Struggle for Forest Rights in India stretches from East to West Part-2 of CJP’s webinar reveals how grassroot activists from West Bengal to Maharashtra still struggle for Forest Rights
08, Sep 2020 | CJP Team
In the second leg, CJP and AIUFWP’s webinar titled Forest Rights Movement and Covid-19, moved from Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand to other parts of the country. Grassroot activists from West Bengal, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra joined moderator and CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad to share stories of how they continued a peaceful struggle for forest rights, even in face of oppression.
They also highlighted how challenges have been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown.
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.
Shiba Sunwar: Discrimination rampant in implementation of Forest Rights in West Bengal
Shiba Sunwar explained the history of the forest of North Bengal consisting of Jalpaiguri, Alipur and several other places, where for 118 years 176 forest villages have been set up for different forest related activities. The West Bengal government declared all these villages as revenue villages by issuing a gazette notification. One of the major problems with this, is that only the tribal people got land rights in the revenue villages. Others including the OBC and general category forest dwellers could not get title deeds or land ownership; they only got community rights.
“One probable reason could be the need that proof of three generations of residence is needed for claiming land rights in the forest,” says Sunwar. But he still considers this move to be beneficial as many people have got the right over their land and have also received papers of the land. “Though there has been a stagnation of work due to the lockdown, like other parts of the country, there has however been no incitement of violence against the community after the conversion into revenue villages,” he says acknowledging the tiny sliver of something positive. Though the struggle is not over yet. The people still live in deprivation of certain forest rights and several villages are left out of the process of conversion to revenue village.
Madhuri Ben: Politicians don’t want forest dwellers to be independent
The struggle of the forest dwellers was further explained by Madhuri Ben from Madhya Pradesh, a state where the claims of 3,60,000 people were rejected by the Supreme Court via an order that has now been stayed. The SC had at that time ordered that these people should be evicted from their land. But this step would have led to a political backlash for any government so they filed an appeal to reconsider the claims according to the forest rights. “But the intention of these politicians is not to benefit the people, so they had to undergo the entire process before the court all over again. Many pleas were subsequently rejected and violence became common,” said Madhuri Ben adding, “Politicians do not want the forest people to live an independent life rather want to have a sense of authority and obligation over them.”
Another incident of violence took place in a village named Sevel in Burhanpur district where JCB machines were brought and fields were destroyed. When the villagers tried to protest some of them were shot. On approaching the police station to file an FIR, the police refused and in return filed an FIR on the villagers. Around 3,000-4,000 tribals again headed towards the police station in protest of violation of their rights shouting the slogan “Haq nahi toh Jail sahi”. Following this, though there was no action against the police officials, at least they agreed to register an FIR. “Till date only 716 pieces of land have been approved out of a total of 3 lakh… and majority of the appeals are moving to a negative end,” says Madhuri Ben adding false complaints against her companions are being filed at places where government is illegally taking money from the villagers and giving them a place to settle. “This is being done as a revenge against the action taken on the DO and SDO after the protest and to promote illegal trade of land,” she feels. “Lakhs of acres of land that belongs to the forest dwellers, is being transferred to large corporations. In the last 5 years 1.45 lakh hectares of forest land has been transferred and this is only the official data. A lot more has been transferred illegally,” alleges Madhuri Ben. She adds, “These infrastructural projects in the name of so called development have been used to remove the tribal people.”
On the subject of healthcare facilities Madhuri Ben said, “The already fragile condition has only worsened and hospitals are mere buildings with no facilities, even adequate doctors are not present. This is because of the major aim of the authorities to divert the crowd toward private hospitals,” she alleged adding, “The worst affected during this time have been pregnant women. Minor treatments are also not available which is compelling activists to protest around the hospitals as they are clearly dysfunctional and no efforts to make them functional are being taken.”
Pushpanjali Sathpathy: Guidelines need to be executed properly
Moving on to Odisha, CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad introduced activist Pushpanjali Sathpathy who recommended that people write to Hrishikesh Panda, chairman of one of the three committees set up by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA). Sathpathy believes that simply declaring a revenue village will do no good; proper transfer of rights should also be looked into. The state of Odisha has issued step-by–step guidelines to do so but on paper. These guidelines should be appropriately executed. A similar guideline is also released by the central government which should be followed. She appreciated how Chhattisgarh has been leading to provide adequate employment and money to its people who were dependent on forest produce during the lockdown.
