In an exclusive conversation with CJP Secretary Teesta Setalvad, Roma Malik highlights the illegality of the February 2019 Supreme Court order (later stayed), the challenges in the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, the farce of pitting arguments of survival of forest dwellers versus wildlife conservancy and many more issues.
Recently, about three months ago –and on the eve of election season, a Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra ordered the eviction of Adivasis and other forest dwelling communities from forest regions, whose claims for entitlement have been rejected by the Forest Department. This puts millions of Adivasis’ homes and livelihoods under threat. The recent judgement of the Supreme Court has been criticised not only for being unconstitutional in that it violates schedules V, VI and IX of the Constitution, but also because it turns established jurisprudence on its head. After protests and stiff resistance from various quarters, the order was stayed on February 28, 2019, however the future of these communities still remains uncertain in the face of a hostile and apathetic state.
Worse still, the ongoing sinister plans of the incumbent and outgoing Modi government in attempting to bring in an all-encompassingForest law that snatches away the “recognition of rights” Forest Rights Act, 2006, has complicated matters further. News reports of this plan surfaced while electioneering was on and has not got the attention that it deserves.
The General Secretary of the All India Union for Forest Working People (AIUFWP) Roma spoke with CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad on some of these pressing issues. This is the first part of the detailed conversation.
Roma Malik is known for working closely with the forest dwelling communities in Uttar Pradesh (UP). She is also known for liaising with local authorities and the judicial system to bring to force, a just framework for the enforcement and implementation of forest rights of the indigenous people of India. She is the leading figure of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) and its general secretary. The AIUFWP boasts of a robust woman leadership from village and gram panchayat upwards.
Roma has collectivised forest dwelling communities, especially Adivasi and Dalit women from marginalised backgrounds to campaign for their rights and for the larger rights of the forest communities. In 2004, she organized Adivasi women’s collectives in Kaimur, UP and helped them till the land, use its produce, and eventually procure rights over the land. Within two years, the area witnessed women’s harvest around 100 quintals of pulses, even amidst a year of drought.
While working in the forest areas, she was one among many who also campaigned for a comprehensive legislation for forest rights, which (along with the collective assertion of many more HR workers and organisations) helped in bringing The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 into force. Gaining experience and insights from her decade long stay in forest areas of UP, Roma realised the challenges in the implementation of Forest Rights Act. While trying to intervene in issues related to implementation, she was charged with National Security Act (NSA) in 2007 and lodged inside the jail. Roma has been consistently struggling with the forest dwelling communities in UP and advocates for a comprehensive framework for communities to live a life of dignity and self-respect.
In this interview, Roma highlights the illegality of the Supreme Court order, the challenges in the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, the farce of wildlife conservancy and more.
Teesta S: Roma ji, what do you have to say about the February 13, 2019 SC verdict on Forest Rights?
Roma: See Teesta ji, the day the order that Supreme Court has given, will be seen as a dark chapter in the lives of Forest Dwellers and Adivasis. It’s really regrettable that an institution like the Supreme Court of India which has been formed for the protection of constitutional rights [has given such an order]. This matter [of rights of forest dwelling communities over forest land] should have, in an ideal situation, been resolved as soon as the country got Independence, but there were no safeguard mechanisms or laws created to protect the rights of communities over forest land. And the laws that were created, were just borrowed versions of colonial laws in which the rights [of forest dwelling communities] had been, for decades, severely compromised.
The British formulated the Forest departments not to protect the interests of the forest dwelling communities, but for revenue generation. By implementing the Forest Act of 1927, they first [the British] plundered the forests. The Forest Rights Act of the 1920s legalised this and it was this law that was carried forward, without over-hauling, even after independence. The people had no respite! So, when the FRA, 2006 got enacted, it was a consequence of decades of protest and finally, struggle. There was now, 56 years after the enactment of the Constitution, a statutory recognition that there had been indeed “historical injustices” meted out to these communities.
Teesta S: And that too, the law was not enacted just like that, it was after a long struggle!
Roma: Yes, absolutely. And how is the Supreme Court ignoring this law? How is this august institution indifferent to the rights of the forest dwelling communities that are due since the colonial rule? This is [stressed] one sided. It’s evident that this is a lobby of corporate interests, government, forest department and the mafia who are looting the lands of the people, which is putting pressure on the institution [to ensure such a decision].
