23, Jul 2019 | Sushmita
In her 40s now, and a mother of four children, forest movement leader Nivada Rana not only sustained near fatal attacks, but has resolved to carry forward the struggle with more resolve.
When they accuse us of destroying wildlife, I am very clear; I tell them that they are spreading falsehoods. I tell them, “You are the one burning forests and killing wild animals. We are the ones who take care of animals. We live in the corners of jungles. If we were stealing wood from the jungles you would have seen our houses gleaming with wood. But we know who is really stealing wood. We see wood being transferred to Nepal border. We are the ones who preserve the forests.”
These are the words of Nivada Rana, Vice-President, Tharu Adivasi Mahila Majdur Kisan Manch and National Executive member of “Akhil Bharatiya Van-Jan Shramjeevi Union.” (AIUFWP). She is a woman Adivasi human rights defender and co-petitioner in the Supreme Court of India to defend the constitutionality of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
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Nivada Rana is a courageous forest rights leader who lives in Suda village located in Dudhwa National Park on the India-Nepal border. It falls in the Tehsil Palia Kalan in the district Lakhimpur Kheri of Uttar Pradesh. Nivada belongs to the Tharu tribe.
Forest villages comprising of Adivasis were settled by the British to maintain forests. In 1903, under an agreement between the British and the then queen of the Khairigarh estate, the forest villages were brought under the control of Forest Department. FD was made as the sole proprietor of these villages and no tenancy rights were given to those who were residing there and helping preserve the forests.
Adivasis, alienated from the state machinery were left at the mercies of the Forest Department. The FD had its own code of procedures for this area. A register was maintained with the names of all the inhabitants and nobody could setlle without the permission of the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO). Through this mechanism, not only did the FD had an absolute control over the claim to labour on payment of all adult residents not permitted to accept employment from other departments or companies or individuals, they also demanded the obedience of the people who lived there.This area has remained a site of struggle since then. Thirty-seven out of the total 39 villages from the park were relocated when Dudhwa was notified in 1977. And they were later converted into revenue villages in 1986.
Surma was declared as the core zone with maximum concentration of tigers, while Golibazi was declared as the buffer zone. The order for eviction came in 1978. There was a plan to move the people based in Surma to six different villages across a span of 500 acres. People approached the high court. After 23 years of legal battle, in 2003, the Allahabad High Court gave a judgment which was in line with the Forest Department’s demand and a denial of the rights of the Adivasis and OTFDs. The Adivasis and Forest Dwellers, left with no other option, launched a non-violent struggle. The women took the lead and formed the Tharu Adivasi Mahila Mazdoor Kisan Manch to lead the agitation. The threat of eviction became stronger and the Adivasis became victims of continued harassment; both women and men got beaten up and many were criminalized under false wildlife crimes.
During that time, the process of organising people started. Although the process took awhile, it gained momentum after the FRA was passed in 2006. Finally in 2008, there were orders and rules for actual implementing the law
This continued until 2007 when the Forest Rights Act got implemented and the relocation was put on hold. The ‘Union’ (as it is called) has been strongly supported by the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), especially by Roma Malik, the general secretary, who has played an important role in the women mobilization. Political intervention started only after 2008.
In 2011, on April 8, Surma village was converted into a revenue village. Of the 349 claims that were filed by the villagers, 289 claims were accepted, granting forest dwellers their full land ownership rights. Surma, Devipur in which Other Traditional Forest Dwellers mainly Dalits live. Villagers say that three villages gained ‘independence’ on that date —April 8, 2011 –when their habitats were converted into revenue villages and the threat of evictions, looming over their lives, was finally lifted.
On January 20, 2012, Nivada along with the late Fulmati and Rukma Rana, both residents of Bhuda village, and thousands of other males and females from villages- Kajaria, Sariyapara, Suda, Bhuda, Biriya, Najhauta, Devrahi and Jaynagar led a march to the forest in Dudhwa along with thousands of bullock carts, demanding their rights. On their way, they were confronted by the Warden and Kotwal (police officer) of the Dudhwa forest department who had come with their entire police force. The peaceful protesters were brutally attacked by the forest officials and police. One police officer Ram, in a deadly attack, hit Nivada on her forehead with his baton, cutting apart her forehead. Not only were there brutal physical assaults; the attacks also assumed sexual undertones, with officials manhandling women inappropriately.
Because of the sustained protests from the agitators, an FIR was finally lodged against the accused officials, after over a month. It was because of the pressure from the movement that the Kotwal who had hit Nivada, had to sign the FIR.
Recalling this incident, on the eve of becoming co-petitioner in the Supreme Court she told Citizens for Justice and Peace, “My fears evaporated after the attack on me.” The incident strengthened Nivada’s resolve to continue the struggle. “I had seen the exploitation on my people since my childhood. Associating with the union gave me the strength to fight collectively, as I understood this was a long term struggle and we couldn’t fight it alone.”
Her case is currently in the District and Sessions Court.
Nivada has also participated in the filing of community resource claims, Form C along with 23 Gram Sabhas, within the Dudhwa National Park on July 22, 2013. In the claim forms women have strongly made their claims; under the law women are empowered to be the first owners of the vast natural resources. But to date no community rights have been conferred to women in Dudhwa.