Victims of political intrigue and ‘green’ procedures launched in ignorance of an Act that guarantees their rights, tribals finds themselves reduced to a pitiful non-entity, says Soma Basu
KANCHAN Bhokta became famous overnight. Several newspapers flashed his name after he was arrested on the suspicion of being a Maoist in the course of a raid carried out by joint forces in the jungles of Lokhiasole in West Midnapore early one morning. Beaten up and paraded in the village with a rope tied around his waist, he was to be produced in the court. That was the last Laxmi, his wife, saw of him. His fault? He’d gone to the forest to relieve himself.
According to Kusum Mahata, wife of the only doctor who used to serve an entire population of some 10,000 tribals in and around Bera Baghara in West Midnapore, there are several such Laxmis in Junglemahal. When asked about the traits of a Maoist sympathiser, a CPI(M) member, sipping tea in Midnapore town, clarified that “people with an education are bound to be Maoists”.
But if, indeed, that were true, what about 13-year-old Nintu who was arrested on the night of 18 March 2011? A Class VII student, he could paint well and was asked to do posters by the Chhatra Samaj Committee, formed by the children of the Bera Baghara. It was set up to protest against the torture perpetrated on their mothers and sisters by ruling party leaders and joint forces in the village. The men in the village had fled to save themselves from either the Maoists or CPI(M) goons.
With Nintu were Class X students Siddheshwar and Kartick and Class XI students Khokon, Radha Kanta and Rabi. They were released after a week. They returned to their village silently, the wounds on their bodies screaming of the torture they had been subjected to. Nintu now hates colours. “Our village is surrounded by around six harmad camps. At night, drunken men from the camp would swoop down on the women in the village. Unable to bear the shame, the children (mostly students of Chandra High School) formed a committee to work as night guards. On several occasions, we raised the alarm as soon as we saw a group of three, four harmads entering our village. We used to stop their entry. The harmads threatened us and said they would teach us a lesson. So on the night of 18 March, they brought joint forces’ personnel and told them we were Maoists. We were not taken to any police outpost or court. They kept us in a camp, beat us up and released us after a week, telling us to disband the samaj,” said Khokon.
The draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention (Amendment) Act 2008 ~ reminiscent of the nefarious Patriot Act introduced by President George William Bush ~ has turned the tribals of West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura into fugitives. Apart from the daily grind to make ends meet, the threat of arrest on false pretexts has robbed them of the right to claim what has always been their own.
In 2006, the UPA government passed the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act. It provides for recognising 13 different rights that are central to the livelihood of tribals and other traditional forest-dwellers across the country. But on Maoist turf, each and every amenity rolled out by the government is politicised. The Forest Rights Act ~ the first genuine attempt to reverse the wrongs perpetrated by British colonial rule that destroyed those who had preserved the rich ecosystem for centuries together ~ has also been reduced to an instrument of political leverage.
In Bhupatipalli, in the shadow of the Ayodhya Hills, lives a colony of the Birhor tribe (a denotified tribe and a primitive tribal group). Originally residents of the Jharkhand forests, they are trying hard to acclimatise to the new concrete structures they were given under the Indira Awaas Yojana. At night, they push their cattle into the rooms and sleep under the sky.
The government allotted half an acre as a settlement for this tribe that specialises in hunting. And Moti and Kangan Shikari continue to starve. Both displayed their pattas on which it is clearly written that Kangan Shikari possessed 0.33 acres in Matiala and Moti was the owner of two plots of land in Matiala and Tantan mouza of 0.74 acres and 0.43 acres respectively. They come to know where their land lay as I read it out to them. The officials never told them — they cannot read — about the location of their property.
Satamoni Birhor said her son was the sole earner of the family and he stole from the houses of neighbouring villages or looted vehicles on the highway. “We cannot enter out own forest that used to feed us. Now we have to buy food. From where will the money come? The government has not even come to see whether the colony they have put us in has water. What jobs will that government give our children?” she asked. They have been given a room with a kitchen that is of hardly any use to them save to keep their cattle.
Several villagers have been cheated in Chhatni, Purulia, with regard to the issuing of pattas. They had filled claim forms a year ago and the officials who came with these had to be feted with meat, rice and money. Despite this, they were particularly irked over the fact that they were not given any receipt for the Rs 50 each of them had to pay by way of a “fee”. In Ayodhya Pahar, Forward Bloc leader Akhil Singh Sardar said that 2,400 claims were submitted from the village and about 400 people had already received pattas. The rest would get theirs after the assembly elections. “The tribal affairs department is reeling under a staff crunch and so the process is being delayed,” he added.
Several tribals in Nichukuli, Uparkuli, Haathinada and Ragadih in the Ayodhya Hills denied knowing anything about getting land rights. The few of them who knew said that getting a tribal certificate needed for the claim was too much of a hassle.
Moreover, tribals are being forced to leave their traditional ways of collecting minor forest produce and work as labourers in other districts. The forest department took up a massive plantation drive in the districts where the number of saal trees is dwindling because of indiscriminate logging and planted eucalyptus, ignorant of the fact that such plantations would be dead zones for minor forest produce collectors. Since before Independence, forest departments have always been found to be preoccupied with timber. One of the standard methods by which they have taken over common and individual tribal land involves the planting of trees in the name of afforestation.
In October 2008, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment and Forests criticised the Union environment ministry for this and rejected the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill (along with the fact that the Bill vested practically all control over the funds in the Central government, ignoring the role and rights of state governments). And yet no changes have been made in any afforestation programme with regard to the recognition of rights or consultation with local tribals.
Meanwhile, the Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority is proceeding with the partial release of funds, as directed by the Supreme Court in July 2009, but the guidelines of the Union ministry of environment and forest do not refer to forest rights at all. Externally aided forestry projects are also continuing, through joint forest management committees, while ignoring the rights and provisions of the Act. In the meantime, the environment ministry is supporting the “Reduced Emissions from Degradation and Deforestation” international agreement, but its official documents fail to even note the Forest Rights Act and the implications of this agreement for these rights and the impact that such commoditisation of forests will have on the principle of democratic control over forests.
The latest is the Union ministry of environment and forest’s draft of the Green India Mission, which plans to create 10 million afforested hectares over the next 10 years with a budget of Rs 44,000 crore. Although this document does mention the Forest Rights Act, it aims to retain control over the functioning of gram sabhas by portraying the joint forest management committees as community bodies. Such enormous land and financial targets can only lead further land grabbing and conflict, effectively compromising forest dwellers’ access to traditional means of livelihood.
According to the Union ministry of tribal affairs, India has 2,474 forest villages (the majority of these are spread over Assam, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal), though civil society has expressed doubts over this figure – because it certainly does not include taungya settlements that would make the total number significantly larger. The NC Saxena Committee found that in Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Maharashtra proper surveys of forest villages had not been carried out and their inhabitants were being denied the benefits of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
Like 19th century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel rightly said, history is a slaughterhouse.
Written under the aegis of a CSE Media Fellowship, the writer is on the staff of The Statesman