Life for Livelihood

by Gladson Dungdung

Indian Currents 29 June, 2003

“Land and Forest are not only essential livelihood resources but also means of identity, dignity and social security for the tribals. They have been living in forest and on forestland for ages and they have the customary right over natural resources”.

Recently two tribal youth were killed in a clash with police at Ranchi during a pro-domicile protest. Their only crime was that they asked for the enactment of the Domicile Policy, which provides job opportunities for tribals in the Government Sector. It indicates the hour of crisis for tribal community in terms of livelihood, identity and dignity because on the one hand the constitution of India, which protects the rights of the citizens, is not implemented and on the other hand Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989 does not execute prevention of atrocities against tribals. Consequently, tribals are not only evicted from their land after being called encroachers but also a large number of them are displaced by various development projects like dams, industries, mines, national parks, sanctuaries, firing ranges, national highways, etc.

The former President, K R Narayanan, though did not address but was at least concerned about the issue in his Republic Day address in 2001. He stated that ‘the developmental path we have adopted is hurting them (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) and threatening their very existence… we should take into confidence the tribals and their representatives… and consult them in regard to the protection of their livelihood and their unique culture’ (Balagopal. Ghosh & Meghnath, 2001: 717). But who is bothered about it.

Land and Forest are not only essential livelihood resources but also means of identity, dignity and social security for the tribals. They have been living in forest and on forestland for ages and they have the customary right over natural resources. The National Forest Policy, 1988 recognizes a customary right of the tribal over forests and the symbiotic relationship between tribal and forest. One can imagine the agony when someone is thrown out from his/her home or when a baby is separated from its mother. Tribals are thrown out from their homes (forests) by the state. But it is nobody’s business to be bothered. By the eviction order (No. 7-16/2002-FC, dated May 3, 2002) of the Ministry of Environment and Forest Govt. of India, millions of forest dwellers were evicted previous year. Elephants were seen razing houses and destroying grain of millions tribals in Assam, Maharashtra and other states. The Forest Department argues in the favour of eviction that tribals are a great harm to forest conservation, wildlife protection and are serious threat to the continuity of the forests, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.

What do you call it when three tribals were shot dead by police at Kashipur (Orissa) on 16 Dec 2000 for opposing unjust mining? How do you explain the killing of eight tribals and 22 injured by police in Tapkara (Jharkhand) on 2nd Feb 2001 because they were raising a voice against government’s unjust displacement and rehabilitation policy and exploitation? What do you call it when two tribals were brutally killed and 50 others injured in police firing in Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary at Wayanad (Kerala) on 19 Feb 2003 for claiming their customary right on forest and forestland. All these incidents took place because of so called national development, forest conservation and wildlife protection.

In all three incidents, tribal activists and others were prosecuted, tortured, exploited, alleged and killed. Adivasi Gothra Sabha’s activists C.K. Janu and others were thrown behind bars for alleged misleading of innocent tribals and for alleged connection with Naxlites. In the case of activists from Koel Karo Jan Sanghathan Dayamani Barla and others alleged for creating a situation of unrest and connection with MCC Naxalites. Similarly, a case was filed against Achyut Das, an activist of “Agragamee” alleging him as anti national. Even the voluntary organisation “Agragamee” was black listed by Orissa government for opposing unjust mining in tribal area.

In the ancient times, tribal community had common rights over natural resources. The situation changed when the British passed the Permanent Settlement Act, 1793 to get much revenue from land. Increase in need of land for railways, roads, and forest produce to support the British industries was rampant. It was to establish rights over the ownership of land that the British passed the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, which helped the British to strengthen their rule by destroying local people’s rights over natural resources. Later the Act was amended in 1984. The painful reality is that so far as the monopoly over natural resources is concerned; the Indian rulers were not different from the British. ‘The vested interest, the methods of oppression and the basic ideology remain the same’ (Arjum & Manthan, 2002: 4). The Forest Act, 1927 enabled the government to take over any piece of land after declaring it as forestland. Later the government of India enacted two more Acts: The Wildlife Protection Act 1972 that strengthens government’s control over land and Forest Conservation Act, 1980 that totally deprives tribals of forests and forestland.

The stories of tribal deprivation are unending sagas. Approximately 50 million people were displaced in different projects between 1951-95 in the name of development. The bitter fact is that around 40 percent of them belong to the tribal community. More than 15 million hectares of land was acquired all over India. ‘As per government records at least 75 percent of those displaced are still not cared for or rehabilitated’ (Fernandes & Paranjpye, 1997: 6). Tribals are discriminated for receiving compensation. For instance Nalco built two units in Orissa in mid 1980s. One of them in Koraput district, which has a tribal majority and the other in Angul, which pre-dominated by upper caste. 58 percent of all land acquired is in form of Common Property Resources (CPR). Displaced people of Koraput received a compensation of Rs. 2,700 per acre, while those of Angul received Rs. 25,000 per acre. Most tribals who hesitantly parted with their lands by giving it to NALCO, 20 years ago, reside in small huts with naked, shabby children scantily clothed women around the huts. The community depends on forests for survival, which they preserved for centuries but those who have deprived the tribal of their livelihood call them ‘enemies of forest’.

Tribals struggling for livelihood have a long history. Several noted tribal leaders like Sidhu, Kanhu, Birsa Munda and Tana Bhagat’s efforts were excellent. Birsa Munda made claims that land is gift of God and hence tribal should not pay tax for it. He was thrown behind the bars and gave up his life fighting for livelihood. Struggles have been continuing. Tribals are coping, challenging and resisting injustice and fighting for livelihood, identity and dignity across the country.

How can one give up his/her hope after seeing the enthusiasm and series of actions taken up by the Narmada Bachao Andolan? It really gives hope when a thousand activists of Ekta Parishad walked more than 3000 kilometers across Madhya Pradesh in six months claiming land rights। Activists of Adivasi Gothra Sabha declaring ‘self-rule’, claiming ‘land is ours’ and restricting non-tribal and the government official’s entry into the new settlement area. Koel Karo’s activists protesting constantly saying ‘Jan Denge Per Jamin Nahi Denge’ (we will give up life but not land). Similarly, Adivasi Mukti Sangathana (MP) standing for justice and dignity. Tribals in Tamil Nadu asking the government to enact Fifth Scheduled in the state, Orissa Adivasi Manch resisting unjust mining and so on. The organized and collective efforts of these organisations proved its strength when they pressurized the World Bank to withdraw a Forestry Project of Rs 800 crores in Madhya Pradesh in 1995.

It is an irony that the so-called developmental specialists know only the importance of forest conservation, protection of wildlife, national parks and sanctuaries and not the importance and significance of life and livelihood of the people, particularly the tribal. It is sad that environmentalists today, are worried more about the lives of butterflies, monkeys and birds… and are least concerned about lives of human beings. Tribals are untouched by development today. These are the same tribal communities who continue to pave way for development projects worth crores. What we possess today is a great hope from people’s organizations committed for the cause of tribals, fight with unity and continuity for livelihood, identity and dignity with enthusiasm.

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