Adivasi activists, farmer rights proponents and peasant leaders gathered at the Constitution Club in New Delhi on December 1, 2021 to inaugurate the 2nd National Conference of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP). The three-day Conference brings together various stakeholders in the Forest Rights movement such as Adivasis and Forest Dwelling Community members, forest workers, farmers and activists.
Following the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, AIUFWP members felt it was more pertinent than over to discuss the issues of land rights and evictions faced by forest-dwellers. Accordingly, the Union along with others speakers talked about the historic farmers and peasant struggle, amendments to Forest Protection Act 2021, amendments to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) rules 2020, legal rights of workers and atrocities like the CAA-NRC and crimes committed against Muslims, Dalits and similar minority groups.
The event began with folk songs relating to the movement by Adivasi leader Daulat Kol and members of the Pratidhwani team. Then AIUFWP Deputy General Secretary Roma Malik spoke of pressing issues like the state of livelihood of forest communities, landless farmers, tenant and migrant laborers, and fishermen folks after the pandemic years.
She pointed out that citizens witnessed many anti-people laws by the government in the last two years. Mass protests rose in opposition to these authoritarian moves. Stating that the working class population has been spearheading those movements, she spoke about AIUFWP efforts to call for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (2006) and other issues.
Later, keynote speaker and Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) Secretary Teesta Setalvad congratulated the AIUFWP and members of the NTUI for the recent success of the farmers’ struggle. She said that just like the farmers at various protest sites, adivasis across India fight for the realisation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 that are often denied by the forest department.
Calling the forest officials “zamindars” Setalvad condemned the government for repeatedly trying to arrest forest-dwellers and adivasis under false charges.
“However, workers continue to learn about their legal rights and file land rights claims,” she said.
Setalvad referred to the 2019 Supreme Court eviction order that was decried by Adivasi groups. It is noteworthy that CJP and AIUFWP had backed a Supreme Court petition against this eviction, wherein Adivasi leaders Sokalo Gond and Nivada Rana were the main petitioners.
“Those who mobilise the struggle at the ground-level are the real leaders. The AIUFWP continues to fight the battle for jan jal jameen,” said Setalvad.
She argued that if Adivasi communities get their land claims and gain control of forest produce, then the benefits can also be availed by the country’s migrant labourers who suffered severe economic crisis during the pandemic. She reiterated the AIUFWP’s demand to hold a special Parliamentary session about FRA enactment and hindrances caused by forest department and police.
Following this, All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) General Secretary and Land Rights Movement Leader Hannan Mollah acknowledged the role of Adivasi struggle in shaping the farmers struggle. He said that the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) formed a coalition with no single leader in line with the forest-dweller unions. He also spoke about the BJP-led government’s continued efforts to sell forest to corporates as seen by the recent attempt to dilute the Forest Conservation Act (FCA).
Similarly, NTUI leader Gautam Modi said that trade unions that largely focus on labour wages have much to learn from the Adivasi movement that fights for their legal right to their land. He also warned that the constitutional rights of the people were under threat of the ruling regime.
Polit Bureau member of the CPI(M) Brinda Karat, then spoke about the creation of the FRA and the condemnable manner in which land has been handed over to corporates. She criticised the government for handing over large amounts of forest land to corporates while stating on international forums that India is working towards a healthy environment to address the climate crisis.
Other speakers who addressed the gathering were: IFTU leader Aparna, Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy Vijayan MJ, Punjab’s cultural activist Navsharan Singh, the AIKMS President, politician and writer Dr Sunilam.
“It was an encouraging session. People even enjoyed the songs played by Pratidhwani towards the end and speakers’ views were precise and focussed,” said AIUFWP General Secretary Ashok Chaudhary.