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Recent threats India's forest dwellers: 'Erosion' of democratic space, right to dissent

By Amita Bhaduri*
If during the pre-colonial times, India’s forestlands were mostly under the use of local communities, forest policies during the colonial times led to their centralisation. Forestland began being subjected to commercial over-exploitation for revenue generation purposes, which in turn led to land alienation of forest dwellers and an overall increase in deforestation.
Post-independence, India inherited the colonial legacy of forest policies. Despite apparent attempts to bring forth devolution through joint forest management, the country’s forest management even today continues to be a centralised system.
Highlighting this, Roma Malik of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), a national union which focuses on collective bargaining power of forest workers, said, “Even after the attainment of independence, we continued with the Indian Forest Act of 1927 characterised by an overdependence on technocratic management, policing and over-exploitation of forests.”
Malik was speaking at a webinar on "Forest rights and people's movements in India: Challenges and the way forward amid Covid-19" co-organised by the Impact and Policy Research Institute and India Water Portal as a part of the #PlanetTalks series: The state of the environment.
She spoke about how the colonial forest administration used coercion to assert state monopoly and abolish local rights over forestlands. There was an inherent asymmetry of power between the forest department and forest-based industries on the one hand and the local communities on the other.
The expansion of the railways, which needed wood as fuel to run the steam locomotives as well as for laying railway line sleepers, led to massive destruction of forests. “Protracted struggles by tribal communities to assert their rights over the forestland on which they were traditionally dependent began during colonial times, the case of Tilka Manjhi as well as Siddhu and Kanu of Jharkhand being most notable,” Malik said.

Forest dwellers as encroachers

The usurping of large sections of the forest areas, putting them under state control and fleecing the forest-dwelling and tribal communities of agency over their traditional lands and forest management practices was the colonisers' approach to tribal areas and populations.
“This continues to this day in the name of infrastructural development projects and mining, even almost a decade and a half after the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act or FRA) was passed in 2006,” said Malik, who started her work with forest workers in Kaimur by setting up adivasi women’s collectives.
“Indigenous groups that lived and helped maintain the forests for centuries have been undermined while speedy clearances were given to projects requiring forestland diversion. About 40 per cent of the 60 million people displaced by development projects in the past few decades in India are tribals, even when they constitute just 8 per cent of the population. Adivasis became dispossessed from their natural resources as the forest department came to control around 23 per cent of the land,” said Malik.
The state has invoked its power of eminent domain to acquire lands for development projects without consideration of land rights laws
The conservationist ‘tiger’ lobby in India in its scramble to protect forests dismissed the relationship of mutualism between communities and forests and has been taking an adverse stand on correcting historical injustices against tribal peoples and has more recently attacked the framework for the enforcement and implementation of the FRA. The forest dwellers in the meanwhile continue to grapple with issues of ownership of natural resources and land diversion to the corporate sector.
“The Supreme Court of India has passed an eviction order of forest dwellers and tribes from India’s forests based on petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the FRA just last year (in February 2019),” said Malik. 
Roma Malik
The forest-dwelling communities have been termed “encroachers” and the FRA, otherwise hailed as landmark legislation of post-independence India has been blamed for the denudation of forests. The act sought to restore the rights of forest-dwelling communities over land (to about 90 million tribal people) and the governance & management of forests through decentralisation of powers to the gram sabha.
The act that has the potential to bring about changes in forest governance by transferring individual and community forest rights to the forest-dwelling communities has been put on the backburner.
“The organisation (AIUFWP) was set up as a trade union around thirty years back to work on the land rights of the working and democratic spaces and hence we ensured that our organization was truly democratic with a huge representation of women from indigenous groups,” said Malik. 
Women leaders of the organisation have taken on the mantle of defending the forest rights of the communities. Post-2006 it focused on ensuring that the Forest Rights Act is implemented in a just and fair manner. Malik added that while dealing with the political parties as well as the forest bureaucracy, there have been instances when she has witnessed complete impunity and a refusal to negotiate.
There has been a lot of erosion of democratic spaces and the right to dissent in the recent past and the state has labelled legitimate struggles as subversive. But, there have been instances where the organisation has received support in the process of claiming people's forest rights.

Constant threat

The Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MOTA) has from time to time been objecting to poor implementation of the FRA by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). MoTA has also been critical of MoEF’s attempts to dilute the forest law especially the revised guidelines (2015) for easing forest clearance which limits powers of the gram sabhas to decide on development projects.
Indigenous groups have been faced with the constant threat of losing their lands, livelihoods and forests to development projects, which are initiated without proper consent of the gram sabhas. The state has invoked its power of eminent domain to acquire lands for development projects without consideration of laws such as the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act 2013, Forest Rights Act 2006 and the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996 among others.
“The Singrauli project of the National Termal Power Corporation (NTPC) in Sonbhadra generates 2000 MW while hundreds of villages did not get electricity in the forested areas of the district. Free, prior and informed consent was not taken for diverting land for these projects and any dissent was considered as disruptive by the state. Environment regulations that called for public hearings to allow space for peoples opinion while setting up any development project were spurned by the forest bureaucracy in the name of ‘public’ purpose,” said Malik.
Malik ended by highlighting the need for political will to recognize the rights of forest-dwelling and tribal communities over their traditional lands and forest management practices.
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A version of this article was published in India Water Portal 

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