Gadchiroli, Maharashtra: On a chilly December night in the easternmost district of Maharashtra, around 500 members of gram sabhas from across Adivasi belts of Maharashtra and some other states came together to share their experiences of managing forests.
Bunched into taluka-wise, district-wise and state-wise groups, they prepared reports on their struggles and a possible future line of action.
The reference points were two landmark legislations – the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996 and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (also called the Forest Rights Act). Both of these laws upturned the ownership of forest resources and transferred it from the government to local communities.
However, as gram sabha representatives made their representations on December 26, 2017, in Gadchiroli town, large-scale violations of these legislations by the government machinery emerged.
Beginning with not being allowed to hold meetings by gram panchayat authorities and extending to facing police cases and the subversion of processes to approve forest rights claims, the everyday struggles of gram sabhas were multitudinous.
The two-day national convention of gram sabhas organised on December 25 and 26, 2017 was aimed at initiating the process of building solidarities between gram sabhas of different regions. “There have been conferences held before on the completion of ten years of the Forest Rights Act and 20 years of PESA in metro cities like Delhi by academicians and non-government organisations, wherein one to two members of Adivasi organisations just attend. But what is needed is evaluation and planning that is driven by them,” said Mahesh Raut, member of the convention’s organising committee and an independent researcher and activist based in Gadchiroli.
With 1,355 community forest land titles distributed in Gadchiroli, the district has achieved 77% of its community forest rights potential, according to a 2017 report of the Community Forest Rights Learning and Advocacy Group. But many other districts and states lag severely behind. Only seven states in the country have granted community forest land titles and only 14 of the 34 districts have granted them in Maharashtra.
In Rajasthan, according to the 11-member delegation from gram sabhas that attended the convention, legal provisions were being flouted even in the vesting of individual forest rights. Narseh Dhamor, a member of the Sooliya Malpura gram sabha from Banswara district’s Kushalgarh tehsil, has been waiting for a decade to get ownership over land that has been tilled by his family for more than 40 years. “Eleven farmers from my village filed claims for their agricultural land in 2006. Until now, neither have we received our titles nor do we know what happened to our applications,” Dhamor said.
Similar was the case of Thavri Bai from Udaipur district’s Jhadol tehsil, whose claim too has been pending approval for more than a decade along with seven other farmers.
But Dhamor and Thavri Bai’s cases seem to point to a much bigger void in Adivasi rights in Rajasthan. According to Dharamchand Kher of Rajasthan’s Adivasi Adhikar Manch, a total of 42,000 individual forest rights claims and 350 community forest claims were pending approval. Citing an example of Mahad village in Kotra tehsil, Udaipur district, Kher illustrated the callous manner in which sub-divisional committees and the tribal area development department of the Rajasthan government operate. “In 2009, 623 individual forest rights claims were passed by the Mahad gram sabha and forwarded to the sub-divisional office. Of these, only 38 land titles have been received,” he said.
In 2013, the forest rights committee of Mahad village once again wrote to the sub-divisional magistrate. “On this, the forest ranger was instructed to carry out a survey. But when we inquired later, we were told that the concerned ranger was retired and his successor, later, had met with an accident.” There has been no further processing of applications and until now, the authorities are sitting on the villagers’ claims.
This is the status, Kher said, of implementation of the Forest Rights Act in Rajasthan. “In the titles that people have received too, ownership is granted on just 2.5 to 5 bighas, which is far less than what was claimed and is being utilised.”
The delegation further claimed that for the past three years, the government had stopped accepting any fresh claims if they were not attached to any forest enquiry reports or other forest records.
Section 13 (1) of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Rules, 2008, provides for attaching nine different forms of documents along with claims and does not make any one form among them compulsory.
While gram sabhas from Rajasthan mentioned how several legal provisions were being undermined, the delegation of gram sabhas from Yavatmal district in Maharashtra highlighted hurdles in the exercise of their autonomy in the sale of forest produce.
“The forest department lodged an FIR against 18 gram sabhas after we gathered tendu leaves for auction this year,” said Prashant Tekam from Awalgaon gram sabha in Maregaon taluka, Yavatmal district. “We are now talking to the police about how we were working as per the law, and auctioning on our own is a right now.”
