Skip to main content

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.
---
A version of this article was published in India Water Portal 

Comments

TRENDING

Corporate-political party nexus? Rise and rise of Gautam Adani under Modi regime

By Sandeep Pandey*  In last five years Rs 10,09,510 crore taken as loans by various companies from banks in India have been declared as Non Performing Assets, an euphemism for writing them off. Out of this State Bank of India alone wrote off Rs 2,04,486 crore. Only about 13% of the total written off amount was recovered. Identity of the defaulting borrowers, most of whom are influential corporates, is not revealed. Compare this to the loans taken by farmers. The names of defaulting farmers is displayed on walls in tehsil offices to shame them and some unlucky ones also land up in lock-ups there. On the contrary, a few corporate defaulters have fled the country and quite curiously the authorities didn’t seize their passports like they do with some dissenting intellectuals or activists booked under mostly false cases. Now consider the donations received by political parties in the form of electoral bonds. The identity of the donor need not be revealed even to the Election Commission or i

'Extremist' US Hindu global group funding hate against Indian Churches: NGO groups

Counterview Desk  As many as 14 civil rights and faith-based organizations in co-signing a letter to the US Senators, Representatives, State Governor, and other elected officials have demanded the FBI, Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and Department of Justice should investigate into Texas-based organization Global Hindu Heritage Foundation (GHHF) a fundraiser campaign for demolishing churches in India. Co-signed by Federation of Indian American Christian Organization in North America (FIACONA), North American Church of God, Southern Methodist University (SMU) Human Rights Program, Amnesty International - Dallas, World Without Genocide, Center for Pluralism, Genocide Watch, The Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), Limitless Church, Justice for All, Hindu for Human Rights, North Texas Peace Advocates, Good Citizens of DFW, and the North Texas Islamic Council, the letter has been sent to Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz; Representatives Michael C Burgess, Pat Fallon, Van Taylor, Terr

Carbon abatement to tackle climate change: India's failure has 'outpaced' its success

By Satorupa Karmakar*  On November 01, 2021, India took a pledge of reaching a carbon-zero stage by 2070, at the COP-26 held in Glasgow, UK. As ‘ambitious’ and dubious it may sound to some, with a short-term delay in renewable energy generation (which gained the pace post-September 2020) and drastic fall in greenhouse gas (GHG) emission level as COVID-19 emerged as a ‘necessary evil’ , the path of India’s clean energy mission could be seen being paved throughout this time. Currently ranked as the third largest GHG emitter in the world, India is projected to demand more energy in coming years due to a large population base (1.3 billion as per 2011 Census data) and primarily coal-based fast-growing economy. Rapid industrialisation in post-colonial developing countries like India, stimulated by a larger and cheaper pool of fossil fuels and labour-force depicted a continuous upsurge in temperature, heavy precipitation in some places with an overall declining rainfall and a burgeoning soc

BJP-RSS trap opposition in 'futile row' around Savarkar, freedom movement

By Prem Singh*  Everything in this article is just a repetition. I have been saying all this since 1991-92. It is obvious that the Congress and the RSS/BJP do not like my ideas. But most socialists, advocates of social justice and communists also dislike my thoughts. I watch their measures and efforts to deal with the present crisis with interest. I respect them and also participate. Yet, the fact it, we fall behind again and again, and the crisis goes ahead. Instead of being a solution-providers, we are seen to be a part of the crisis. How long will this last? Perhaps, if the new generation thinks differently, things may turn for better! 1 To say that modern Indian society and politics are passing through the deepest crisis ever will surely be a repetition. The crisis is deeper than the spreading of communal hatred we witness around us. In fact, the business of communal hatred is flourishing by taking its manure and water from the deep crisis. The crisis of neo-colonial slavery is pro

Demand to withdraw 'anti-environment, anti-adivasi' forest conservation rules 2022

By Gopinath Majhi*  The Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD), Odisha, a coalition of adivasis and forest dwellers’ organisations, has sent a memorandum to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) raising serious concerns over Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2022, notified by the Centre on June 29.  Contending that recent amendments and a host of executive orders/guidelines issued by the ministry undermine and dilute the FRA and threaten the rights of adivasis and forest dwellers, CSD demands that the 2022 FC Rules should be rescinded forthwith. Demanding withdrawal of such anti-people and anti-environment rules CSD Odisha organised a protest Dharana in front of State Assembly today on 25th November 2022 and submitted memorandums to the Hon’ble Governor of Odisha, Chief Secretary and Commissioner-cum-Secretary, ST & SC Development Department for conveying our concerns against the FC Rules 2022 to the Central Government for its withdrawal. The memorandums w

