|Kandhamal's Katitara village women collecting mahua|
Sukanti Kanhar, president of a women's cooperative in Katitara village of Kandhamal, sounds nostalgic. She says, “When I came in this village after my marriage I used to go to forest with my mother-in-law to do cultivation in the uplands which used to grow 68 types of crops providing food sufficiency throughout the year.”
Over a period of time the upland cultivation (Podu) has been forcibly stopped by the forest department as being destructive to forests, forcing Sukanti Kanhar and her community to seek wage labour. The uplands used for Podu have been converted into plantation of teak and eucalyptus by the forest department, destroying an entire food habitat of the Kondh community.
In another tribal village, Madikhol, where the tribals have got titles on five acres of land under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, hybrid mangoes have been planted by cutting down mahua trees, which traditionally have been an important source of income for the tribals.
These plantations on cultivation lands of tribals have been carried out by the forest department, using funds from Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which, like FRA, is meant to be an emancipatory legislation.
As per the green India mission guidelines, 15% of MGNREGA fund is made available to the forest department for afforestation programmes.
In Paikpada village of Kandhamal, teak and acasia trees are being planted on lands of Kutia Kondhs, which is what is termed as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG). This group has claimed land under FRA.
Villagers complain, the forest department has even hired outside labourers from far off places like Koraput to do plantation work, as Kutia Kondhs have opposed plantation on their land.
Regrettably, the Odisha government is implementing a host of programmes and special plans for the development of tribals and PVTGs, such as the conservation-cum-development plan OPELIP (Odisha PVTG Empowerment and Livelihood Improvement Programme).
Contrary to the core objective, massive monoculture and commercial plantations (teak, eucalyptus, rubber, coffee etc.) are taking place, destroying the food habitat and local ecology.
The PVTG community of Keonjhar (Juang), Kandhamal (Kutia Kondh), Sudergarh (Paudi Bhuyan), all are facing a similar repression of plantation.
The threat of forcible plantation has been intensified after the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act (CAMPA), 2016, was passed by Parliament. Under the Act, the Government of India has released a whopping Rs 42,000 crore to forest departments across the country for carrying out afforestation and plantation programmes without having any safeguard to protect land and forest rights of tribals/local communities and without any provision for getting consent of the gram sabhas.
All this is happening in 2016, which marks the 10th anniversary of both FRA and MGNREGA. Both FRA and MGNREGA are meant to advance the cause of the most marginalized sections of Indian society. However, the stark reality is that the revolutionary intent of such legislations is being subverted by the powerful forest bureaucracy on ground to cause distress and misery of the same people.
This calls for a sincere effort by citizens’ collectives to persuade the government to reinforce the core commitment of the laws and to check subversion of laws by bureaucracy.
*With Vasundhara, a research and policy advocacy group that works on environment conservation and sustainable livelihood