National Consultation on Forest Rights declares protests across the country on July 22
National Consultation on Forest and Land Rights has declared protest actions across India on July 22, which is tentatively the date for the next hearing in the case of the recent Supreme Court order on eviction of forest dwelling communities. The Consultation decided that several organisations across the country, working on rights of forest dwellers and land rights, will hold programmes and protest actions on July 22 at the village, block, district and state level, condemning various government actions like amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927, etc.
BhumiAdhikarAndolan, a platform working for the land rights of forest dwelling communities,had called for a two day National Consultation on “Land and Forest Rights Movements and the Way Forward” on Monday.Various organisations like AdivasiAdhikarRashtriyaManch (AARM), BhumiAdhikarAndolan (BAA), All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), Delhi Solidarity Group (DSG) and Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), among many others, participated in the consultation.More than 200 representatives of the various community organisations from 12 states of the country took part in the National Consultation and .forest movement leaders from the far flung corners of the country travelled to Delhi to present their points of view.
SC order and the threat of eviction of forest dwelling communities
The movements present in the Consultation deliberated upon the imminent danger of eviction of millions of forest dwelling people and communities, posed by the recent Supreme Court judgement.
On February 13, 2019, the Supreme Court of India, hearing a petition filed by wildlife conservationists and former forest department officials, directed the state governments to evict “encroachers” or “illegal forest dwellers”. The official defender in the case, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), was conspicuous by its absence in the courtroom.
The order had sent shockwaves across the country’s forests, home to eight percent of the population. It was met with stiff resistance and was called “unconstitutional” by several groups, especially those which had been struggling for forest rights for decades. The order was criticised for “violating” schedules V, VI and IX of the Constitution and also for turning established jurisprudence on its head. A week later, the order was temporarily stayed after the Central government, under pressure from several quarters and forest rights groups, was compelled to move the same bench for review.
Significantly, the case in question, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by wildlife conservancy groups regarding the validity of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA, 2006), had been going on for many years. The FRA, 13 years ago, for the first time, recognised the individual and community rights of the forest dwellers over the forest land. It recognised the “historical injustice” done to these communities and helped remove the stigma of “encroachers”, a term pregnant with colonial prejudice and popularised in the last few centuries by the English mainstream media favouring elite notions of conservation.
Most of the people classified as forest-dwellers in India belong to the Schedules Tribes (ST), non-notified Adivasis, Dalits and vulnerable poor communities, who are occupationally dependent on sustainable agriculture, cattle rearing, fisheries and collection of other forest-produce and therefore, rely on land and forest for their livelihood.
Many forest-dwelling communities in India believe that forests are better preserved where the communities are closely connected to the forests by means of their traditional customs. The states however continue to displace people in the name of preserving the forests, which affects the biodiversity of the area and takes away the livelihoods of the forest dwellers.
Lack of political will in implementing the pro-people FRA
The National Consultation observed that the amendments proposed to the Indian Forest Act, 1927, strengthened the efforts being made to weaken the FRA, 2006 and to capture the forests lands that rightfully belong to the forest dwelling communities. It noted that there has been a lack of political will in implementing the provisions of the Act.
The Consultation expressed concern that in the coming days, the corporate attacks on water, forests and land were going to become even more frequent. It noted, “The slogan of ‘Land to the tillers’ has now changed to ‘Land to the corporations’. The whole focus of the government is on robbing off the wealth from the hands of the people and transferring it to the capitalists. The industrial corridors, Sagarmala, Bharatmala, Bullet Train, Smart Cities, large ports, expressways, and highways are some examples where all measures have been adopted to transfer their whole profit to the capitalist class”
Forest rights organisations fight back
The organisations present in the National Consultation collectively “rejected the proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927” and demanded that the Forest Rights Act, 2006 be enforced effectively. They observed that since the Gram Sabha was the strongest “weapon” in the hands of the community, there was an attempt to “take its powers away in a strategic manner”.
