration. “When we get community claims to these lands, we can put all these false cases behind us. We can use just Tendu leaves to alleviate poverty,” he said.
“There are also many other lucrative forest products like honey, gum, and various herbs that can help Adivasis improve their own economic condition. It is therefore our endeavour to claim our lawful rights to the forest land,” he asserted. “If they can use illegal means to pressure us, we too can build pressure using perfectly legal means, because the law is on our side,” said the veteran leader.
Voices from the ground
Rani, an activist working in the field of forest rights as well as women’s rights in Chitrakoot said, “When officials come to dig trenches on the land, people from neighbouring villages gather in solidarity.” Shedding light on the lives that the campaign aims to change she informed, “At present 248 families in 8 villages stand to benefit, work in many other villages is still on.
Veteran activist Ashok Chowdhary emphasised the need to regain the campaign’s strength. “There were political hinderances and matter were made worse due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But now we need to work on rebuilding our strength,” he said adding, “We need to create an environment that encourages people to file claims, so that more and more people assert their rights.”
CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad hit the nail on the head when she said, “It is the government’s work which the organisation has done.” After all, according a life of dignity to all citizens irrespective of gender or any other privilege is the Constitutional obligation of those in power, an obligation that has been hitherto ignored by successive administrations.