By Rajiv Shah
In a major effort to counter the narrative created by the Supreme Court order dated February 13, 2019 which had stated that the tribal claimants whose forest land claims under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 “have been rejected and have attained finality should be evicted”, a top international NGO has compiled 14 case studies to point out that forest dwellers, in fact, see FRA “as a means to regain control over their forests”, and the apex court must recognize this.
The Oxfam India-sponsored study, carried out by Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, in six villages of Chhattisgarh and Odisha each, and two villages of Jharkhand, all tribal-dominated, regrets that, even though, following massive pressure from national and international groups the Government of India (GoI) appealed to the Supreme Court, which suspended the eviction order, the hearing is still not over, and the eviction danger looms large.
Noting that recent “policy shifts and ongoing Supreme Court matter” have brought the issue of people v/s forest to the forefront of debate, with the role of community spaces “shrinking”, in its advocacy effort, the NGO comes up with what it calls 14 “narratives from the ground” that “capture, reiterate, reinvent and redefine” issues of “conservation and development” in the light of “political empowerment” under FRA.
Especially focusing on FRA provision of community forest rights (CFR), the report believes, the testimonies from tribal villages, most of them very small, are evidences that new policies, laws and judgments cannot simply replace communities’ perspective and convert forest into a technical, scientific and bureaucratic space. Forest is as much a social entity with its environmental and ecological functions.”
Giving the example of Arjuni, a village in Nagri block of Dhamtari district, Chhattisgarh, the report quotes Raichan Sori, a tribal, as stating that ever since forest rights committee (FRC) was formed in his village in 2016, “the villagers have been able to stop illegal tree cutting of any kind, including those by the forest department.”
According to Sori, “That has led to the forest gradually becoming dense again. The community has been engaged in enhancing the forest and undertaking gap plantation of indigenous trees for four years now, and the forest is growing under their watchful eyes.” With the forest again becoming the “most important source of livelihood for the community”, Sori adds, “You take what you need by hard work.”
In yet another village, Daud Pandripani, also belonging to the same block, Dewan Singh Markam, 75, who was the president of FRC when the CFR claim was made, is quoted as saying that for many years, the villagers faced “great difficulties because of the various rules and regulations imposed by the State Forest Department.”
However, things have changed now. “Earlier the forest staff used to make us work almost for free; at times paid 1 rupee 4 anna if they were kind. We were stopped from collecting firewood; whenever they saw us with firewood they used to ask for money or made us leave the firewood behind. We were not allowed to grow anything for our consumption; not even vegetables.”
A tribal, Charan adds, “Whenever they wanted, we were made to cut trees or give challan for no reason. But since the FRC has been constituted, these activities have stopped. Now, when they ask us to do something, we reason them and their purpose. We feel that now we have the right to and power over our forest… Today we get the MGNREGA work. We decide what to grow in our forest. But most importantly, for the first time, we feel like we are the real owners of our forest.”
Top international NGO has compiled 14 testimonies to point out why forest dwellers see FRA as a means to regain control over forests, which apex court must recognize
In village Boula of Thakurmunda block in Mayurbhanj district, Odisha, the report says, “The FRA has empowered the forest dwelling communities to reclaim their rights over the forest”, even though the community “still lives under the fear of eviction and they feel that they are at the mercy of the various government departments, especially the forest department.”
Finding that individual forest rights (IFR) recognition “is not enough”, the report says, the community decided to file claim under CFR in order to gain control over the forest. Ramani Kalondia is quoted as stating, “If we don’t get the CFRs, the forest officers will harass us in fuel wood and minor forest produce (MFP) collection. Getting the CFR gives us the right and ownership over the forest resources.”
The situation, suggests the report, is not very different in village Dumartari, Sunder Pahari block, Godda district of Jharkhand. Here, it says, “The community feels that awareness of the FRA has empowered them in asserting their rights over the forest land and resources.” It quotes a tribal, Benjamin Hasda, as saying, “Today if a forest guard comes and tells us we cannot cultivate our land or we cannot collect MFP from the forest, we will also fight back legally.”
The testimonies suggest, the report asserts, the need for the Ministry of Tribal affairs of the GoI as also state governments to tell the apex court that “FRA does not provide for eviction; on the contrary it protects the tribals and forest dwellers from eviction as their rights get recognized and vested (section 4 ).”
The report further says, the Ministry and the state governments must also tell the apex court that rejection of tribal claims “is not equal to eviction as there are other state laws and directives, High Court directions and customary laws which recognise the rights”, adding, “Misinterpretation of the FRA will lead to its dilution, and reversal of a democratic process to secure rights and justice for millions of tribals and other forest dwellers in India.”
To read full report click HERE