Continued Mobilization for Forest Rights in India: Frontline Diary
New Delhi, November 21, 2019
“Wildlife ki seva hi karni hai, aur aadmi ki nahi, toh inse kahiye ki election samay par vote bhi janvaron se lene jaye. Humein na toh adhikar milte hain, na insan ka darja.“
“If they want to only protect wildlife and not people, let them turn to animals for votes during elections. We neither get our forest rights, or even the most basic human rights.“Anar Singh Bandole
These words are lamented by 35 year old Anar Singh Bandole, who traveled 18 hours from his village in Burhanpur district, Madhya Pradesh, to attend the Forest Rights Rally in New Delhi on November 21, 2019.
A member of the Barela Adivasi community, Bandole is responding to the ruse employed by Madhya Pradesh Forest Department officials—that Indigenous communities harm the environment—to justify evictions from their ancestral homelands. Forced to eke out a meagre living as an agricultural laborer, Bandole is denied any rights over his community forestlands, where the Forest Department repeatedly bulldozes the rich bounty of biodiverse crops he attempts to grow. Instead, his land is claimed by forest bureaucrats to set up state—owned monocultural plantations. Revenue from these plantations fills the coffers of the Forest Department, while the Indigenous, like Bandole, are turned into landless agricultural laborers who are paid little to toil on their own ancestral lands. The vulnerability of Bandole’s community is further compounded by the Forest Department’s threats to displace the Barela Adivasis in order to set up tiger reserves across 12 villages in Burhanpur.
At the November 21, 2019 rally for forest rights, organized by the Bhumi Adhikar Andolan—an umbrella group of land rights organizations and people’s collectives across India—Bandole’s testimony is as common as it is moving. In this rally of over 5,000 people—that saw representation from almost every state in India—each community had a story to tell about their coercive encounters with the forest bureaucracy.
These confrontations vary from manufacturing consent under duress to unlawful detentions, burning of crops, and mass evictions under the shadow of a gun. The justifications for forcibly displacing Indigenous communities—big dams, cash crop plantations, extractive mining—bear the despairingly familiar contours of a rapacious capitalism that masquerades as “development” across the world.
Struggle Against the Negation of Indigenous Forest Rights
Negation of Indigenous forest rights also extends to a denial of revenue from community forest resources, retracted grazing rights, and a failure to acknowledge forest rights in so-called protected conservation zones. The pain and insult of being regarded as encroachers on land inhabited by their ancestors for generations is apparent in the testimonies of the people.
A testament to their bravery, their harrowing accounts are punctuated by the occasional inspirational story of successful struggles waged against the corporatized model of forestry governance in states such as Odisha, Himachal Pradesh, and Maharashtra. These struggles have drawn immense strength from the legal protections afforded by the progressive Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, better known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006.
The main demand of the 2019 Forest Rights Rally was the effective implementation of the FRA and its mandate of recognizing both the individual and community rights of Indigenous and traditional forest dwelling communities. Since its inception in 2006, the FRA has been resisted by forest departments that have complacently assumed sole ownership of India’s vast forestland, constituting over a quarter of the country’s geographical area. However, as many participants in the protest emphasized, the threat to forest rights of Indigenous communities is no longer limited to an ineffectual implementation of the FRA, but extends to the questioning of its very existence.
Challenge to the FRA in the Supreme Court: Legalizing Dispossession
While resistance to the corporatization of India’s forests has spanned decades, the forthcoming Supreme Court hearing of a petition challenging the constitutional validity of the FRA has added more urgency to the forest rights struggle. Next week, if the apex court of the country upturns the FRA, it could legalize the dispossession of over 2.5 million people from Adivasi and other traditional forest dwelling communities.
An earlier Oakland Institute analysis of the petition that uses “conservation” to cheat and evict precarious forest dwelling communities, condemned its deeply unsound ecological and legal premise. Since our last report, the impact of the united forest people’s movement has manifested itself in two significant victories. First, an early and significant petitioner—the Wildlife Trust of India—has withdrawn its name in the anti–FRA case. Secondly, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has withdrawn the proposed amendment to the Indian Forest Act (1927) that sought to grant forest officers the right to attack, and even shoot, people it arbitrarily deemed as encroachers or poachers, without any legal consequences. Furthermore, on September 12, 2019 the Supreme Court permitted the intervention applications filed by academics and activists seeking to defend the FRA, formally making them parties to the Wildlife First & Others Vs the Union of India Case. Given the Union Government’s reluctance in defending its own law, these applicants are the only ones in this legal battle who seek to protect this progressive forest legislation.
November 26th is regarded as the Constitution Day of India to commemorate the adoption of the Indian Constitution by the Constituent Assembly in 1949. Exactly seven decades later, as the Supreme Court of India is set to rule on a case that could impact millions of the country’s most vulnerable communities, the hope is that it will maintain fidelity to the spirit of the venerable Indian Constitution by upholding and championing the Forest Rights Act.