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Trampling tribal rights

By Rajesh Sinha

Naxalism is only one – and an extreme – reaction to what is happening, and being done, to the people in these areas. Despite talk of development and the arguments about Naxalism being a hurdle to it, the actual situation on the ground gives the lie to government's claims. 

Take the example of Forest Rights Act, as "The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006" is commonly called. Touted as a shining example of government's 'aam aadmi' oriented approach, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) aims to restore the rights of forest-dwelling communities to land and other resources which were denied to them under the continuing colonial forest laws which do not take into account the ways of life of tribal communities. It provides for recognition of individual family rights over land it traditionally used which was treated as "encroachment," as well as community rights over land and forest, such as for grazing and forest produce. 

Over two years after the FRA came into force, a visit to Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh – two of the Naxal-affected states – showed that instead of getting the promised benefits, tribals and forest dwellers are, on the contrary, engaged in a desperate fight to save their home, hearth and source of livelihood. A large number of them face displacement as the land they have lived on for generations is in danger of being handed over to various industrial and mining companies.

The FRA, in effect, has remained on paper. It has conferred much too little to far too few: a maximum of about half an acre to less than one per cent of the families covered by the Act. As for village community rights over pastures and forest produce, these are yet to be taken into account.

So far, a total of two persons have "benefited" in Latehar district of Palamau division from the Forest Rights Act. These two adivasis from Durup village were allotted between 0.2-0.4 acres of land – barely enough for sustenance. The actual, average size of land villagers have is between 1.5- 4 acres.

Villagers all over Palamau division, waiting for completion of the process of recognition of their rights over lands they occupy, had similar tales to narrate: "Forest officials tell us we will be given "20 decimal - 50 decimal" (0.20 acres - 0.50 acres) at the most. Those who have five acres will get a maximum of 0.5 acres." 

When Palamau deputy commissioner (DC) Amitabh Shukla announced the settlement of claims of around 170 villagers on April 14, many of them were those processed by 'thekedars' (contractors), according to Awadh Singh. The sizes of plots allotted, "averaging one acre" according to the DC, was between 0.4-1 acre, said Singh. The actual sizes were three to four times this size but the villagers, in awe of 'sahib log', government servants, were browbeaten into agreeing to this.

Forest officials are seen as the most serious hindrances to full implementation of the law. According to activists, forest officials not only do not extend any help to those wanting to exercise their rights over forest land as stipulated in the law, they resort to various devices to deny them those rights. The forest official, who is a mandatory member of the joint verification team often does not turn up for meetings to settle claims. A forest department functionary in chief conservator's office said the claims were not being processed fast enough as no claims were being received. "We can clear the applications only when we get them," he said.

Corruption, too, has muddled the process. According to Awadh Singh, involved in helping villagers in the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, the 'amin' who measures the piece of land claimed by a family, often demands Rs 1500-Rs 2500 from every villager for doing his job. Hence, so far, according to latest data, Jharkhand has settled claims of slightly over 9,000 tribal families.

Compare – or contrast – this with the eagerness with which the government has rushed through MoUs (Memorandum of Understanding) with corporate entities, awarding them nearly two lakh acres of land, much of it forest, with utter disregard to environmental and social concerns. In Keradari Block in Hazaribagh district, 1,300 acres of the total about 1,400 acres that have been given to a corporate house is forest land, says leading activist Dayamani Barla. Not a single villager in the area has yet been given any 'patta' or piece of land under the Forest Rights Act.

It is the government and the corporate houses that are aware of the land and resources available; the people who have been given the right over their land are not. Many, even within 30 km radius of the state capital Ranchi, have not heard of the Act. A few who have are waiting for the administration's response, some for over a year, after filing their application forms. They are routinely and regularly called for meetings 30 km away, meetings that do not happen because one or the other government functionary is unable to attend.

The FRA and the people it is meant for figure low in the government's priority. In practice, the net effect of government's approach would, rather than secure the tribals and forest dwellers in their habitations, uproot and displace a large section of these people without any meaningful resettlement or rehabilitation because that policy is still not in place.

The government has been on a MoU signing spree ever since the mineral-rich Jharkhand (2000) comprising a third of India's entire mineral wealth came into existence. Indian Social Action Forum estimates that over 1,98,362 acres of land is on offer in 44 projects of various companies with whom MoUs have been signed.There are over a 100 MoUs that have been signed. According to human rights activist Gladson Dungdung, various governments in the state till now have signed 102 MoUs for establishing steel factories, power plants and mining industries, which require approximately 2,00,000 acres of land, which directly means the displacement of approximately 1 million people.

A government that drags its feet in taking action to carry out its obligations under the Forest Rights Act to give tribals and forest dwellers their right to land and forests, has gone into an overdrive to cleanse the forests of real and imagined Maoists through 'Operation Green-Hunt' to make them safe for the corporate houses to move in. The operation happens to be on particularly in areas where the government has promised land to industrialists. There were hardly any signs of the "green hunt" in Palamau-Latehar region, a Maoist stronghold, which has seen trains being hijacked by the Maoists.

The government approach has created widespread disaffection and several  protests in the state. The kind of development government intends  has created a feeling that it only means evicting tribals to make way for multi-nationals and big companies to exploit their land. Widespread impression is, the compensation offered in return for displacement is grossly paltry, transient and only to a few actual sufferers. The past experience of rehabilitation and resettlement does not inspire any confidence in them: particularly since, Gladson says, the government that lost no time in declaring its industrial policy, has not yet formulated a policy for resettlement and rehabilitation of persons displaced due to mining or other projects.

(Samay Live, 8th June)