Forest Rights Act

Haq Nahi to Jail Sahi

Continued Mobilization for Forest Rights in India: Frontline Diary

Continued Mobilization for Forest Rights in India: Frontline Diary

“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.

Members of the All India Union of Forest Working People (pictured here) have filed intervention applications to defend the FRA. Here they stand outside the Supreme Court of India after a case hearing on September 12th, when their applications were admitted – formally making them a party to the defense. A negative outcome in this case could lead to the (il)legal dispossession of over 2.5 million people. Credit: The Oakland Institute

Members of the All India Union of Forest Working People (pictured here) have filed intervention applications to defend the FRA. Here they stand outside the Supreme Court of India after a case hearing on September 12th, when their applications were admitted – formally making them a party to the defense. A negative outcome in this case could lead to the (il)legal dispossession of over 2.5 million people. Credit: The Oakland Institute

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.

After a long train journey from Sonbhadra, members of Uttar Pradesh's Gond Adivasi community arrive in Delhi on the night of November 20, 2019. Credit: Amir/Delhi Solidarity Group

After a long train journey from Sonbhadra, members of Uttar Pradesh's Gond Adivasi community arrive in Delhi on the night of November 20, 2019. Continuously threatened with evictions, this community is waging a relentless struggle for their individual and community forest rights. They are not only denied access to community forest resources, agricultural and habitation rights, but also face displacement by the Kanhar irrigation project. In response to their resistance they have been falsely imprisoned repeatedly, and have been subjected to state violence at the hands of the forest officials as well as the Uttar Pradesh police. Credit: Amir/Delhi Solidarity Group

Members of the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan resting after their 16 hour journey from Madhya Pradesh at Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Sahib. Credit: The Oakland Institute

Everyday, the gurudwaras (Sikh house of worship) of New Delhi serve as a cornerstone of Indian democracy as they open their doors—and hearts—to people from all communities and religions who have come to assert their citizenship rights and democratically protest outside the Indian Parliament. Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Sahib and Gurudwara Bangla Sahib housed and fed a majority of the protestors who had come to participate in the forest rights rally. Here, members of the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, who had undergone a 16 hour journey from Madhya Pradesh to Delhi, get a chance to regroup and get a good night's sleep before the protest rally the following morning. Credit: The Oakland Institute

<i>Adivasi</i> women defiantly hold up a banner saying &ldquo;<i>Hak Nahi to Jail Sahi</i>&rdquo;&#8212;announcing their willingness to face imprisonment in the struggle for their forest rights. Credit: The Oakland Institute

Adivasi women are often the first to encounter the brutalities of the Forest Department while accessing community forest resources. Still, they persist and lead both the legal and everyday struggle for forest rights. This was clearly apparent in this vast protest—the majority of which was comprised of women from marginalized forest dwelling communities. They leave the Gurudwara, marching towards Parliament street; they traverse Lutyen's Delhi and the residences of politicians who have trampled on their constitutionally guaranteed rights. As they march on under the watchful eye of the Delhi police that dissuades them from shouting slogans, they defiantly hold up a banner saying “Hak Nahi to Jail Sahi”—announcing their willingness to face imprisonment in the struggle for their forest rights. Credit: The Oakland Institute

Forest communities from the state of Chattisgarh hold a banner stressing the need for the recognition of the autonomy and authority of the Gram Sabha. Credit: The Oakland Institute

Forest communities from the state of Chattisgarh hold a banner stressing the need for the recognition of the autonomy and authority of the Gram Sabha—a body comprising of all adult members of the village—when it comes to making decisions on forest issues. This is an important aspect of the FRA that transfers administrative control of forests away from Forest Department nominated Joint Forest Management Committees (first promoted by the World Bank). Credit: The Oakland Institute

Music brought hope. The drum beat of Rama Shankar, a member of the Gond Adivasi community from Lilasi village in Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh, set the upbeat momentum of the protest. Credit: The Oakland Institute

Rajkumari Bhuiya from the Bhuiya Adivasi community in Dhuma village, also from Sonbhadra displaying the traditional bow and arrows her community uses to defend their land from predators. Credit: The Oakland Institute

Rajkumari Bhuiya from the Bhuiya Adivasi community in Dhuma village, also from Sonbhadra, displaying the traditional bow and arrows her community uses to defend their land. She is not afraid to defend her ancestral land from predatory officials and corporations. A member of the All India Union of Forest Working People, Bhuiya has been repeatedly targeted by the state for her activism and was imprisoned for 4 months in 2015. These cultural displays serve as an important reminder that the struggle for forest rights is not just a struggle for land and livelihoods, but for the Indigenous way of life. Credit: The Oakland Institute

Many groups recorded the protest to share with their compatriots who could not make it to Delhi, as well as for their regional media and grassroots activist groups. Credit: Amir Khan/ Delhi Forum &amp; AIUFWP

By noon, Parliament Street was overflowing with protestors and their harrowing accounts of encounters with the Forest Departments in their respective States. Despite the strength of this gathering, the absence of any mainstream media was keenly felt. However, the revolution will be digitized. Many groups recorded the protest to share with compatriots who could not make it to Delhi, and for their regional media and grassroots activist groups. Credit: Amir Khan/ Delhi Forum & AIUFWP

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.

