As many as 7,000 (seven thousand villages) in India still aren’t recognised as per their revenue to enjoy benefits of the Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA), reported the All India Union for Forest Working People (AIUFWP) during its second national conference between December 1 and December 3, 2021.
Forest and Adivasi activists gathered in New Delhi to discuss the state of forest rights amidst the present political situation of the country. AIUFWP members discussed the challenges in the implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA).
Speaking during the briefing session of the conference, AIUFWP General Secretary Ashok Chaudhary said, “Our mission is to ensure that the forest rights movement is integrated into other democratic movements. It is important to understand the struggle as a fundamental political issue related to India’s political-economic structure.”
Looking back at the history of the forest rights struggle, he recalled how millions of forest dwelling communities fought for their rights during colonial rule. After a long struggle the FRA was passed to “undo the historical injustices suffered by forest dependent communities.”
The FRA put in place a three-stage process by which the rights of indigenous and other forest dwelling communities were to be recorded and recognised. It listed thirteen types of rights, including individual rights and community rights over land being cultivated, rights to non-timber forest produce, and most crucially, the right to protect and conserve forests which no Indian law had ever recognised as a right before. It also provided immense legal support to the forest-dwelling communities, allowing a proper process for rehabilitation in cases of their eviction and several other protective laws. The AIUFWP has been working for the last seven years to ensure the regularisation of this law across India. Doing so ensures land and livelihood security to indigenous communities.
“However, so far, the law has been regularised only in parts of Uttar Pradesh and north West Bengal. So, the Union is focused on assisting evicted communities reclaim their land, provided they are satisfied with the state of the land. We’ve already succeeded in this regard in places like Sonbhadra, Dudhwa, Kaimur,” said Chaudhary.
Forest rights not an isolated issue
During the conference, AIUFWP members resolved to keep voicing the need to shift the power related to forest decision in the hands of local Gram Sabhas. For the same, members stressed that forest rights is not an isolated movement.
Chaudhary said that the recent farmers’ struggle has largely impacted adivasis as well, who are farmers as well. He argued that land rights and forest rights are integral issues that weave in problems related to labour, human rights.
“The main point is not to see the struggle in isolation because forests contain many diverse communities. It is not just farmers or labourers. Forests also have minorities that have suffered during the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.
Accordingly, he also sympathised with members of the Gujjar and Muslim communities who tolerated severe xenophobia during Covid-19.
To show their support for other democratic mobilisation in India, President Sokalo Gond along with many other members headed towards farmer protest sites on December 4.
AIUFWP regional reports
The second-half of the conference began with regional reports of communities. The Kaimur delegation talked about how women members reclaimed forests despite being sent to jail. The Bihar government’s forest department has not claimed the land. While conflict persists in the area, the women said they will stand firm in asserting their legal and constitutional rights. Leaders considered this an achievement in itself.
Similarly, delegates from Kerala reported how community members were surrounded by authorities and disallowed from stepping outside their area. Latest reports said that the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) party members have approached locals for talks.
Further, communities in the northern part of West Bengal are struggling to regulate the FRA owing to territorial autonomy. While two districts managed to realise this goal post-elections, the Gorkha region remains autonomous.
AIUFWP’s women trailblazers
The strength of women leaders in the movement was highlighted all the more when another woman was elected President by the Union on Friday – Sokalo Gond. According to leaders, women leadership is a crucial step in the way of women empowerment.
“It is important to acknowledge women’s contributions. Sometimes men struggle in being led by women. However, in the forest rights struggle and during the session, the women led the whole discussion,” said Chaudhary.
Sokalo Gond is also among the women forest rights defenders from Lilasi village, who stood up against police brutality in May 2018. She was illegally detained and along with Kismatiya Gond, for months until a sustained campaign by Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) helped their release.
For her Presidential speech to attendees Sokalo said, “We know we need to challenge the ruling regime, and for that we need to firstly, make sure the four district members present here voice their grievances. We will show them our work to improve health and education and our next generation will get the opportunities we didn’t.”
The rights activist also challenged the Supreme Court’s 2019 order that called for the large-scale eviction of forest-dwellers, based on the Indian Forest Act 1927.
Introducing AIUFWP Team
Aside from Sonbhadra’s Sokalo, the AIUFWP went through many place-holder changes. While Jarjum Ete became the President Emeritus, former General Secretary Ashok Choudhary became the Working President. Similarly, former Deputy General Secretary Roma Malik became the General Secretary.
Dehradun Adivasi leader and veteran activist Munni Lal became the Treasurer and Delhi’s Amir Khan took the post of National Organising Secretary. Seven individuals took up the post of Vice-President including three women: CJP Secretary Teesta Setalvad, Malapurram’s Chitra M. R. and Lakhimpur Kheri’s Nabada Rana. Other VPs are Mujhahid Nafees, Kishore Thapa, Balkeswar Kharwar and Mata Dayal. Newly appointed AIUFWP Secretaries are K. Krishnan, Sarath Cheloor, Shiva Sunwar, Tapas Mondal.
Towards the conclusion of the event, the AIUFWP thanked other organisations like the National Trade Union of India (NTUI) for attending the event and expressing their support for the struggle. NTUI General Secretary Gautam Modi promised the Union’s continued support in the communities’ efforts to protect their jal, jangal, zameen.
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