As per the FRA, 2006, the Gram Sabha has been assigned a substantial role in the implementation of the Act. Not only has the Gram Sabhabeen entrusted with initiating the process of identifying the nature of individual and community rights of the forest dwelling communities, especially Adivasis, Dalits and other forest dwellers, but it also has the right to approve or reject government projects. Its other responsibilities include resettlement under alternative packages prepared by State Governments for providing a secure livelihood to the communities and protection of the wild life, forests, biodiversity, adjoining catchment areas, water sources and more.
The Consultation noted that there was a need to strengthen the Gram Sabhas, which was also observed in the recent struggle against Adani group in Bastar, where as many as 10,000 Adivasis protested against the allotment of iron ore mines in Bailadilla hills of Chhattisgarh.
CJP Secretary TeestaSetalvad tweeted live from the consultation:
Issue of rejected claims
The Consultation also brought to the fore, the issue of rejected claims and said that this was done in various ways “in a planned manner”.
Despite the enactment of the FRA in 2006, most states have failed to implement it in its true spirit. Since the enactment, 4.22 million claims have been filed. While the total forest land under occupation prior to 2005 was 112,000 sq km., only 54,591.07 sq. km. has been recognised. States like Maharashtra, which have stood out in terms of recognizing Community Forest Rights (CFRs), have also only achieved about 15 percent of their full potential in terms of implementation of FRA.
Despite the enactment of FRA in 2006, the government and various state authorities along with forest bureaucracy have made use of the provisions of the colonial Indian Forest Act, 1927 and Wildlife Protection Act, and other Acts and provisions in order to deny the communities their rights and harass them. To this extent, the Consultation observed that this has created a “situation of confusion” due to “separate parallel processes of land and forests rights settlements by the government since 1996.” It demanded more clarity from the government and courts on this aspect.
Repression on Forest dwelling communities and advocates of forest rights
Highlighting the unprecedented attack on Adivasis and forest dwelling communities, the Consultation observed that, “Today, the largest threat to the Adivasis dwelling in the forests of the country is from state violence because the people fighting for their rights under FRA, from Kerala to Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand and many other states, are being labelled as Maoists and are being arrested and tortured. The House saluted the struggle of the comrades locked in jails and condemned the government oppressions.”
It made a proposition that the groups will appearin court, in person or by letter, to present the case in favour of the FRA, 2006 and the concerns of forest dwelling communities. Moreover, the groups will intervene collectively in the ongoing case related to the eviction of communities, in the Supreme Court.
The consultation said that there was a need to “intensify solidarity among the ongoing struggles on the ground and facilitate exchange and learnings from each other’s struggles.” It decided to reach out to those progressive MPs from the ruling party and the opposition, who come from oppressed backgrounds, so that they could be informed about the FRA and other laws and the approach of the group to the issue.
A committee was formed to monitor new measures, tactics employed, changes in the laws and other issues regarding the loot of the resources, which would then disseminate this information to the grassroots movements in simple language.
It was decided that a large scale demonstration, jointly organised by land and forest rights movement in Delhi, will be organised on Sansad Marg on November 28.
Preliminary meeting of Forest Rights groups
An initial meeting of the various movements, held on December 11, 2018 in Delhi, had resolved the following
1. Forest Rights Act, 2006 must be implemented effectively and unconditionally in all forest regions including the Critical Forest Areas;
2. A united struggle will be launched with the collective initiative of diverse forest rights organisations / groups and supporters in different walks of life including journalists, lawyers, researchers, social action groups and others;
3. A dialogue will be initiated with political parties to bring Forest Rights Act into the mainstream political discourse, so that this historic act can become an important political issue during and after the electoral process;
4. An All India level alliance be formed with organisations / groups, actively engaged in forest rights movement to represent the collective voice and to take forward the task. FOREST RIGHTS ALLIANCE was the proposed name.