A January 19, 2015 notification from the Maharashtra government freed sale of non-timber forest produce by the forest department and gave gram sabhas the power to organise auctions on their own.
While proudly proclaiming that they had collectively earned Rs 58 lakh this year from the sale of tendu leaves, Tekam added that there was always opposition from different departments to the gram sabhas’ decisions.
Srikant Lodham, another representative from the Maregaon taluka, said that the gram panchayat secretary and gram sevak often denied them permission to even hold gram sabha meetings.
Even amidst such odds, the Awalgaon gram sabha along with 19 others in Maregaon and Zari-Jamani talukas have prepared conservation management plans for their forests. “The plan of Awalgaon is for 650 hectares of our forest land,” Tekam said. The community forest right claim of Awalgaon was approved in 2013.
“The primary focus of our conservation management plan is on noting types of trees and studying soil types. This will help us manage our livelihood from forests better,” Tekam added. “Until now, the forest department used to carry out plantation on our land which was of no use. So we decided to come up with our own plan and are now coordinating with the government to execute it.”
Representations from gram sabhas from Chandrapur district also talked of issues of pending community forest rights and those from Nagpur district talked about the government not notifying Adivasi-majority areas to fall under the purview of PESA provisions.
Enduring the onslaught of mining projects, many of the gram sabhas from Gadchiroli who fought hard for gaining community forest rights said they are now witnessing a blatant assault on these rights. At a time when several individual forest rights claims and a community forest right claim in Damkondwahi in Gadchiroli’s Etapalli’s taluka is still pending, the government is going ahead with leasing forest land for mining, they said.
Residents of Surjagad village in Gadchiroli’s Etapalli taluka, where an iron ore mining site has been excavated, have to face searches by the police at three-km intervals, severely restricting their mobility. Residents of Zendepar village in Korchi taluka too have been fighting against mining projects since 2007, but much has been in vain.
Kalpana Alam, sarpanch of Pursalgondi gram panchayat where the Surjagad iron ore mining project has begun, made an emotive speech. “We are trying a lot to stop the project, but the government has dismissed all our gram sabha resolutions. I grew up in these forests, but now in front of my eyes, they are being destroyed”.
Along with police threats, gram sabha members also alleged that they face false accusations and complaints.
Lalsu Nogoti of Juvvi gram sabha in Gadchiroli’s Bhamragad taluka and a former fellow in the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that he faced charges of having misappropriated gram sabha funds to travel on the fellowship. “It was a complaint to intimidate us even though it is well-known that the fellowship is fully-funded. Everybody needs to be cautious,” he said.
“All the gram sabhas can open a bank account in their name and carry out all forest produce sale transactions through it. So there is transparency and we do not fall prey to such accusations,” added Nogoti, who was also on the convention’s organising committee.
“It is time for all the gram sabhas to unite and unionise against the contractor-government administration nexus if we want to save our forests,” said Ramesh Pungati, another gram sabha member from Bhamragad taluka.
Among other guests at the convention were Arvind Netam, former Union deputy minister of education, and Namdeo Usendi, former MLA from Gadchiroli-Chimur and Congress district president for Gadchiroli.
Netam rued how PESA was being misused with proxy gram sabha resolutions to push corporate projects forward. “PESA was passed by the government after much persuasion and struggle by Adivasi leaders. Was all the effort made to see it being misused by the government this way?”
Usendi said that Adivasis have been living lives that are void of exploitation and wealth accumulation. “It is our human right to live the way we want to. The government cannot force us to think and live like the non-adivasis”.
Issues around levying the Goods and Services Tax on forest produce and the displacement of Adivasis from wildlife sanctuary areas were also discussed. Each person who had gathered was also given a form to fill and submit about the situation of PESA and Forest Rights Act in their respective villages.
As hardships loom large for Adivasis in the predominant development narrative, a photo exhibition put up at the location by Humans of Gondwana gave a sliver of promise and pride to those gathered. The photos showcased the rich knowledge systems and egalitarian lifestyles of Adivasis.
Poorvi Kulkarni is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.