Inside India’s forest lands a battle for land and resources: Adivasis & Forest dwellers A real life battle is on in those lands over which forest dwellers and Adivasis ought to have control but where state and corporate interests intrude

26, Jun 2023 | Roma

Is the history of all hitherto existing human society the history of class struggles? Marx made class struggle the central to social evolution. The issue of forest and land rights and access to natural resources in fact boil down to this, class struggles.

What Marx and Engels said in 1848 still holds very scientific and real relevance today, after nearly two centuries when we speak of rights of the people and classes dependent on natural resources.

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.

The most essential and basic of natural resources– the Forests and Land– are a major bone of contention between various class and caste groups in our society and the country.

Today right from Kashmir in the north to Kanyakumari in the south there is fierce battle going on for the control of these resources between the forest peoples and corporations backed by the state, crony capital and other powerful state & international agencies.

The struggle around forest resources is almost three centuries old here. Ever since British colonial power colonised India essentially to take control over our natural resources for the primitive accumulation of their capital. Today however, in 21st century India it is more acute than ever before.

The first battle of the fight for independence and sovereign rights over natural resources was waged by Indian Adivasis in the forest areas in the eighteenth century. Their battle still continues today even after our country attainted independence from British colonial power in 1947.

The natural forest were plundered for industrial expansion and monocultures was (were) encouraged and promoted in pristine natural forest(s) only to meet the need of growing industrial production. Communities living inside deep forests and depending on these resources were termed as ‘ enemy of the state’. These ‘enemies of the state’ who were the real custodian of the forest wealth were kept out of control of “eminent domain” by colonial power and their local allies in order to build a colonial Indian Nation State.

This contradiction still persists and this is what is termed the British Colonial legacy. This unfortunately continues even after India became independent in 1947.

Forest peoples belonging to the forest villages known as Tongia villages who planted million of hectares of forest especially timber to enable British economic growth were not even counted in the Census records of the citizens in independent India! They were invisible, no records about them existed in any statistical figures and not even in maps until now.

Similarly the nomadic tribes like Van Gujjars spread all over the sub Himalayan range were also missing in the Census of this country until the New Legislation on forest Resource recognised them, for the first time, as a category for forest dwellers.

“The Scheduled Tribe and Other Forest Dwellers Recognition of Rights Act of 2006” (Forest Rights Act, 2006) was passed by our august Parliament in December 2006. What a tragic fate of the forest people that this still needs to be made known to the rest of the world.

Likewise the millions of Adivasis, Dalits and other forest dwellers residing inside the forest were regarded as encroachers, insurgents, outsiders or Naxalites before, until the 1980’s. They always remained as ‘ Outsiders’ (outside the purview of the newly constructed Indian state) and therefore unwanted.

The transfer of power from British colonial regime to Indian leaders were full of such contradictions. Some of our greatest martyrs Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev ,Chanrashekhar Azad and Babasaheb Ambedkar cautioned Indians on this distinct and dangerous possibility much before India attained the independence.

They categorically said that this transfer of power from British will leave Dalits, Adivasis and Other (Economically Poor) Backward Peoples without any real independence. That was echoed after many years by a grass root leader Munnilal, a Dalit iconic leader of the All India union of Forest working people (AIUFWP) from Haripur Tongia of Haridwar district, Uttarakhand.

He has equated the enactment of the FRA 2006 as the moment of “real independence” for the forest villages in 2006. Until then they considered themselves still “Gulam” (slaves) within independent India. This is a common refrain from Adivasi people who often say, “sarkaar to hum ko chahti hi nahi hai” ( The government does not love us).

The continuous plundering of the forest after independence that continued in the name of “national development” has reached an impasse. Today, with climate change looming large over the earth and India, it is no longer feasible to continue the destruction of forest resources with the serious detrimental impact –that this model of ‘development’—has had, both on the environment and ecological balance.

