The Adivasi cannot live without the forest: Dayamani Barla

As dilution of land and labour rights continues unabated, journalist and tribal rights activist Dayamani Barla explains why sustainable development is the way forward


As the government continues to allegedly snatch indigenous lands and forgo norms related to environmental clearances, tribal rights are facing a greater threat than they ever have. Whether it is the opening up of mining to the private sector or cutting of trees for the metro shed in the Aarey Forest, the government is turning a blind eye to the rights of the people who live in these forests and depend upon its produce for livelihood.

Despite multiple laws and acts to protect their rights and interests, even today, indigenous people are robbed of forest rights, denied jobs and benefits under various government schemes in their own states and left to fend for themselves and their families in cities which also appear to see them as outsiders. Forced to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire, the people of the land are intentionally made ‘landless’.

In an exclusive interview to SabrangIndia, Dayamani Barla, veteran indigenous activist and journalist explains just how  the government circumvents labour and land laws, much to the detriment of tribal and forest dwelling communities. Barla is the winner of the Counter Media Award for Rural Journalism, 2000 and the Ellen L. Lutz Indigenous Rights Award, 2013 and has spent decades defending Adivasi rights.

Q. What has been the cultural impact of these dilution of forest rights on the tribal population?

A. The relationship of every Adivasi is with forests, water, rivers and mountains. Without these elements of nature the collective society will crumble. The tribals live together, celebrate festivals together, their whole ecosystem is based on collective living. When the tribals are separated from the jungle, their collective is dislodged. They get displaced and land up in different places and their lifestyle is impacted. This leads to their language, culture and livelihood being destroyed. Their social and cultural indigenous identity will get destroyed right now and not reach the next generation. This is the reason that the Adivasi community cannot live without its forests. Hence, all over the world it is only indigenous tribes who fight for land rights and rights for environment.

Q. How has the COVID 19 Pandemic and the lockdown increased the attacks on Adivasis and their forest rights?

A. The workers who are facing displacement from cities, have already seen displacement from their villages once before. They are unemployed and landless now, but they have been suffering for a long time now. The small and medium industries, even real estate, rest on their shoulders. They are the centre of the economy. However, it is they – Adivasis, Dalits and farmers, who are facing the maximum brunt of the lockdown. When their livelihood was snatched in the villages, they went to the cities, but they were not given any space there too. They didn’t have money for food and rent. They didn’t have a choice or a way to stay there. The government asked them to wait and they trusted the government till phase 2 of the lockdown, but they had lost all their earnings by the 3rd phase of the lockdown. People are selling livestock to sustain themselves, pregnant women are walking thousands of kilometers to return home. Who are these people? These are the people who have given their lands for the development of the country and enhancing the GDP of the country and aiding the profits of private players. But the country couldn’t even give a roof to them.

The people who used to once be owners of their jal, jungle, zameen, have been violated of their rights. They have been cheated of their lands, of their jobs and their homes. The government is saying we are giving them all benefits. The government spends crores in the names of the tribals. But the question is, why are these people dying then? Why are they helpless? Why has their life become a living hell? People today have to understand that the government works in a way that it will give loans to people who are capable of repaying them. It will not give loans to the displaced and the poor.

In the lockdown, the crops of the farmers have been completely destroyed. For example in Jharkhand, the cash crops, which are a huge part of the farmers’ incomes – contributing to at least six months of sustenance, has been lost. Due to the lockdown, they weren’t able to take their crops to the market. Due to this, they couldn’t earn and they couldn’t sustain their short-term needs. They will not be able to sow crops in the coming farming season of May due to the shortage of manure. This will lead to a chain of hunger and poverty stretching into 2021. We can’t eat iron, can we? Grains can only be grown by farmers. If they are unable to do this, it will affect the whole country.

There is also no way to conduct Covid-19 tests on the large number of people returning to their native villages given the limitations of our health infrastructure. There is no short-term or long-term preparedness to battle with the pandemic. The Centre is due to pay crores in royalty to the states. This royalty belongs to the people. Without assistance from the Centre, the states cannot tide by the pandemic. For example, the Tribal Sub Plan (TSP) fund which is allocated for the socio-economic upliftment of the tribal population, is used up for roads, highways, parks, etc. Why isn’t it being used to provide water to the farms of the tribals? Why isn’t it being used for the education of tribal children? Whether or not the Centre has the ruling party in the state, it should neutrally support all. But even then, they are busy playing politics.