Particularly talking about Odisha, a lot of efforts have been taken to adequately advertise the forest produce and availability of transport resources. During the pandemic business of Sal seeds worth around 30 crores was done, which is a relief for the forest dwellers in Orissa. She also says that the condition isn’t bad in many places in Odisha the forest department has been very supportive for the development of employment.
Manish Kinas Dhinde: Trees, animals and Adivasis coexist in Mumbai’s Aarey forest
Next up, was the youngest and one of the most vibrant activists of the webinar: Manisha Kinas Dhinde who is an Adivasi in Mumbai. She was assertive of the fact that the Adivasis or tribal communities are the sole residents of the forest and will continue to be so. “No one is the owner of mother earth. We all are her guests who will stay here for a finite amount of time,” she said adding that a long struggle lay ahead. “People in the country know Mumbai for its tall buildings and big businesses. But very few people are aware of the fact that tribal communities also reside in Mumbai who are majorly involved in farming,” she shared.
Speaking of the Aarey forests she said that they are the lungs of Mumbai and also a God for the tribal population. “The trees, animals and Adivasis coexist in the forest. The entire protest in the Aarey forest was because the government had seven other alternatives for the metro car shed project but chose only Aarey for the same. Aarey is the only major jungle left in Mumbai. Cutting it down is not an option,” she asserted.
She recounted how a case was filed in the Bombay High Court against the authorities but the HC asked it be transferred to the Supreme Court. “Though there was a stay order on the work in Aarey forest, the Adivasis were still allegedly attacked by the metro car shed builders. Century old trees were cut and no one was allowed to go there; even the police appeared to be siding against the people protesting the deforestation,” she alleged.
She went on to recount how the protest continued despite continuous lathi charge by the police, also how protesters were arrested; women protesters allegedly manhandled by male police personnel, and how those arrested were taken to different police stations. She recalled how many people had their phones confiscated and how a lot of this transpired at 3 AM!
At the time of the Aarey protest, Manisha who is a final year student, had her final exams were going on and was therefore released. But soon after she left for her exam she was rearrested on the pretext that prohibitory orders under Sec 144 had been applied in Aarey. “Section 144 does not allow more than four people to gather at a place, but I was a lone traveller,” she recalled. She was allowed to appear for exams only after an inquiry with her college authorities. Manisha emphasised the purifying impact of the trees, and said that she felt it is one of the primary reasons why corona despite being rampant in Mumbai has not entered Aarey forest yet. To this Teesta Setalvad added a unique suggestion that this Rakshabandhan everyone should tie Rakhis around trees.
Kalu Bauri: We just want our forest resources
After the insightful talk from Manisha Dhinde, Kalu Bauri who is from Bakuda district, West Bengal explained how there is rampant unemployment and irregularities in wage payment across the country. “The government has been unable to meet the demands of people,” he said, adding he has filed a case in Supreme Court for the rights of the forest dwellers and for the ranger to consider their case under SC/ST Act. “When the Forest Minister asked us what we want, we just said that we only want our right to Jal Jungle Jameen,” said Bauri.
Tapas Mandal: We lost honey and fish catch due to the lockdown
The next speaker was Tapas Mandal from the Jan Shramjivi Manch (JSM) in the Sundarbans. He narrated the situation in his area saying, “Since the inception of the lockdown the jungle became inaccessible. We lost honey collection and fish catching time.” He explained subsequent lockdown related bureaucratic hurdles saying, “Only people from one range were allowed to go but since July certain permissions were regranted. No one can go inside the jungle without a boat and permission in the form of a board licence certificate is needed for that. People who live in the jungle for performing forest activities need permission.”
The permission is granted for a particular time period but if due to some circumstances the time period gets extended, a fine has to be paid. To appeal against the same, earlier, people could go to the local office, but now after a 2016 notification, they have to travel to the main office. “Also, those who go inside the jungle earlier used to collect dry wood for cooking but after a notification it was compulsory to carry a stove and cylinder from outside. But due to lockdown people are not getting access to the cooking appliances,” he said. Sundarbans is distributed into two districts 24 Parganas South and 24 Parganas North but since the current state government came into power these districts have allegedly not been considered, thus making it difficult to take legal action. “There have also been serious losses in the area due to the Amphan cyclone,” said Mandal.
For more on the CJP webinar, stay tuned for Part – 3 of our report.
Forest Rights and Covid-19: Through the eyes of UP and Uttarakhand grassroot activists