The people residing in the forest area are considered as “most poor” according to Earth summit that took place in Rio de Jineiro in 1992. The people living inside the forest area being turned into displaced refugees and without safe employment in cities they are the poor, hungry and most vulnerable groups across our country .

However as a national trade union of the forest working people it has been our experience that the age-old battle on control over the forest resources is still being waged strongly under the leadership of the forest peoples across the country.

It is the women from these communities who are also leading the battle of safe guarding their resources from corporate loot. We have found that wherever such battles are being waged and where women are at the forefront, the assaulting state agencies are on the back foot.

We are at a critical stage.

Almost all the forest area in our country — that is a landmass of almost 24% of the total –is endangered, and it is in these areas that these battle is bin waged, whether small or big. And, significantly, these are all democratic struggles which often are dubbed as “anti-state and terrorist acts.”

The government continues unchecked on its path of taking over of natural resources by surpassing all the laws, even our Constitution to ensure narrow gains for crony capitalist forces and big industries, of these major ones today are Adani and Ambani.

In this context the enactment of the FRA in 2006 needs to be viewed critically. The outgoing NDA government (2004) under the leadership of Atal Bihari Bajpai in 2003 strongly advocated the enacting a legislation on forest rights and made such a promise to the Adivasi and the forest people. This realisation, suddenly from a deep slumber, was due, in large part, to the rising of Maoist activities in the forests of Andhra Pradesh and some other regions.

To win the vote bank of Adivasis, the outgoing government made these promises: that that if they come to power again, they would enact such a central legislation that ensures the rights of Adivasis over the forest resources and forest land.

However the NDA suffered a humiliating defeat and the United Progressive alliance (UPA-I) was elected with a majority with the very active support of the left parties. This combination was fairly progressive for a time and various people oriented legislation were enacted in Parliament between 2004-2014, of which FRA 2006 was one.

The coming of the Act was a blessing in disguise for the forest peoples. In 2002 there had been a massive and brutal eviction drive in the forest area where elephants were used to crush the villages in places like Assam and demolitions of homes and dwellings took place in various other areas as well. These incidents also mobilised the forest people against the anti-people NDA government which then compelled the government to backtrack and propose a progressive programme for Adivasis.

The enactment of FRA is in itself a great historical achievement in the history of the forest area as well in history of India after Independence as there was, until then, not a single special Act that recognised the rights of the people over these vast resources.

All previously existing laws such as Indian Forest Act 1927 (IFA), The Wildlife Protection Act 1972, The Forest Conservation Act 1980 were too general, not positioning or addressing the traditional rights of the forest people. In fact the legacy of terming the forest people as “encroachers” that was started by the British and legally sanctified through enactment of the IFA continued to be the instrument used by Indian State to evict and displace millions of forest people from the forest.

Historically, evictions actually started much before the Act of 1927 was enacted. The foundation of modern development was thus on the graveyards of the millions of our Indigenous peoples who sacrificed their everything in the name of ‘national development’ within which they were not given or did not have any dignified place.

Ironically, this space is still not there, rather the state still sees them as a threat to their capitalist interests.

Adivasis and Forest Dwellers saw a ray of light in 1988 when the guidelines for a new forest policy was pronounced. Some glimmer of hope, their rights figured. Again, this came about in response to the unrest that surfaced in many forest area. The government of India was compelled to respond.

The New Forest policy was based on six crucial circulars brought out in favour of protecting the forest and the forest people by the then Rural Development Commissioner, S.R Sankaran.

This major development laid the foundation for coming of a Special Act on Forest Rights that was finally adopted by new government (UPA-I) in their Common Minimum Programme (CMP) 2004. The law was passed by the Lok Sabha in December 15, 2006 and thereafter in the Rajya Sabha.

