Over 3000 adivasis in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh staged a sit-in protest outside District Collector and Forest Development Corporation offices on July 20, 2021 to condemn the illegal eviction that devastated their life during the Covid-19 pandemic.
On July 10, as many as 40 tribal families in Negaon-Jamniya futilely struggled against a mob of villagers, allegedly instigated by forest and police officers, who tore down houses and looted Adivasi property and livestock. Twelve days later, the 200 homeless people still reside in the same area, agitating over the crude violation of their basic rights.
Rights organisation Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) has drafted a comprehensive list of the physical losses as follows:
On Tuesday, adivasis demanded action against officers for violating Forest Rights Act (2006) section 4(5) that protected all indigenous groups from eviction. A High Court order also protected said villagers from demolition or eviction until the re-examination of land ownership claims.
“The eviction by the police and the forest department was completely unconstitutional. Helpless people were beaten up and goods were looted. Under various sections of the Forest Rights Act, the incident on July 10 was illegal,” said JADS leader Madhuri Behn.
Adivasis and activists from Khargone, Barwani, Jhabua and Burhanpur districts participated in the sit-in demonstration. Similarly, Adivasi Students Organisation State President Prakash Bandod and General Secretary Piyush Mojhale warned of a state-wide attention if action is not taken against offending officers.
“If the government does not know the law, then learn from us,” said the JADS, voicing the ire of the small hamlet.
Protesters demanded tax arrest and sought an explanation from officials on the legality of their action. The JADS said the homeless families deserve immediate relief and compensation for the loss caused by the loot.
Travelling across districts on tractor-trolleys, tribals sang songs against the district administration, forest department and police. Speakers including Madhuri Behn said that the forest is the home of the tribals. Agitating women led the rally to the forest office where they raised slogans and vented their rage.
Towards the conclusion of the event in the evening, tribal leaders stressed social unity and chanted the slogan “We are all one, we will take our rights.”
Meanwhile, Khandwa SDM Mamta Khede said that all proceedings concerning forest land ownership in Jamniya were carried out with complete transparency. Khede said that the forest department has all documents related to “encroachment” by people from outer districts for tree-cutting.
Regarding the Tuesday protest, she said that the demonstration was organised without prior permission from the administration. Social distancing norms were flouted and protesters will face action for the same, said Khede.
The centuries-long battle of Adivasis
Despite the existence of the Forest Rights Act, a large number of tribals and traditional forest-dwellers are yet to receive their pattas(designated land). Due to this, they face the threat of homelessness. This issue was recently raised during a Vidhan Sabha meeting where the Tribal Welfare Ministry said that till July 6, 2020, it received 3.79 lakh applications for the lease of forest land.
Of these, only 716 applications were approved and around 2.85 lakh applications were rejected. With the rejection of these many applications, the problem of housing and livelihood is worse than ever for the four lakh or so tribals and traditional forest-dwellers. This in a state where the current Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan hails from a tribal background.
On June 27, 2020, Chouhan said, “The over-3.58 lakh pattas cancelled will be given to tribals. Officers should understand, I will not allow the rights of the poor to be snatched away. If there is a slight negligence in work, then strict action will be taken. Tribal / forest dweller community is a community that is unable to properly put its views forward. In such a situation, it is absolutely unfair to demand evidence from them and cancel leases. All collectors and DFOs should review all cases and report within a week. Pattas must be given to forest dwellers.”
Despite these assurances, the Khandwa incident is living proof of how the forest department and administration continue to be at odds with the adivasi community.
In Khandwa and Burhanpur, more than five thousand tribals made claims for leases on forest land. Similarly, there are claims of more than two thousand encroachers in the Gudi range. There is a fear among people that the administration may evict them as well.
Already, a large number of people were wrongly labelled ‘ineligible’ due to delays and errors in the claims verification process. This was admitted by the state government in the Supreme Court, said the JADS.
Even during the re-investigation about 2,416 claims – 86 percent of total claims – in Khandwa and 10,800 claims – 99.5 percent of total claims – in Burhanpur reported pending. It was during this proceeding that adivasis assembled out of the office days ago to protest the forcible arrest of six persons and the confiscation of their phones.
“This is the condition of officers when the Forest Rights Act provides for comprehensive private and collective legal forest rights to the community under forest areas from December 13, 2005. There is a three-tier system to scrutinize claims, the most important being the Gram Sabha. The decisions of the Gram Sabha can be appealed at the sub-divisional and district level. The violence of the Forest Department is notorious throughout India, so the Tribal Welfare Department has been made the nodal department,” said Madhuri Ben.
Adivasi oppression elsewhere
Protesters also condemned the illegal harvesting done in Hirapur-Wakdi region under the alleged protection of the forest department. Tribals also accused the forest department of illegal timber smuggling in Nimad and accusing the indigenous group of destroying the forest.
The JADS also opposed the government plan to destroy over 2.15 lakh trees for diamond mines in Chhatarpur district. It is noteworthy that the Parliamentary Committee on Environment stated that 1.75 lakh acres of forest was transferred to industries across India in the last five years.
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