Madhuri Krishnaswamy, a leader of the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) is a popular leader-activist among the Adivasis of Barwani, Madhya Pradesh. Facing several false cases and trumped up charges, her organisation has been addressing the issues of public health, food security and rural work in the area. In this interview with Sabrangindia, she speaks about the most acute issues faced by Adivasis and Forest Dwellers during the Covid 19 Pandemic led lockdown
Q: What has been the experience of the Dalits / Adivasis during the lockdown? What has been the attitude of the police towards Dalits and Adivasis in MP during the lockdown?
A:Violence against the working class became visible to media and the elites only during the lockdown, but for Dalits and Adivasis,( who are also a disproportionately large section of the working class) as well as other workers, this violence was hardly new, though exacerbated. The impunity was such that in Dhar district, an elderly Adivasi died after being assaulted by the police when he was trying to buy medicines for his wife. But despite being a relative of the MLA, no action was taken against the police. The plight of those who were stranded, and those who were assaulted made it the headlines, but not the widespread devastation of hunger, disease, the bitter angry despair, the crashing of hope, the collapse of families. The pain continues.
Q: What has been the arrangements for healthcare, especially with regards to maternal health, during the lockdown in MP?
A: It has been a disaster. Pregnant women have actually borne the brunt of the lockdown. Maternal care is always abysmal, we are a country that routinely kills its mothers while we send spaceships to Mars! But during the lockdown maternal care almost completely disappeared . The lockdown was supposed to be an opportunity to overhaul the health system, so that it could cope with the new challenge of Covid. But what we saw was that not only was there no preparation for Covid but the entire health system was effectively shut down, especially in the districts and rural areas. As it is, the public health system is being systematically dismantled so that multi-crore health industry can do better business. Our hospitals have been reduced to empty shells with serious shortage of doctors, medicine, infrastructure. But the Covid lockdown showed how easily even this meagre health care can be suddenly and completely evaporated .
On an average, as many as 1400 tuberculosis related deaths take place in India. The covid official daily death toll is still around 900-1000. And we will probably see an upswing in TB deaths due to discontinued medication and increased hungerdue to the lockdown. Hunger born diseases will grow.
Q: Recent news reports, reveal the acuteness of the land and livelihood issues of Forest Dwellers and Adivasis in MP: for instance, one figure reveals that the MP government has accepted only 716 applications out of the 3.79 lakh filled by forest dwellers till July 6, 2020. Where does the blockage lie? Political will? A deep nexus?
A:The most visible reason is, of course, simply apathy coupled withthe whole process being still led by the forest department which does not want to give up its century old zaminidari over Indian forests. It was precisely to avoid this that the MoTA (Ministry for Tribal Afafirs) was made the nodal ministry for forest rights, but on the ground, the sleepy and apathetic tribal department has never actually worked for Adivasi rights, while generally, the administration and political power are willing to leave it to foresters.
But this only the most visible reason.The more important and deep-rooted and reasons are two-fold. One, nobody likes a law like the FRA (2006), that empowers common people to collectively actually decide access to resources, and to enjoy legal rights rather than handouts at the mercy of the various political and administrative vested interests. So the law is violated at every stage, everywhere. Second, and more important, forests and forest land are huge resources which the powerful want to keep for themselves.According to the Indian Bureau of Mines around 75% of major mineral mining in the major mining states has been in dense forest areas. Last year the Parliamentary Standing Committee Report on Status of Indian Forests found that 70960.21 hectares (1,75,174 acres) were diverted to industry in the last five years alone! Meanwhile, on an average, around 15,971 hectares (39,450 acres) are diverted for “infrastructure projects” every year. If no one has legal rights on all this land, its that much easier to take it over. So they make Adivasis run around in circles for generations to get secure possession of the few acres where they can live without fear, while thousands of acres are handed over to industry and destructive projects. And, of course, the forests formally handed over are only a fraction of the total destruction, since the effects on the surrounding environment (especially water) and the social fabric is never counted.
In early 2019, just before the Lok Sabha elections, there was a surreptitious proposal to by-pass the relatively pro-people FRA 2006 and the make British-era forest law (Indian Forest Act, 1927) even more draconian by giving the forest department AFSPA-like powers to invade homes, seize property, to even kill forest dwellers and to nullify any forest rights that may have been recognised. These proposed amendments reveal the State mindset that governs forest rights .After widespread protests, this plan was shelved but it may very well surface again, since we’re seeing a spate of anti- people backdoor legislation these days .
Forest rights are recognised only when they can be wrested from many layers of power holders. This is why in MP, despite all political parties, including the ruling BJP having an electoral interest in being seen as pro-Adivasi on forest rights, despite the Chief Minister being widely reported as saying that nobody will be denied, the process is so vitiated that so far only 40% of the individual land claims examined seem to be even heading towards recognition. Community Forest Rights have been completely ignored. Most importantly, despite eviction being specifically prohibited by law, forest communities are being violently evicted while the process is still ongoing.
