09, Jul 2019 | CJP Team
A national consultation on forest and land rights has declared protest actions across India on July 22, tentatively the date for hearing in the case of the recent Supreme Court order on eviction of forest dwelling communities.
Bhumi Adhikar Andolan, a platform working for the land rights of communities called for a two day National Consultation on “Land and Forest Rights Movements and the Way Forward” on Monday. Various organisations like Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch (AARM), Bhumi Adhikar Andolan (BAA), All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), Delhi Solidarity Group (DSG), Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) among many others participated in the consultation.
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
It witnessed the participation of more than 200 representatives of the community organisations from 12 states of the country. Forest movement leaders from the far flung corners of the country travelled all the way to Delhi to voice their opinions and present their point of view.
SC order and threat of eviction of forest dwelling communities
The movements present in the consultation deliberated on the imminent danger of eviction of millions of forest dwelling people and communities, posed by the recent Supreme Court judgement.
The Supreme Court of India, hearing a petition filed by wildlife conservationists and former forest department officials, directed state governments to evict “encroachers” or the “illegal forest dwellers”. The court room seemed conspicuous by the absence of the defenders, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), in the case.
The order had sent shockwaves across the country’s forests, home to eight percent of the population. It met with stiff resistance. It was called “unconstitutional” by several quarters, especially those which had been struggling for forest rights for decades. The order was criticised for “violating” schedules V, VI and IX of the Constitution and also for turning established jurisprudence on its head.
A week later, the order was temporarily stayed after the Central government was compelled to move the same bench for review due to pressure created by several quarters and rights groups. Significantly, the case was heard for several years on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by wildlife conservancy groups which emanated from a case on the validity of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA, 2006). The FRA, 13 years ago, for the first time, recognised the individual and community rights of the forest dwellers over the forest land. It recognised the “historical injustice” done to these communities and helped remove the stigma of “encroachers”, a term pregnant with colonial prejudice and popularised in the last few centuries by the English mainstream media favouring elite notions of conservation.
Most of the people classified as Forest-dwellers in India belong to the Schedules Tribes (ST), non-notified Adivasis, Dalits and vulnerable poor communities who are occupationally dependent on sustainable agriculture, cattle rearing, fisheries and collection of other forest-produce and therefore, rely on land and forest for their livelihood. Women have been ensured equal rights in the FRA. Along with this reality, many forest-dwelling communities in India believe that those forests are better preserved where the communities are closely connected to the forests by means of their traditional custom. The states however continue to displace people which affects the biodiversity and has taken away their livelihoods.
Preliminary meeting of Forest Rights groups
An initial meeting of movements held on December 11, 2018 in Delhi had resolved the following
1. Forest Right Act, 2006 must be implemented effectively and unconditionally in all forest regions including Critical Forest Area;
2. A united struggle will be launched with collective initiative of diverse forest rights organisations / groups and supporters in different walks of life including journalists, lawyers, researchers, social action groups and others;
3. A dialogue will be initiated with political parties to bring Forest Right Act in the mainstream political discourse so that this historic act can become an important political issue during and after the electoral process.
4. An All India level alliance be formed with organisations / groups, actively engaged in forestrights movement to represent the collective voice and to take forward the task ahead. FORESTS RIGHTS ALLIANCE was the proposed name.
Lack of political will in implementing pro-people FRA
The consultation observed that the amendments proposed to the Forest Act, 1927, strengthened the efforts to weaken the FRA, 2006 and strengthened the attempts to capture the forests lands that rightfully belong to the forest dwelling communities. In fact, that there has been a lack of political will when it comes to implementing the provisions of the Act.
The consultation expressed concern that in the coming days, the corporate attacks on water, forests and land are going to become even more frequent. It noted, “The slogan of ‘Land to the tillers’ has now changed to ‘Land to the corporations’. The whole focus of the government is on robbing off the wealth from the hands of the capitalists and transferring it to the capitalists. The industrial corridors, Sagarmala, Bharatmala, Bullet Train, Smart Cities, large ports, expressways, and highways are some examples where all the measures have been adopted to transfer their whole profit to the capitalist class.”