GM mustard not swadeshi, it's a patent of MNC Bayer, GoI 'misleading' SC: Modi told

Counterview Desk  In a representation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as many as 42 farmers’ organisations though their representatives , backed by senior scientists and experts, have said that the Government of India (GoI) should stop misleading the Supreme Court “with untrue and incorrect” statements on GM mustard. Insisting that India does not need unsafe GM mustard, in their representation, they urged the Supreme Court to order immediate uprooting of GM mustard crop in various locations. The representation comes even as a penal of experts, coming down heavily on the GoI for refusing to see how in less than a week’s time the pollen from GM mustard will “start contaminating” non-GM mustard fields with transgenes, including male sterility and herbicide tolerant traits. Alleging that the GoI is actively misleading the Supreme Court with untrue and incorrect statements on GM mustard, Kavitha Kuruganti of the Coalition for a GM-Free India said, “We can list at least five areas where Gov

'Unprecedented rise' of attacks on students of Delhi university by ABVP condemned

Counterview Desk  A statement, sent as an email alert by "concerned teachers and students of Delhi University", referring to a protest organised against the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad's (ABVP's), has alleged “brutal” attack on students and teachers demanding the release of civil rights leader Prof GN Saibaba and others from “unjust incarceration.” “We are seeing an unprecedented rise of attacks on the students of our university by the fascist ABVP goons. Almost every week we see our fellow students and activists getting attacked physically by the lackeys of this current Brahmanical Hindutva fascist regime”, the statement claimed. Text : A joint protest was organised by the students and teachers of Delhi University on 2nd of December against the brutal attack by ABVP goons. On 1st of December, activists of Bhagat Singh Chatra Ekta Manch (bsCEM), Lawyers Against Atrocities (LAA) and many other organisations as a part of Campaign Against State Repression (CASR),

Never-ending saga of sin tax: What if murder is taxed at Rs 1 crore, rape at Rs 5 crore?

By Moses Raj GS, Sangeetha Thomas*  What should have ended by June 30, 2022 as a 5 year experiment has resurfaced. The government has extended the levy of GST compensation cess by another 4 years till March 31, 2026. This cess, dubbed as the sin tax imposed on sin(ful) goods, is double the highest slab on indirect taxes. But only a few pay for it and the majority benefit, unendingly. The year 2017 is a landmark year for indirect taxes. With the grand idea of ‘One Nation, One Tax’ as a fiscal slogan subsuming all State based taxes such as octroi /entry tax, Value Added Tax (VAT), sales tax, taxes on lottery, betting and gambling, luxury tax, purchase tax, entertainment tax, property tax, professional tax and central sales tax into a single framework of Goods and Services Tax (GST) changed the contours of revenue collection. Complicating it further, India, with each State having its own size and revenue problems, has the most complex and highly centralised indirect tax structure in the w

Muslims, Dalits off Bangladesh border 'don't have acess to' water, power, farmland

Counterview Desk  Kirity Roy, secretary, civil rights group Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), in a letter to the chairman, National Human Rights Commission, has revealed how, even after 75 years of Independence, Muslims and Dalits living next to the India-Bangladesh border do not have access to electricity, drinking water, even to their own land. Stating that the “horrible situation” has due to “illegal restriction on the agricultural activities” imposed by the Border Security Force (BSF), plunging “farmers and their families into deeper poverty”, the letter, referring to the plight of 1,200 people reside in the Changmari village, states, There are about 200 acres of cultivable lands out of 3,500 acres is situated beyond the border fence. “The ingress and egress of the farmers to their own agricultural land through the fencing gates are regulated by the BSF. The soil and climate of this region is very suitable for jute and maize cultivation”, it adds. Text: This letter is

Economist-editor's allegations on Narmada defamatory, baseless: Medha Patkar

Counterview Desk  In a reply directly addressed to well-known economist, journalist and columnist Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar’s two articles in the Times of India (republished here and here ), calling them defamatory and wondering whether they were borne out of “ignorance or a conspiracy through political alliance”, Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Pakar has said that the Narmada Sardar Saravar Project and the people's movement by adivasis, farmers, labourers, fish workers, potters and all the generations’ old communities from the river valley have suddenly come to be focused on, since the Gujarat elections are in the doorstep. She believes that while the “defamatory accusations with baseless conceptions such as ‘urban naxals’ are to be laughed at as the electoral strategic moves, one gets shocked to read the articles by a known old columnist like Swaminathan Ankalesaria Aiyar, published in a reputed daily like the Times of India." According to her, Aiyar’s two articl