All India Union of Forest Working People’s (AIUFWP) , a united front for forest rights struggle, is a unique movement that is led by those women who lead the struggle on-ground, said Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) General Secretary Teesta Setalvad on December 1, 2021. Setalvad was the keynote speaker at the inaugural event of the AIUFWP’s second national conference.
The human rights defender, journalist and educationist, praised Adivasi and other forest-dwellers from Sonbhadra to Dudhwa, who continue to fight for their rights under the Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA). Working with CJP and AIUFWP volunteers, local communities learnt how to file land rights claims and assert their rights.
“24 percent of India’s land is in the hands of the forest department. These ‘zamindars’ have repeatedly tried to lodge false cases against forest-dwellers and Adivasis demanding their constitutional and legal rights,” said Setalvad without mincing words. To illustrate, she recalled how the community responded to the February 13, 2019 Supreme Court order that called for the ‘eviction’ of millions of Adivasis and forest-dwelling communities. The apex court did so on the basis of the Indian Forest Act 1927 after three non-profit organisations questioning the constitutional validity of FRA, 2006.
Adivasis and forest working people observed large-scale protests across India along with other civil and political groups. AIUFWP with CJP then backed a unique petition led by Adivasi human rights defenders Sokalo Gond and Nivada Rana before the Supreme Court.
“Women leaders and senior members of the Union stand at the front because this unique movement believes in being led by those struggling on-ground. CJP continues to support the people who mobilise on-ground for jal, jangal, zameen,” said Setalvad.
Following the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, AIUFWP members felt a pressing need to discuss the issues of land rights and evictions faced by forest-dwellers. Setalvad spoke about how land claims and control of forest produce with Adivasi communities can benefit migrant labourers, who suffered severe economic crisis during the pandemic. AIUFWP has, in recent months, made efforts to address education and health issues due to Covid-19.
Meanwhile, Setalvad drew attention to the growing abuse of the UAPA and sedition laws to suppress dissent. “These laws are used to hinder individual rights and spread hate politics. It is done by the same people who are in power at the central-level and state-level,” she said. Thus to reclaim democracy, she advised Union members to work with the Opposition political parties while pushing the same to incorporate forest and land rights in their manifestos. Further, she reiterated the AIUFWP’s demand to hold a special Parliamentary session about FRA enactment and hindrances caused by forest department and police. This is similar to farmers’ demands for a special Parliamentary session on farming issues.
Congratulating the Adivasi and forest-dweller communities for their contribution in the farmers’ struggle – being farmers too – Setalvad said the AIUFWP event came at a historic moment. “On November 2021 the central government had to bow down to farmers. For a year, farmers protested. This includes forest-dwellers and Adivasi folk, who were also prominently present for other national demonstrations like Shaheen Bagh,” she said.
As many as 700 farmers and agricultural labourers were martyred during the year-long movement to get the three contentious laws repealed. However, Setalvad raised concerns about the undemocratic manner in which the Bill to repeal the law was passed. Opposition MPs were suspended, indicating the tyranny of the ruling regime. For this reason, she called upon the Union to stay united. AIUFWP leaders raise the fundamental questions, be it regarding the country’s view regarding equality or fraternity. She encouraged members to decry the hate politics against minorities.
“I am sure the AIUFWP will, because they did so during the Shaheen bagh protests,” she said.
Aside from Setalvad, All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) General Secretary Hannan Mollah, NTUI leader Gautam Modi, CPI)M) Polit Bureau member Brinda Karat, IFTU leader Aparna, Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy Vijayan MJ, Punjab’s cultural activist Navsharan Singh, the AIKMS President, politician and writer Dr Sunilam also spoke at the event.
Towards the end of the event, AIUFWP General Secretary Ashok Chaudhary thanked Setalvad and other speakers for her focussed and encouraging talk.