The Act is clear and unequivocal. Section 13 states that FRA 2006 will supersede all the general Acts applied in the forest areas. Besides, the provisions of the “Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, will be legally and administratively viewed “in addition to and not in derogation of the provisions of any other law for the time being in force save as otherwise provided in this Act and the provisions of the of any other law for the time being in force.”

The preamble of Act of 2006 says that the Objective is to –

  • To undo the historical injustice occurred to the forest dwelling communities
  • To ensure land tenure, livelihood and food security of the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers
  • To strengthen the conservation regime of the forests by including the responsibilities and authority on Forest Rights holders for sustainable use, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance.

Where are we now?

Even though we have for after, 59 years after Independence and 56 years after India gave itself the Constitution with Schedules V and VI guaranteeing self- rule for the Scheduled Trines (STs), a Special Act for the Forest areas and Forest peoples, the forest bureaucracy and the state agencies that have appropriated massive land and forest areas are not ready to give up their control.

The implementation of FRA 2006 has been dogged by a lack of political will. Even after 17 long years of the enactment of the law, forest peoples have not got their control over forest resources. The colonial Forest department along with the state as a whole are hand in glove with each other to weaken the spirit of the Act. The aim is to refuse to relinquish control that, which in turn, means that the Act looses its strength.

To render the FRA more ineffective these agencies are trying to strengthen previous laws like the Forest Conservation Act 1980, talking about bringing amendments so as to dilute and divert the issue from provisions of the FRA 2006 altogether. Governments and other vested interests are quite aware that it is not possible to dilute the FRA completely as it is an Act of Parliament. If the Forest Rights Act, 2006 were to be implemented in its true spirit, the Forest Department may be rendered useless, less than a decorative piece.

A ready implementation of the law will bring with it some drastic and fundamental changes in overall character of bureaucratic functioning and handling of other resources, such as land and allied natural resources.

Recently the Ministry of Environment (MoEF) has moved some amendments in the FCA 1980 to divert the discussion away from implementation of FRA 2006. Hence the intense debate around this law but little around the crucial FRA 2006. The more dogged and focused the struggle of Adivasis and Forest Dwellers to get FRA 2006 implemented, there will be a push back and these moves by both governments  and the forest bureaucracy will be diluted. That has been the studied experience of the AIUFWP.

Once the Gram Sabha (village councils) are empowered under FRA 2006, it is they, at the ground level who will deal with all such laws that have been brought in basically to permit the erosion of resources and have nothing really to do with forest conservation.

Similarly the Environment Policy of 2020 is also an eye wash. This policy has not been brought in consultation with people. From the point of view of Adivasis and Forest Dwellers , the 2020 Environment Policy has just been brought in to take control over the resources and keep people away. Today when there is much awareness among people why is the critical debate on such policies not taking place in consultation with people? The corporate agenda of the government needs to be exposed and be challenged.

Bhumi Adhikar Andolan a national level front on the rights to land and forests has strongly criticised the government regarding these policies, holding protests and issuing heir statements.

Of late, it is clear that the present NDA-II government appears to be specifically targeting all hill States be it North East or Kashmir, first through the abrogation of Articles 370, 371, 372 and 374. Serious signs of unrest in the form of ethnic clashes are witnessed in Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura. No political solution is even being attempted. The AIUWFP believes that such unrest is politically motivated and being created to hand over these huge resources to the companies.

There is an urgent need to build a wider people’s movement against this corporate loot to safeguard our resources and also our forest people. The unity of the poor and the local communities who are entirely dependent on these resources is the only solution. But this will not happen automatically, the initiative should be taken by the social movements to stop this corporate loot and work towards the unity of the Indigenous people to protect and safeguard rights and resources.

Towards this, we, that is the AIUFWP and its allies have also initiated a national level process of bringing all natural resources based groups such as forest, fisheries, land, agriculture and other working people in this initiative to launch a nation-wide struggle to save our resources, save the planet Earth and remove poverty and establish social justice.

 (Roma is the general secretary of the AIUFWP)


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