A range of forest-covered hills coil around the southern part of Antagarh district in central Chhattisgarh, dividing the districts of Kanker and Narayanpur. These hills form the Rowghat range, believed to have the second highest deposits of iron ore in the country, in the southern district of Dantewada.
For close to three decades now, the government has expressed interest in mining these iron ore deposits. But it was only in 2014 that they began construction of support infrastructure, such as railway tracks to carry the mined ore, and started the process of land acquisition for housing, schools and hospitals for the prospective mine workers.
This requires large-scale deforestation. In its completed state, the Rowghat mines and related infrastructure will destroy approximately 2,030 hectares of forestland across Kanker and Narayanpur districts.
In order to protect the livelihoods of forest dwellers in these regions, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, more commonly known as the Forest Rights Act, was passed in 2006. The Act recognises that individuals have rights over the land that they have been occupying, and that their tribal communities have rights over the use and management of those forests and the resources therein.
In the eleven years that the Act has been in existence, the Chhattisgarh government had done little to implement it. Over the past three years, non-profit organisations like the Kanker-based Disha and Raipur-based Janabhivyakti took on the onus of helping villagers claim their rights under the Act.
After three years of work, Disha managed to file Community Forest Rights documents for 20 of the 104 villages in Antagarh district. According to Anubhav Shori, who has filed more than half of these applications, it takes about four months to complete the documentation for one village.
“If rights are not claimed by the people or granted by the state in the first place, then on what basis can they be taken away?” asked Abhinav Gupta, who works on cases related to FRA as part of the legal aid group JagLAG. This is the core of the argument: If the state has not granted forest rights to the tribals in the first place, it cannot take those rights away for any purpose, including mining.
Therefore, if parts of Rowghat are to be opened up for mining by the Bhilai Steel Plant, India’s main producer of steel, the relevant FRA documentation needs to be processed. “So, a government that slept over the implementation of the law until now is suddenly in a hurry to file CFR claims in these villages,” Gupta said.
Hurry is in fact the operative word. In villages such as Rohindargra, Chhote Jaitpuri, Dangra, Bhaisangaon and Gondbinpal in the Rowghat region, through which the rail line is planned to pass, felling of trees has already begun in clear violation of the FRA. According to the Act, no tribal can be evicted from forestland unless the recognition of forest rights is complete in that region. As it stands, however, residents of these villages will now be evicted without discussions on rehabilitation or resettlement. They have been given monetary compensation of Rs 30,000 per acre, but the villagers point out that their land is worth at least three times more.
Elsewhere, in December 2015, Disha received a letter from Indira Devhari, Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Antagarh, stating that all CFR claims for the past three years have been nullified due to wrong documentation. Devhari refused to elaborate, beyond stating that her letter clarified her stand.
With the Disha documentation effectively torpedoed, the Chhattisgarh government has taken it upon itself to file CFR documents for the villages in Kanker, Narayanpur and Sarguja, the three districts with many proposed mining projects.
Claiming CFR is a matter of demarcating the boundaries of a forest village, and officially proclaiming that the minor forest produce within those areas will be managed by the village itself.
Since tribal culture is largely oral, the oldest members of the village are contacted and asked to narrate their memories about the antecedents of the village, and where their ancestors came from. For instance, elders in Totin Dangra, a village in the heart of Rowghat, spoke of their ancestors having prayed at a hill near Sarangipal. This memory established that Totin Dangra shared boundaries with Sarangipal. This is then rigorously verified by getting accounts from the elders of both villages. To claim individual land titles, tribals have to prove they have been cultivating the land even before December 13, 2005. The final decision lies with the Gram Sabha.
Though this method seems fairly random, it is the only credible way to demarcate borders between villages in dense forests. FRA acknowledges that.
Losing out land
However, the villagers say that if the government does this exercise on its own, they might stand to lose a lot. For instance, according to the CFR documents filed by Disha, Totin Dangra has about 6,000 acres of land, within boundaries that have been traced using a GPS device. However, says Disha founding-member Keshav Shori, the government has proposed to file CFR under a different section of the FRA. “This would mean that the village will have little more than 700 acres,” he said.
Here lies the crux. The reason CFR claims filed by NGOs have been rejected, says Anubhav Shori, is to enable the government to file its own forms, and thus significantly reduce the village boundaries. The demarcation of boundaries is important, because what lies outside is deemed forest land, which will remain under the jurisdiction of the forest department.
“As long as the FRA was not fully implemented, they did not realise the strength of it,” says Keshav Sori. “Now that they badly need the resources, and we are doing all we can to further the implementation of FRA, they are finding ways to restrict it.”
In July 2015, Washington-based think tank Rights and Resources Initiative released a study that found forest rights (both individual and community) have been granted in just 1.2% of the total area that should be recorded and recognised. The Tribal Affairs Ministry’s 2015 status report meanwhile says the total area reported to be recognised under CFR is only 73,000 hectares, which is less than one-five hundredth of the CFR potential in the country.
As much as 8.2% of the Indian population is tribal, the largest chunk of such people in the world. “Apart from the PESA Act, it is only FRA that helps protect their rights,” said Gupta.
“And, since the government could not effectively dilute the Land Acquisition Act, they are using a backdoor strategy by restricting FRA,” said Kehsav Shori of Disha. “Essentially, FRA is one of the greatest tools that can curb indiscriminate mining and deforestation, and they need to finish it off to ensure a smoother access to the minerals.”
Stage set for unrest
Totin Dangra is a small village that snuggles below the Rowghat range. On the other side of the hill is Abhuj Marh, the dense forests that are the bastion of the banned armed group, Communist Party of India (Maoist). Employees of Disha took several trips to the villages, trekking several kilometres inside the jungles, to convince tribals that CFR claims were in their favour. “Tribals are wary of all official documents,” said Anubhav Shori. “It took a lot of time to gain their trust.”
Now that the government proposes to venture into the villages to file the claim documents, local tribals anticipate resistance. “We trust nothing that the government does,” said a villager, under the condition of anonymity.
About 25 kilometres from Totin Dangra, on State Highway 9, is Kalgaon. In early October 2015, a Gram Sabha convened here to decide on several aspects of village life. Many of the villagers subsequently testified that the Sub-Divisional Magistrate had come there to convince them that they should make way for a proposed township for the employees of the Bhilai Steel Plant. When the villagers opposed it, the Border Security Force was called in and their signatures were forcefully taken, they said. The SDM then spoke to local media and said that she had done nothing unlawful. Patrika, a local newspaper, reported her as saying the BSF had been called in only to keep the situation from turning violent.
The villagers have since lodged a complaint with the Collector of Kanker against the SDM for faking a Gram Sabha. The SDM was not in her office in mid-December when Scroll.in attempted to contact her, and she did not respond to phone calls thereafter.
“If Totin Dangra doesn’t sign the CFR documents or hold a gram Sabha to pass them, then they will merely fake it like they faked ours,” said Lachcha Ram, 41, a resident of Kalgaon.
This is the second part of a two-part series on the conflict between adivasis and the mining sector in Chhattisgarh. The first part can be read here.
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