Forest Rights of the Adivasis

By Gladson Dungdung

Indian Currents 11 April, 2004

“Our people have lived here since the dawn of creation. We have never been the lords of the earth. The earth is our mother. We are all her children. We are the trustees of this land. It is our responsibility to see that the land continues to sustain future generations that we have not even imagined. This is our heritage. Then how can you, British, an alien race, declare yourselves the lords and masters of the forests that sustain us and give us life? How can you deny us entrance to the only home we have ever known? We will die before we accept this rule.” These are the brave words of noted tribal leader Tilka Manjhi during the colonial days. Today, these words are not only relevant but overwhelming in daily lives of tribals. They are resisting opperession, injustice and discrimination in every corner of the country.

Adivasi Kranti Sangathana is one of the leading people’s organisations in Orissa, committed to the cause of tribal right to livelihood resources. Recently, they had organised a ten days Cycle Yatra in Dhenkanal to echo their voices and mobilize thousands of people for the struggle. Following this, a rally was organised in Kamakhyanagar that saw unexpected turnout of more than 4,000 tribals walking through the streets, raising slogans and finally sat in the protest at sub-collector’s office at 1 O’clock in the blazing sun of the beginning summer. These all tribal are claiming their livelihood rights on land and forests where they live. They had come to put forward their demands to the Chief Minister of Orissa through the Sub-Collector to redress their grievances. Their demands are – i) land patta (entitlement), ii) genuine implementation of joint forest management (JFM) and iii) development of tribal villages.

These are the tribals who have been living in the reserved forests and practicing agriculture for ages, are now leading a fearful life, apprehending of losing livelihood resources – lands and forests – due to the eviction order of the government of India 2002. Will you leave your land and forests? This is a question, which I asked a group of 10 tribal women, most probably illiterate, carrying their naked babies in their arms. Will you leave your mother, was the counter question. Perhaps, those women wanted to tell me that the land is only resource of their survial.

These tribals live in Anantapur and Ranjagarh reserved forests of Kankadahad block in Dhenkanal district of Orissa. These tribals are migrants. Originally, they come from Mayurbhanj and Keonjhar district of Orissa and East & West Singbhum district of Jharkhand. Most of their ancestors had migrated to the vicinity in search of livelihood. Looking the possibility of agriculture, they had settled in the forests. History also takes interesting turn when it is said that the King of Dhenkanal had settled some of them during princely State. The tribals had been given to the king as dowry for his protection. The King was aware of the capability of tribals for forests protection. This is how he settled them in the forests.

After the independence, marginalization and impoverishment of the tribals increased. The government of India introduced the National Forest Policy in 1952, which stresses on weaning away the tribals by persuasion from the practice of shifting cultivation, increasing the efficiency of forest administration by having adequate forest laws. Giving requisite training to the staffs, providing adequate facilities for the management of forest and for the conduct of research in forestry and products utilization and controlling grazing in the forests. Meanwhile the government of India also issued a directive in 1974 to convert forest villages in to revenue villages but pace was very slow. Consequently, very few villages were converted into revenue villages.

The government of India constantly empowered its control over the natural resources by enacting numerous policies. By the enactment of the ‘Forest Conservation Act 1980’ the government completely denied people’s access to forests. The forests are not allowed to use for non-forest purposes and reserved forests are ceased to be dereserved. After so much of hue and cry, the government of India again introduced a new policy in 1988 called ‘National Forest Policy 1988’, which advocates for the protection of tribals’ rights and concessions, but it is seldom practiced. Again in 1990, the government issued a guideline for the settlement of the forestland to eligible category. But due to lack of efficiency in the work of government officials did not serve the purpose.

21st Century witnessed the worst atrocities on tribals. The government of India issued an order following the Supreme Court’s verdict in 2002 to evict the illegal encroachments of the forests and forest land. The order also describes the encroachment of forests by powerful lobbies. But ironically ‘none of the powerful lobbies, the letter alludes to, were touched; nothing was done about the front line staff of the forest department who did not take timely action to encroachments by powerful lobbies but the tribal and rural poor were the first targets and though exact numbers are not available, but the numbers is in the region of 25,000 evictions.

The forest policies not only deprived tribals from their livelihood resources, destroyed their social, culture, economic and political system but also depicted them as encroachers and enemy of the forests. The peculiar thing is that these tribals are deprived of life and livelihood resources, which their ancestors had protected for them. These tribals areas are full of natural resources but they are one the most marginalized sections in the country.

These tribal are claiming their customary rights and asking government for regularization of such land in favour of them under the guideline of government of India 1990 under FP-1, FP-2 and FP-3. But they must have to produce the first offence report in front of the settlement officers, which is necessarily required for settlement under the guideline and forest conservation act 1980. The pertinent question is, what would happen to the tribals living in the forest for ages but don’t have any kind of so-called government documents? Though some of them have first offence report but ‘wait’ and are still ‘waiting’ for the sun to rise. Evicting tribal from their livelihood i.e. forest and land is not only the violation of the guideline of the government of India but also the violation of the Constitution of India, which provides safeguard to the citizens through fundamental rights.

Ironically, these tribals who have been living in the forests for ages, they maintain symbiotic relationship with the forest and have customary right over it are depicted as encroachers and enemies of the forests by various forest policies and the real encroachers i.e. vested interest groups, powerful lobbies, powerful corporate and industrials are not discouraged. These are the tribal who have not been provided basic need i.e. food, clothing and shelter. These are the tribal who are untouched of development. They live in the forests, practice agriculture and collect minor forest produces for their survival are asked to vacate their abode (forests). The relevant questions are how can the state ask them to cease their habitations just because it has a law against them? Does the state not have any responsibility to protect these tribals? These tribals cast their votes but where do they stand in the democracy? Will their life and livelihood rights be protected? These questions may remain unanswered until the people stand to fight for tribals’ rights and social justice.

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