Forest rights organisations fight back
The organisations present in the national consultation collectively “rejected the proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927” and demanded that the Forest Rights Act be enforced effectively. It observed that the Gram Sabha, being the strongest “weapon” in the hands of the community, there’s an attempt to “take its powers away in a strategic manner”.
As per the FRA, 2006, the Gram Sabha has been assigned substantial role for implementation of the Act. Not only is the Gram Sabha entrusted with initiating the process of identifying the nature of individual and community rights of the forest dwelling communities especially Adivasis, Dalits and other forest dwellers, but also to approve or reject government projects. More responsibilities of the Gram Sabha include resettlement or alternative packages prepared by State Governments for providing a secure livelihood to the communities. It has also been entrusted with protecting the wild life, forests, biodiversity, adjoining catchment areas, water sources and more.
The consultation noted that there was a need to strengthen the Gram Sabhas, as also observed in the recent struggle against Adani group in Bastar, in which as many as 10,000 Adivasis protested the allotment of iron ore mines in Bailadilla hills of Chhattisgarh.
CJP Secretary Teesta Setalvad tweeted live from the consultation:
Repression on Forest dwelling communities and advocates of forest rights
Highlighting the unprecedented attack on Adivasis and forest dwelling communities, the consultation observed that, “Today, the largest threat to the Adivasis dwelling in the forests of the country is from the state violence because the people fighting for their rights under FRA from Kerala to Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand and many other states are being arrested in the name of being Maoists and are being tortured. The House saluted the struggle of the comrades locked in jails and condemned the government oppressions.”
Issue of rejected claims
It also brought to the forefront, the issue of rejected claims and said that this was done in various ways “in a planned manner”.
Despite the enactment of the FRA in 2006, most states have failed to implement it in its true spirit. Since the enactment, 4.22 million claims have been filed. While the total forest land under occupation prior to 2005 was 112,000 sq km., only 54,591.07 sq. km. has been recognised. The petitioners targeted the population whose claims have been rejected. States like Maharashtra which have stood out in terms of recognizing Community Forest Rights (CFRs), have also, only achieved about 15 percent of their full potential in terms of implementation of FRA.
Despite the enactment of FRA in 2006, the government and various state authorities along with forest bureaucracy have made use of the provisions of the colonial Indian Forest Act, 1927 and Wildlife Protection Act, and other Acts and provisions in order to deny the communities their rights and harass them. To this extent, the consultation observed that this has created a “situation of confusion” due to “separate parallel processes of land and forests rights settlements by the government since 1996.” It demanded more clarity from the government and courts on this aspect.
Protest actions on July 22
The consultation decided that several organisations across the country, working on rights of forest dwellers and land rights will hold programmes and protest actions condemning the government actions, forest act amendments on July 22 at the village, block, district and state level.
It made a proposition that the groups will appeal in person or by letter to present the case in favour of the FRA, 2006 and the concerns of forest dwelling communities, in court. Moreover, the groups will intervene collectively in the ongoing case related to the eviction of communities, in the Supreme Court.
The consultation said that there was a need to “intensify solidarity to ongoing struggles on the ground and facilitate exchange and learning from each others’ struggle.” It decided to reach out to those progressive MPs from the ruling party and the opposition, who come from oppressed backgrounds so that they could be informed about the FRA and other laws and the approach of the group to the issue.
Forest movement leader from Sonbhadra Uttar Pradesh, Sokalo Gond said that the forest dwelling communities will resist these attempts to evict communities tooth and nail.
A committee was formed to monitor the new measures, tactics employed, changes in the laws and other issues regarding the loot of the resources and then disseminate this information to the grassroots movements in simple language.
A large scale demonstration jointly organised by land and forest rights movement in Delhi was decided to be organised on Sansad Marg on November 28.