Anar Singh Bandole is one of over 600 Adivasi and Dalit forest dwellers who travelled from Madhya Pradesh. Credit: The Oakland Institute
Anar Singh Bandole, a member of the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan from Burhanpur district, is one of over 600 Adivasi and Dalit forest dwellers who travelled from Madhya Pradesh. While his group lines up before heading towards Parliament Street, he recounts the continued brutality of the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department against the Barela community as they try to assert their agricultural rights on the community forest land in the district. A protest against the ongoing evictions in the neighboring village of Siwal led to a firing of pellet guns by forest department officials. “The government wants to use the forest land to set up plantations to lease to corporations on the land where we grow food crops like soyabean, maize, jowar and rice. Our crops are burnt to intimidate us and force us to relocate. We can't even avail the P.M. Crop Insurance scheme in these cases, because our claims on the land on which we grow them is still pending.” Bandole’s wife, Riyali Dawar, says that these brutalities increased after 2006, when the FRA was passed—a sign of the contempt of many in the forest bureaucracy against this progressive legislation. That year, she and her 11-day child were separated when she was detained for 45 days in a prison far away from the appropriate jurisdiction for protesting against such evictions. Credit: The Oakland Institute
Anar Singh Bandole&rsquo;s wife, Riyali Dawar. In 2006 she and her 11-day child were separated when she was detained in prison for 45 days. Credit: The Oakland Institute

Anar Singh Bandole’s wife, Riyali Dawar. In 2006 she and her 11-day child were separated when she was detained in prison for 45 days. Credit: The Oakland Institute

R Narasimhan, a government officer working in the Steel Ministry, accompanied the Andhra Pradesh Girijana Sangam to the protest. Credit: The Oakland Institute

Despite being a government officer working in the Steel Ministry, R Narasimhan from the Indigenous Schedule 5 Eastern Ghat Agency area of Vishakapatnam, accompanied the Andhra Pradesh Girijana Sangam to the protest. He is concerned how the displacement and pollution from bauxite mining in the predominantly Indigenous area has led to the collapse of entire villages and has endangered cultures of Lambadi and Kondadhara tribes in the district. Despite the bauxite reserves being located in a Schedule 5 Agency area—a predominantly tribal area that is given special protections in the Indian Constitution—environmental clearances were given in 2015 by the MOEFCC and the state forest department to allow extractive mining in this ecologically fragile Indigenous homeland. The Sangam activists allege this was done in direct contravention of the FRA, as well as without the mandated consultations with the state's Tribal Advisory Council, to serve the interests of two corporations—Jindal South West Holdings Limited (JASWHL) and ANRAK—both of which have set up aluminum plants in the state. Credit: The Oakland Institute

Members of Extinction Rebellion's India Chapter and the Fridays for Future movement stand shoulder to shoulder with <i>Adivasi</i> activists. Credit: Amir Khan/ Delhi Forum and AIUFWP

Members of Extinction Rebellion's India Chapter and the Fridays for Future movement stand shoulder to shoulder with Adivasi activists to challenge the absurd narrative of corporate-friendly conservation groups that deem Indigenous communities as a threat to the environment. These protestors remind the Indian government and the Supreme Court that climate justice is impossible without recognition of the rights of traditional forest dwelling people, who play a leading role in combating climate change. Credit: Amir Khan/ Delhi Forum and AIUFWP

Janhavi Mittal

With a Master's degree from the University of Delhi, Janhavi is a recipient of the King's College London Overseas Research Scholarship which enables her to complete her dissertation on the ‘Literary Planetarity of J.M.Coetzee's Fiction’. A literature and cultural studies scholar, Janhavi's research interests and forthcoming publications and public talks have focused on cultural narratives around biogenetic capitalism, as well as, on inventive interdisciplinary approaches to the African Anthropocene. Janhavi is particularly interested in comparative cultural expressions of subaltern agroecological movements—particularly around climate change in South Asia and Southern Africa.

Top image: Adivasi women carrying a banner with words in hindi, "If there are forests, there will be Adivasis. If there are Adivasis, there will be forests." Credit: Oakland Institute