“Maang wahi hai – jal, jungle, zameen,” said Dasarath, a 60-year-old member of the Adivasi community from Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh. Our demand is the same – water, forest and land.
Dasarath had come to New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on Thursday morning along with about 100 other peole from Adivasi and forest-dwelling communities from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand,West Bengal and other states.
They were there to press their demand that the government should implement the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 – more commonly known as the Forest Rights Act.
The Act paved the way for a formal recognition of the right of Adivasis and other forest dwellers to live in forests and cultivate forest land of up to four hectares. The Act also states that the gram sabha – an assembly of adult members of the village – is the statutory body for managing and protecting forestlands. It adds that no activity should be carried out in these forests till individual and community claims over them are settled.
In addition to demanding the implementation of the Act, the demonstrators were also protesting the Supreme Court’s decision on February 13 evicting nearly 10 lakh families across 16 states whose claims to forest land had been rejected.
On February 28, the court put a stay on its order. The next hearing is on November 26. Despite this, protestors alleged that forest department officials repeatedly asked them to move out of the forest.
“My house is in the jungle but we are not allowed to collect firewood and mahua,” said Dasarath. “They tell us to leave their forest. But did the forest department give birth to the forests?”
Incidents of forest and police officials allegedly forcing Adivasis to leave forest lands emerged even after the Supreme Court put a stay on its order. On July 9, forest officials in Siwal village in Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh, allegedly fired pellet guns at members of the Barela Adivasi community who protested against an eviction drive.
After the incident, police filed a First Information Report against 153 Adivasis, including a dead man. The FIR described them as “encroachers” who had allegedly cut trees. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath ordered an independent magisterial inquiry into the violence and the forest and police officials ainvolved were transferred.
But Adivasis from Siwal who joined the protest in Delhi on Thursday said that they still awaited justice. “The police officials should have been suspended instead of getting transferred,” said Antaram Awse, a 29-year-old resident of Siwal.
Awse claimed that it was routine for forest officials to harass Adivasis in the village. “They do not let us sow our crops,” he alleged. “If we go to the forest then they threaten us and beat us. This is illegal.”
At the protest, 45-year-old Kamala Devi from Khatima tehsil in Udham Singh Nagar district, Uttarakhand made similar allegations. She said that police in November 2018 had filed an FIR against 15 women including her from forest-dwelling communities after they protested against forest officials who allegedly razed their crops with bulldozers.
“They destroyed all the fields, erected fences and put wires around them and started a plantation there,” she said. “Now we are not allowed to go to the forest.”
Similar resistance from Adivasi groups also took place in Jharkhand. Scroll.in reported that Adivasis in Jharkhand’s Khunti district were being hounded for invoking provisions of the Constitution to assert their land rights. Responding to this assertion, police charged more than 10,000 residents of the district with sedition and filed FIRs against them between July 2017 and July 2018.
Some protestors from other states also alleged that forest officials took bribes from them.
Ankush Waghmare from the Katkari Adivasi community in Ambivali village in Raigarh district, Maharashtra, claimed that village residents were forced to pay bribes of around Rs 2,000 to forest officials so they could collect firewood from the forest. “They take bribes for small things,” he said. “Sometimes they even ask for our chickens.”
Fifty-four-year-old Room Singh also made a similar claim. “Forest officials collect a bribe of Rs 2,000 or Rs 5,000 if we want to collect firewood,” said Singh, who belongs to the Barela Adivasi community from Bakhari village in Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh. “Once they even took away my brother’s cart.”
Under the Forest Rights Act, Adivasis can assert their hold over the forest by filing claims. The three-tier process to sieve through the claims includes the formation of a forest rights committee at the village level, and then a sub-divisional and district-level committee.
The forest rights committee is formed by a special gram sabha established in Adivasi hamlets under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996. These gram sabhas are specifically meant to protect the interests of marginalised indigenous communities.
However, the main condition for Adivasi communities is that they need to show that they have lived in the specified forest land before December 13, 2005.
But Adivasis at the protest said that their claims were rejected despite submitting adequate proof.
“The claim always gets rejected when it goes to the district level,” said Nathuram Shankar Waghmare, 69, from Raigad, Maharashtra. Waghmare, who belongs to the Katkari Adivasi community, has filed his claims three times since 2008.
After the Supreme Court’s stay on its order in February, at least eight states in July told the court that due process was not followed while rejecting forest rights claims. The court had asked the states to explain how they processed the claims and whether the rejections were justified.
Some protestors said that they found about their claims being rejected only after the apex court’s order in February. “Most of us submitted our claims and then forgot about it,” said 50-year-old Gregory Samad, who belongs to the Munda Adivasi community from Bamra tehsil in Sambalpur, Odisha.
Samad claimed that at least 7,000 claims from Bamra were rejected in June. “We were not scared after the court’s order but we were worried about our land,” he said. “Where will we go?”
Moreover, he also said that several Adivasi families did not have the necessary papers to make their claims stronger. “Not everyone has the ‘no-encroachment notice’ and it is the government that is in charge of giving us our documents,” he said.
However, the Act clearly states the sub-divisional or district committee “should not insist upon any particular form of evidence for consideration of a claim”.
Other protestors pointed to aspects of the Act that also made it difficult for them to assert their land rights.
The Act defines Other Traditional Forest Dwellers as those members who have lived in that area for at least three generations before December 13, 2005. The Act specifies that one generation in this case meant 25 years, which implies that proof of 75 years had to be submitted in the claim.
“This has become a big problem for us,” said Shiba Sunuwal, 43, a school teacher from Sipchu forest in West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district.
Some at the protest also said that their claims were accepted. But they got a smaller share of land than they had claimed for.
“I filed the claim for at least seven acres but we got only one-and-a-half acre,” said 40-year-old Chandrakant Vishnu Jagtap, a member of the Katkari Adivasi community from Ambivali village in Raigad, Maharashtra. “It is a big issue that we do not get the entire land we claim for. The government feels like their land will reduce if they give us all the land.”