The Government continues to pay lip service to the law, while the reluctance and hostility of its implementing agencies are visible to all. The government has a highly questionable list of “rejected claims” which it had submitted to the Supreme Court. It has now decided, quite arbitrarily, to examine only claims on that list, even though at least 30-50% of the claims filed are not on that list. Gram Sabhas are the basic and most crucial agencies to ensure that rights are duly recognised under this law, but they are routinely obstructed, they are not being allowed to function in accordance with law, their resolutions are trashed and often they are not even allowed to be constituted properly.The administration decides to pass or reject claims in accordance with vested interests , bypassing the law completely. There are also other problems- like claimants not being able to get basic documents like caste certificates, and therefore being rejected.
Q: How has the police tried to silence the JADS –your organisation–in its efforts to preserve the rights of Adivasis?
A: It is not the police per se, but the entire administration and local elites. The main problem for them is that the Adivasis whom they were once herding like cattle, who were helpless, bewildered,dispirited and demoralised in the face of unchecked brutality and expropriation have now organised and are fighting back with solidarity, determination and confidence. They are articulate about their legal and constitutional rights. This is the nub of the problem. So, we’ve had so many cases filed against us for the implementation of the laws, Gram Sabha rights, health rights, MNREGA payment and the implementation of basic government schemes. We have even had externment proceedings initiated against us in the past.
During the lockdown, we tried to campaign to get stranded Adivasis in Gujarat back home to MP by train as the transmission was spreading quickly. There were thousands of Adivasis stranded there and we were afraid that with the cases growing, they too might catch the virus. When the administration didn’t respond , our people made their way to Barwani district townto demand that the administration arrange for the return of migrants. The Collector and SP met them outside the town and had a long dialogue with them, but in the evening filed cases against them for violation of the lockdown. Though finally trains were arranged, but even dialoguing with the administration for safe return of stranded workers was criminalised !
Q: In your opinion, how is the commercial mining in MP going to affect the local communities there – economically, physically and culturally?
A: Mining completely destroys entire regions, not just the specific area transferred. Air pollution, loss of water resources and pollution of water for miles around, a range of diseases, increased violence against women and children as slap-dash mining townships full of strangers, liquor dens etc replace traditional villages. Gentle Adivasi cultures are brutalised. Local people are always promised jobs and all sorts of developmental works when they oppose mining, but in fact these never materialise. In fact, for jobs, outsiders are preferred over local people, both because the displaced farmers find it difficult to adapt , as well as because outsiders are likely to be more docile than locals. For thousands of livelihoods destroyed by the mine, only a handful of jobs are created. Mining actually leads to loss of livelihoods, not creation of livelihoods as is claimed by the propaganda .
The most outrageous is, of course, the loss of forests. As I mentioned earlier, Indian Bureau of Mines itself says that the overwhelming majority of major-mineral mining is in dense forest areas.So, one the one hand you do that to the forest and then you tell Adivasis that they can’t even have their four hectares of land for farming! We have to expose the hypocrisy of thousands of acres of forest land being handed over to destructive industries and projects while adivasis are denied forest rights in the name of “forest conservation”.
Now they’re trying to change environmental laws, making it easier for companies to do as they please while affected communities lose even whatever little say they now have. But this is, in a way, only an attempt to “legalise” the existing de facto situation which is of the law being violated as a matter of course, with impunity. The changes in the environmental laws are just a formalizing of what the government is already doing . Infact, the ruling class has even forgotten that the MoEFCC is there to protect the Environment. Instead it has become a clearance depot, with Ministers regularly boasting of how many projects they have speedily cleared, rather than what they have done for conservation.
Q: What kind of legal and environmental safeguards do the Dalit and Adivasi communities further need and how should they organize to put forth their demands apart from implementation of the FRA 2006 and SC/ST Atrocities Act, 1989 amended in 2015?
A: I’m not sure how much legal activism will work at all. It has to be backed by honest active courts steeped in constitutional values, but we have very good reason to be not very confident that these still exist. If the court is not going to acknowledge that laws have been violated, laws will have only limited use. I really don’t see a way out except for widespread , non violent mass movements and people who are willing to face the violence that will be unleashed even on peaceful dissent. People have to take risks. The fear of violence when you struggle for your rights, for dignity and peace is a real fear, now more so than ever before. We can’t tell people to not be afraid. Yes, there is a reason to be afraid, but we can’t afford to be paralysed by fear. Knowing the consequences, Dalits, Adivasis and other ordinary people still need to speak up and fight long , determined, organised struggles. If we want dignity, peace, secure livelihood, equality and to live as free citizens in free communities, we have no choice.
First, Adivasis were an independent, autonomous people. With the coming of the modern state under the British, they lost that autonomy and became peasants. Then they lost even peasant status and became workers. Now, even as workers, their survival is becoming difficult and they’re heading towards destitution.
Every Adivasi community has a history of how they fought the British to reclaim their forests and their autonomy. The autonomy is now long gone and the collective democratic institutions are broken and more or less defunct. People are now fighting for their forests and their land, but even if they save or reclaim these, they cannot survive on them alone.The forests are denuded, agriculture is highly fragile. So, increasingly, Adivasis are being reduced from a free people to the most vulnerable section of the working class, and are being pushed into what is practically bonded labour as sharecroppers, wage workers. People have been locked up, denied wages and are working in harrowing conditions and this has now become a way of life.