The sword of this filthy politics is slashing the necks of displaced migrants, Adivasis, Dalits and all those who work hard to earn a living.

Q. What in your opinion is the extent of the implementation of the provisions of Forest Rights Act (FRA) if at all in Jharkhand?

A. The government has only completed a formality by bringing this Act. They know that they have to give ‘van pattas’ (land titles) to an individual or a group of individuals. If you read the Forest Rights Act (FRA), it has clearly been mentioned that people who depend for their livelihoods on the forest, they should get these land titles. However, those who apply for these land titles are caught in the web of bureaucracy due to many departments being involved in it. A site visit and meeting the individual, which is a must for verification, is conveniently ignored. Due to this, people who request a title for 5 acres of land, get only around 2 or 3 or 15 dismil (decimal) of land which equates to 800 sq. ft. or 1,300 sq. ft. or 6,500 sq. ft. How is this enough for agriculture? The law is there and it is good, but it is not implemented sincerely. There are so many provisions in the Act – related to minerals or forest produce. But this hasn’t been any implementation. There has been no provision for the farming, marketing or preservation of forest produce like kendu patta or for the lac (laha) industry. For formality sake, land is allotted. What needs to be implemented, hasn’t been implemented at all. There have been two amendments. In one amendment, the government has asked to confiscate all tools like the hasua that forest dwellers carry in the forest. There are orders to shoot the person if they find anyone committing an offence. How will they survive there without it? It’s the tradition of forest dwellers to carry such tools into the forest. This is how they have been living for centuries. The amendments won’t allow the tribal population to survive. These amendments came around the time of the Lok Sabha elections so nobody opposed it.

Q. Jharia, which faces underground fires due to mining is likely to suffer after the government threw open mining to private companies. Do you think that the Jharia Master Plan (JMP) which the government set up for the rehabilitation of affected families there, has met its objective?

A. The rehabilitation has not taken place the way it was supposed to. The displacement is only going to increase as the land under mining increases. People will continue to get displaced. Economically, the people there are very poor. There are very few land owners left in that area. Most of the migration has taken place from the colliery areas. Currently, more than 1 crore people have been displaced from Jharkhand. Most of the people who are now rickshaw pullers or coolies, are all those who are displaced from their lands.

Q. The government labels some of the residents at the Jharia coalfields as ‘encroachers’. Does the land belong to the government?

A. The land there – some of it belongs to the people and some of it is gair majarua land (community lands without deeds), but because this is a Fifth Schedule land, this land is not wholly owned by the government. It is looked after by the tribals and the government acts as a custodian of the land. This land can’t be sold. However, the government ignores this principle and continues mining there leading to the displacement of the people.

Q. What kind of safeguards, both environmental as well as those for labourers and people who would be displaced, would you recommend that any private mining company should commit to, if they seek permission to mine in the region?

A. First I would like to ask that if this is the kind of development that will help the country become successful, then where are the so-called developed countries like America, Italy, Spain, etc. standing in time of the coronavirus? They say India is an under-developed country. But I don’t see it like that because the environment of India, of Jharkhand, of the Adivasi areas is pure to an unmatched level. Keeping in mind the condition of America or Italy, if we see the condition in India even though the number of infected people has crossed a lakh, the number of those recovering is also higher than others. Had the government implemented the lockdown properly – may be taken the time of a week to call migrants home, the places today that are red zones, would’ve not suffered like they are now. They would’ve stayed green zones. But due to the lockdown being put in place hastily, we all know what has transpired, even if we may not be able to say it or the media may not be able to show it.

The people who left villages, were stuck in red zones. Now the government is saying we have to learn to live with the virus. Now the migrants are being brought back to green zones, but won’t those areas too be affected now?

Coming to your question, I would like to talk about Manhattan. I’ve been to Manhattan before and it is said to be the place from where the world economy is run. Now, during the lockdown, when I speak to my acquaintances from Manhattan, they say that the place is shut. How is it possible that an area that runs the world economy has come to a standstill? If we think that factories will aid development, why has all the migration taken place from industrial areas or where industrial units run?

Development has to be in line with a sustainable model. Even geography shows that land area under cultivation is reducing. If we see the area of Jharkhand, there is coal in some areas, bauxite in some areas and some other minerals in other areas. So, will the companies excavate everything at once? How will the environment sustain under this pressure? What will happen to the agricultural land? The water bodies of Jharkhand are being polluted due to the mining and other industrial activities taking place. From where will people get water? Is the government going to get water from the moon? Development means that you take as per your need. Keeping in mind how much the country requires, keeping in mind how much do farmers need for agriculture, how much water is required for each state, a plan should be drawn up to conduct industrial activities.

