Roma Malik is known for working closely with the forest dwelling communities in Uttar Pradesh. She is also known for liasing 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). Here is a brief profile of a woman human rights defender, who is gritty, firm and focused and who prefers to just go by her first name.
The forest communities and tribes in India have had to grapple with issues of land and natural resources as subsequent governments implemented one-sided development policies to benefit the multi-national and private companies. Despite independence, the task of land distribution and re-distribution of land remained unfinished. The British created the Zamindari system in order to better control the land resources of the country and for so-called ‘ease of governance’. This created massive unevenness in land ownership. Because of this uneven distribution of land, some sections of the Indian people– such as Dalits, Adivasis, women and other backward communities have lost out and been at the receiving end. Though they are the ones who cultivate and till the land, make it rich and fertile through generations of work, they are also natural conservationists and knowledge bearers of food, medicines and herbs. However they lost out and it was and is the land owners who have benefited hugely from this system, originally put in place by the British. Even after independence, it was only in 2006 with the passage of rights based legislation like the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (rules for which were made only in 2010) that the land rights of the working and indigenous people were formally recognised. The land question in India, had remained unresolved formally and remains so until today until such time that the land of the original land owners are realised. The struggle to reclaim rights over the land which their fore-bearers tilled and cultivated, has been hard. But women leaders being at the forefront and have faced this challenge head on.
Conflicts over land are accompanied with human rights abuses in order to harass these communities and either drive them away or keep them in ‘control’. Some of the worst human rights violations have taken place in areas such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.
The forest worker and producer struggles need to be located in this context. Forests are the main source of livelihood for a substantial number of country’s population. In many states, land that was traditionally cultivated by Adivasis has been transferred to the Forest Department or overtaken by landlords or given to private companies and contractors. For years, forest dwellers did not have a legal platform. This allowed the state and private players to appropriate their land. Because of lack of adequate documentation, these communities have always found themselves at a disadvantaged position.
Activists and communities have raised voices in terms of mass protests and political activism. In this context, Roma’s intervention at the systemic level becomes crucial in trying to bring changes related to the structures. Merely a few years after Roma started working with forest communities, she realised the challenges in claiming ownership of land, especially for Dalits and Adivasis.
A group of tribals and other villagers from Uttar Pradesh approached her organisation, Human Rights Law Centre that she had established in Sonebhadra in Uttar Pradesh. They complained that the Forest Department had taken away about 250 hectares of their land. After analysing the land records, Roma and her team of lawyers realised that the disputed land was indeed originally slated for agricultural use. Unfortunately, the Adivasis had nothing to back their claim. However, after years of sustained struggles Roma won them back their land.
Similarly, there were rampant human rights abuses in the area. And Adivasi women were especially oppressed. They were not even allowed to file First Information Reports (FIRs) in case they faced family or state violence. Roma has collectivised Adivasi women to campaign for their rights and for the larger rights of the forest communities. In 2004, she organized Adivasi women’s collectives in Kaimur, UP and helped them till the land, use its produce, and eventually procure rights over the land. Within two years, the area witnessed women’s harvest around 100 quintals of pulses, even amidst a year of drought.
While working in the forest areas, she also campaigned for a comprehensive legislation for forest rights, which (along with the collective assertion of many more HR workers and organisations) helped in bringing The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 into force. Gaining experience and insights from her decade long stay in forest areas of UP, Roma realised the challenges in the implementation of Forest Rights Act. While trying to intervene in issues related to implementation, she was charged with National Security Act (NSA) in 2007 and lodged inside the jail. Despite the fact that the charges were dropped soon after, she was only released after a month.
It was to continue these struggles in a coordinated and effective way that the the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers was formed in 2012 comprising of about 16-17 organisations from different states to campaign for the rights of the forest dwellers. This was transformed into “All India Union Of Forest Working People” (AIUFWP) in the founding conference held in Puri, Odisha from 3-5th June 2013. People from the forest community belonging to 20 different states of India came together to this end. The union said that it will take the struggle of 150 million forest dwelling communities forward. The union emphasised foregrounding voices of Dalit and Adivasi women. It was said that women should be identified and trained to run union activities. The union also placed focus on recognising the dignity of labour and end of contractual labour system, provisions of minimum wages etc.
The construction of the Kanhar dam started in Sonebhadra, UP in 2014. This was the area where Roma was unionizing and organising Adivasi women to fight for their rights. On 14th April, 2015 during a peaceful protest by the villagers against the displacement due to the dam construction, there was an incident of police firing in which 39 people were seriously injured. Four days later, on 18th April, there was a second round of police firing in which once again several people were seriously injured and some of the key activists of the movement arrested. Roma was not around when the incident took place and yet she was arrested along with seven other women in 2015 and had to spend about 2.5 months in jail.
Though Roma got released on bail, the multiple frivolous cases still remain foist on them. In an interview given to the CJP, Roma alleged, “They have charged us with false cases so that they can weaken our movements and so that we can be terrorised. We have been charged with extremely frivolous charges even in terms of our work.” She further adds, “The Forest Rights Act should have come into place just after independence, but it was not the government’s will to have an equitable land distribution for the forest dwelling communities.”
Simultaneously, while the BJP was trying to bring into force the anti-people land acquisition bill, people-farmers, Adivasis, forest dwellers’ organisations across the country organised again to oppose it and gathered in Jantar Mantar in Delhi. Here a platform for land rights was established, of which Roma is a key member. This was the manifestation of the felt need to see all the struggles as interlinked and extend the scope to other issues and rights violations.
Throughout all the struggles at the political front, the personal struggles persisted. Roma did not get married as she felt that this will be a distraction to her work and she would like to focus completely on the political struggles with people. Though her family supported this decision of hers, this journey was marred with tragedies. Her father was diagnosed with cancer in 2002 and died within an year, despite the treatment. The responsibilities of care for her mother fell entirely on her shoulders after his death. As if this was not enough, Roma had to suffer the death of her endearing sister in 2009. She too died of cancer. Roma felt a grave sense of loss as her sister was her confidante and guide. She helped and guided Roma in many matters that concerned her life and was the one constantly motivating her.
In 2015, during her period of incarceration, her main point of concern was her mother. She thought that her illness will be fatal. However, to see her mother alive once she was released, delighted her like very few other things in the world could. This experience was a turning point in Roma’s life and made her more resolute towards the struggle for equal rights of the people. She herself had to fight several battles at the health front. She developed a pituitary tumour which was detected when her mother was admitted in the hospital for which she is yet to take complete treatment.
And yet undeterred by the false cases and FIRs registered against her, Roma soldiers on, fighting for the rights and freedoms of forest workers.