Over 12,000 villages across Odisha conserve their community forests, says a 2013 Odisha Jungle Manch study. In a visit last October to seven villages in Keonjhar district’s Gandhamardan range, Munda communities showed me their forest protection rosters. Each roster listed four villagers for every weekday to roam the forests and prevent tree felling and timber smuggling.
I wasn’t there to study community conservation however, but to speak to villagers about forged gram sabha consent resolutions submitted in their names last January by the Odisha government and the State-owned Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC). The submissions, to the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEFCC), were part of a “forest clearance” proposal to enable OMC to acquire and turn 1,400 hectares of forest into an iron ore mine.
Resolutions and deceit
To the shock and anger of people in the seven villages — since they had held no such gram sabhas — the copycat resolutions depicted them as saying they had no ties to the forest and that they “requested” the government to divert the sought area to OMC. Since discovering the forgery, villagers have written to the MoEFCC and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) twice, pointing out the fraud. They have got no response yet.
Gram sabhas mandated by the landmark Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), are the only officially-recognised space for Adivasi and forest-dwelling communities to participate in State decision-making around the enclosure and destruction of forests for mining. This, when such communities not just depend on but proactively protect such forests. Forging gram sabha resolutions clears the path to lucrative mining. For example, OMC valued the ore it would sell from this proposed mine at Rs.79,000 crore. Such fictions manufacture on file the legal requirement of villagers’ participation and consent. A senior forester, serving in another Adivasi-populated, mineral-rich State, wrote to me after reading my account (http://bit.ly/22J6fHZ) of the forgery, saying, “I have seen this many times, in many files.”
Contrast the official actions and inaction on Gandhamardan with another example from Odisha: Niyamgiri. Following a 2013 Supreme Court order, in 12 gram sabhas under the FRA, villagers including Dongria Kondhs articulated ecological, spiritual and food security grounds to not mine Niyamgiri for bauxite. Over two years on, the Odisha government has moved the court to annul the gram sabha resolutions. Among other things, its petition argues, there is “grave doubt” whether what villagers said “were genuine statements setting out what was really felt.” Never mind that the gram sabhas, in line with court directives, were kept free of State government and company influence, had a magistrate present, and were videographed.
This State and mining company-created universe — where what Adivasis say must be stamped out, while fictions in their name routinely spawn far-reaching decisions to their detriment — is hardly unique to Gandhamardan and Niyamgiri. Across mineral-rich, forested Adivasi landscapes, governments are hollowing out the FRA to favour miners. Here are just three instances.
In Jharkhand’s Chatra district, the Oraon village of Jala has had to move the High Court to challenge the denial of their community forest rights (CFR) claim, and forged gram sabha consent submitted towards clearance for a coal mine. In Chhattisgarh, the official junking of the law is more candid. In Kanker district’s Rowghat area, the administration, in response to an RTI request, has stated that there is “a bar” on recognising FRA claims or granting such titles in 12 Adivasi villages, since a rail line for a proposed iron ore mine is planned in their area!
Further north, in Surguja district is Hasdeo Arand, among India’s best forests. Months ago, Gond villagers wistfully narrated how, in order to mine the area for coal, Adani Mining staff were uprooting soaring sal trees, and fencing off stretches of forest villagers had traditionally used. As we spoke, Adani staff drove up in two sport utility vehicles, insisting on being present through our conversation. This January, local officials cancelled the CFR title awarded in 2013 to the area’s Ghatbarra village. The sole purpose: to enable Adani to mine.
Cutting out the community
MoTA, the nodal ministry for FRA and the spokesperson for Adivasi interests, is yet to effectively address the hollowing out of this crucial law. The MoEFCC’s conduct also causes concern. Entrusted with stewarding our forests, it has instead concentrated great energy on how to hasten their felling (through the forest clearances it awards). In doing this, it has, among other things, mounted a prolonged effort to see if and how meaningful community participation can be eliminated from the clearance process.
But what if our governments thought less like mining companies and approached FRA not as a “roadblock” but as a means to achieve a more just, democratic and ecologically informed conversation around mining? This would mean admitting that the knowledge base of local communities, that interact most intimately with the forests, is of value in decision-making. As the 2013 SC order observed: “…we have realised that forests have the best chance to survive if communities participate in their conservation and regeneration.”
Further, if nurtured seriously as an institution of local governance, FRA-mandated gram sabhas can be a vital mechanism to outline the full costs and gains of mining, and more crucially, how these get distributed. This could help ameliorate some of the “resource curse” impacts and deep-rooted corruption that plague India’s mining industry, as outlined in grim detail by the Justice Shah Commission’s reports on illegal mining.
In years of travelling through mineral-rich areas, I cannot recall an example of an Adivasi community telling me they are better off because of the way the company took over their forest and land for mining. But there have been countless accounts of villagers being beaten up, swindled, having bulldozers pulverise their homes, sacred sites, food and livelihood sources, being incarcerated, and even killed in police firings.
These are fates that national elites would be loathe to accept for ourselves in the name of “development”. But we are happy to prescribe them for Adivasi citizens. As Masuri Behra, a Gandhamardan resident on seeing her name in the village’s forged resolution asked aloud, “Why do they kick us in the stomach like this?”
Chitrangada Choudhury is a Fellow with the Open Society Institute.