Teesta S: When the arguments in this specific petition were going on, the government didn’t pose any counter arguments or objections, and afterwards, when after February 13, there was so much criticism and pressure, then the central government filed a review petition within 15 days and got the order stayed by the same bench. Since this was a law enacted by the Government of India, it’s was the responsibility of the Government of India (GOI) to defend their law. The Article 374 of the Constitution says that, Indian laws need to be Constitutionalised, brought in tune with equality, parity and non-discriminatory provisions of the Constitution. Yet, until today, there is a resistance from those who “govern” and who get “elected”: the Police Act and Civil Procedure Code haven’t been revised. Even after the FRA in 2006 was finally enacted, it took some years before the formulation of rules. And the in 2019, on the eve of a general election, the Supreme Court, out of pressure, stays its own order.
Under these complex circumstances, how do you see the struggle going forward?
Roma: Like I have said, this looks like a conspiracy between the government and the corporate players. Why didn’t the government present its side strongly? Meaning the side of the people, the forest dwellers, SCs, STs, Adivasis? And there is no awareness on the law.
If the process of filing of land claims isn’t complete, then how can an order for eviction are passed?
The government should have presented its side strongly. In any state people aren’t aware how to fill the forms. There hasn’t been a serious awareness campaign around the Act. Gram Sabhas aren’t aware. Many districts don’t have Sub Divisional Committees, District Level Committees. Community claims haven’t been filed at all, and there is such a scarcity of documents.
So, the attitude of the government is that the political will, whether that of state or central government, is completely absent from the whole process, and taking advantage of that, the whole wildlife conservationist lobby [filed the petition]. There has been a strong opposition to this petition.
What is the meaning of review? They have asked that the petition should be dismissed!
There has been such a backlash and protest from all corners, not only from within the country but from international bodies. There is a question mark on the government, on the Supreme Court, that it is a question of eviction of one million people. And you are saying [their claims over their lands] are bogus!
Teesta S:You are right, government didn’t explain the process of claims to people and you have been highlighting that more than 12,000 villages are still missing from the maps. How should these communities be brought into records and their presence recognised?
Roma: The question we are faced with today is that the “Supreme body” is saying it’s a bogus claim, though the people have been staying on the land [for generations]!
This law is about recognition of rights, it’s not a law to allocate/ distribute land (Zameen dene ka kaam nahi hai). The people are staying there [in the forest], and the law is about recognising their rights, their existence. First of all, from where did you[the lobby] get the data for this rejection? Because the law is not about rejection, it is about the recognition of rights. Who has rejected these claims? Only the Gram Sabha has the authority under this law to reject any claims. The law itself doesn’t talk about rejection.
So if the Gram Sabha hasn’t rejected these claims, but the forest department and the officials have. This lie has been published on [–] the website and on the basis of such a lie, you [SC] are giving this order. That is why Forest Working people say that they didn’t get independence in 1947 because so many atrocities, false cases, repression kept following them. You can take the example of Sonbhadra, Kaimur, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh- lakhs of people have been embroiled in false cases, their crops, their houses have been destroyed and the forest department has played an active role in this.For decades. In the midst of this post independence situation, and as struggles and protests built up, the act of the enactment of this law was finally seen as a ray of hope. To people living and protecting forests: that they will finally have some relief.
The 12,000 villages that we are talking about are forest villages. These villages were set up and promoted by the British so that they could grow forests. Many villages in Chhattisgarh-Madhya Pradesh, which were revenue villages, were declared as forest villages. In the map they are marked as revenue villages before 1927. Post 1927, they were declared as forest villages.
These villagers aren’t there in any of the maps. Voter lists would not be prepared for them. After 1975, these were attached with Panchayats. They didn’t have any independent rights. For the first time the law [FRA,2006] talked about them, acknowledged their very existence and committed in law, that these villages living here will eventually be converted to revenue villages.
After a long struggle, this was achieved for Lakhimpur Kheeri. And now, 39 villages have been recognised as revenue villages. So many villages are still left and how can it be justified? The government will have to be accountable and the opposition [to such an approach] has started. But first, the petition in the Supreme Court needs to be dismissed.
These so called conservationists are merely lobbyists for corporates; they aren’t concerned with forests, nor with saving them, nor with protecting the environment. If the people are there, then only can the environment be saved, animals be saved.
The Supreme Court should try and save itself from this scar, that they snatched away the rights of innocent Adivasis.
Teesta S: What you are saying is very interesting, that on one hand there is the Constitution, there are the Fifth and Sixth schedules of the constitution. Except for the North-East the fifth schedule is applicable to all the scheduled tribe areas and gives them a special status; on the other hand there is the 1927 [Forest Act], which is anti-constitutional; the forest department was given the authority that was bestowed upon them by the colonial powers. And then there is the police and bureaucracy which are committing these atrocities on the people. So we will talk about Lilasi, which is a good example of how this law has not been enforced.
Roma: Why is the law not implemented? We have to go into the background of this huge resource which recognises the rights of the people.
To be continued…