Nobody has made a roadmap for development. Now the government is going to auction 50 coal blocks to private companies. If we talk about a welfare state, the government has to consider the problems of its people. But this doesn’t happen. Nor do they get jobs, nor do they get royalty. Private companies only work for profit. They don’t care about the locals or the displaced. You can imagine what will happen to the locals once private companies start mining.

Till now, the youth of the country at least heaved a sigh of relief thinking at least they had the Railways or Banks to find jobs as they were sectors that wasn’t privatized. But now, even these have these privatized. The government talks about start-ups and Make in India, but to do that it will have to keep its environment, land, water and natural resources safe. Only then will the manpower in far flung areas be developed.

There are so many scientists working towards creating a vaccine for Covid-19, but even almost 6 months down the line, no one has been able to. They have been promoting paracetamol and Hydroxychloroquine as treatments for the virus. However, HCQ is a drug to treat malaria. Villagers have no access to this. They instead drink chirata for malaria and giloy syrup for other illnesses which come directly from nature. There is so much healing power in nature. People used to say that coronavirus came from a bat, which got me thinking of my village and my childhood. There used to be thousands of bats hanging upside down from trees and the villagers used to live in harmony with them around and even pray to them. In the Adivasi lifestyle, nobody kills bats unless it is in self defence. In ancient times, villagers used to sometimes eat bat meat too, but they never contracted the virus. There are so many animals and insects around, but no virus infected humans.

Though these animals and insects may have inherently had the virus in them, they had their own area to thrive and we had not encroached upon it. They were not hunted and were seen as friends by the tribals. Now due to encroachment, animals are invading villages. Their water bodies are invaded. How will they survive? Won’t they roam the cities and villages to find food and water?

All this is because we are not seeking a balance in our desire of development. There may be many campaigns to save wildlife, but in most cases, the funds don’t go into saving them. They are instead pocketed by the rich. We say we are aiding development for the coming generation. Don’t you want children from the coming generation to be mining engineers? But how will it be possible when there are no mines left?

We have seen animals on the roads, birds chirping and pollution going down. I’m somewhere happy that the world has now seen what we fight for. This is the environment we fight for. Everyone in power must take lessons from this lockdown that to stay alive we need clean water, nutritious food, shelter and pure air to survive. These are imperative no matter what height of development you reach.

People are so caught up in their daily lives and working hard to earn their livelihoods that they can’t spare time to think about the environment. But in this lockdown, we have to learn to do that. I was never against development. There may be other pandemics in the future and it is important that we learn basic lessons from the pandemic.

Q. Is a tribal Satyagraha on the cards? How should the people organise themselves and what should be their demands?

A. The government is not giving royalty to the land owners who add to the GDP. The locals are not getting jobs in their own lands, because even the lowest bands of jobs are getting outsourced. What will the locals do in this case? State governments should stop outsourcing and at least employ locals in the lower band of jobs.

If the practice of outsourcing continues, it is obvious that people will protest against the powers. Dalits and Adivasis have been part of the freedom struggle as have others. The Constitution of India has made provisions for the Adivasi community keeping our uniqueness in mind. The Fifth Schedule for Adivasis made this keeping in mind the relationship of the Adivasi society with the earth. If these two are separated, the tribal community will perish. The Chota Nagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act is like a safety shield for tribal land owners. The Forest Rights Act, 2006 also supports the CNT Act. However, no government has implemented these in favour of the land owners. When the President signs on a bill it becomes an Act. But why does it only become an Act for the rich and not for the poor, Adivasis, Dalits and farmers? These have to be implemented. The power given to Gram Panchayats in the Fifth Schedule has to be enforced by the President with the help of the governors who are custodians of these areas. However, they’ve all become puppets serving the corporates.

The RTI Act which was the main weapon to lend justice to those cheated of their land and rights, which I have used extensively myself to help the community, now even that Act is riddled with changes and loopholes. We have to correct these. Isn’t the Constitution for people like us? Are we not the citizens of India? If we are, we should be granted our rights and granted justice. If Dalits, farmers and Adivasis don’t get protection and justice, how will this earth be calm?


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