Forest Dweller rights missing from Election 2019 discourse

Written by Sabrangindia | Published on: May 31, 2019
The Lok Sabha elections have concluded, results are in, and despite the decidedly anti-people’s policies of the previous Modi government, it has been voted in with a more decisive majority. In March 2019, SabrangIndia team had showcased a study which highlighted the 133 constituencies where a campaign for Forest Rights could have had an impact during poll season. We studied 86 of these constituencies, mainly on the basis of the criticality assigned to them by the study in terms of Forest Rights issues. The constituencies studied were critical value, high value and good value constituencies.

forest rights

This issue had been brought to the forefront by the recent Supreme Court directive (February 2019) on land of forest dwellers and Adivasis and the failure of the Modi regime to defend the Forest Rights Act, 2006 before the Supreme Court. Worse it had plans to enact a draconian Forest Law worse than the colonial forest act of the 1920s. All the more reason for the Opposition to make the crucial issue of forest dweller and Adivasi rights a sustained and critical campaign in this general election. As the results show, the issue simply did not figure in the electoral discourse.

Take for instance Robertsganj in eastern Uttar Pradesh which saw a spirited if splintered battle. The margin between the winner from the Apna Dal (Soney Lal), Pakauri Lal Kol who polled 4.47,691 votes and Samajwadi Party’s Bhai Lal who got3,99,3304 votes is 54,387 votes. And the Congress with 35,222, the CPI with 17,445 and other candidates (from the ‘progressive opposition’) with 18,333, 11, 029 and 9120 together got 41,149 votes. A concerted campaign around forest rights cohesive against the ruling regime’s assault may well have dented this seat.

Critical Value Constituencies
Definition: These are i) tribal (ST) constituencies where more than 10% of the eligible voters are also potential Forest Rights Holders or ii) non-tribal constituencies where more than 60% of the eligible voters are also potential Forest Rights holders.

High Value Constituencies
Definition: These are i) tribal (ST) constituencies where more than 10% of the eligible voters are also potential Forest Rights Holders or ii) non-tribal constituencies where between 50%-60% of the eligible voters are also potential Forest Rights holders.

Good Value Constituencies:
Non ST Constituencies where potential forest rights holders voters are between 30%-50% of the eligible voters in the constituency
Type of Constituency BJP INC Others
Critical Value Constituencies 23 2 6
High Value Constituencies 16 1 3
Good Value Constituencies 19 5 11
 Tribals across several states had called for Bharat Bandh to protest against the Supreme Court order that might lead to mass-scale evictions of tribal and forest-dwelling families. Among the demands made is the demand for an immediate ordinance by the Modi government to correct the controversial eviction order of the Supreme Court delivered on February 13. The Congress, RJD, SP, AAP and Sharad Yadav’s party supported the bandh call. The order of the SC that was temporarily stayed a week later, after the Modi government was compelled to move the same bench for review had resulted in shock waves since its effect was that 1.3 million families living on forest lands, and nurturing them would have been evicted. Significantly, the case was heard for several years’ on a ‘PIL’ filed by wildlife groups.The Modi-led central government was criticised for not defending the Forest Rights Act of 2006, a liberative central piece of legislation.The FRA of 2006 recognises the earlier invisibilised rights of the forest dweller and is known as a ‘recognition of rights’ law. It was the first time that the Vth and VIth Schedules of the Constitution were given statutory teeth. Hence, Adivasis in states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and other states in Northeast led a peaceful bandh on March 5. At the time and before, the BJP government was also criticised for its policies related to land acquisition and dilution of land rights of Adivasis.

Given this potentiality, there were possibilities of these seats giving a tough fight to candidates from the ruling regime. In many seats, important from the point of view of Forest Rights saw a direct face-off between the Congress andthe BJP. The shocker however is that a chunk of the vote went to the BJP.  What does this show? That Adivasis and Forest Dwellers did not vote on what is most crucial for their survival but on other issues and identities? That the Congress failed to claim credit for its own emancipatory legislation, the FRA of 2006 brought in by the UPA I regime? That there was a division of vote?

Of the 86 constituencies analysed, the BJP has won by a larger margin as compared to 2014 in 37 constituencies. In another 22 constituencies, its margin reduced as compared to 2014, and in 28 constituencies where FRA 2006 has some influence, parties other than BJP won.

It does seem like the areas in which people’s movements were strong, either the BJP lost or its winning margins reduced significantly. A splintered and non-serious Opposition also fragmented the Opposition vote.

Bastar, Chhattisgarh which tops the chart of critical value constituencies seemed a shift of power from BJP to INC, with latter winning by a margin of 38982.

In Chhattisgarh’s Korba constituency, INC trounced BJP by 26349 votes. Last time, the BJP had won this with a small margin of 4265 votes.

Though the BJP won in the critical value constituency, Khunti, Jharkhand the winning margin was significantly reduced from 92248 in 2014 to 1445 in 2019.Earlier we had indicated that Khunti is a stronghold of Pathalgadi movement. It appears from the figures on the EC website that here in Khunti, the BSP was the ‘spoiler’ ( BSP Got 7663) and wining vote margin is only 1445.
Kandhamal in Odisha saw the reduction in winning margin of BJPby half. Here the winning BJD got 49% of the vote share, the BJP 33% and the Congres about 14%. Around 2% of the votes fell to NOTA.
In Telangana’s Adilabad, BJP came to power, winning by 1,12100 margin. Here in the Adilabad seat, the BJP Got 35% of the total votes while the TRS 29%, and the INC 29%.

West Bengal’s Jhargram, which is an ST constituency, the BJP came to power defeating All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) which had won last time. The BJP’s winning margin was 11,767 votes. Here in Jhagram, the BJP consolidated its position grabbing 44% of the votes polled while the TMC got 43%,  the CPI 5% and the INC 1.5%.

In Maharashtra’s Raigad, NCP defeated Shiv Sena by 31,438 votes.In Maharashtra’s Shirur, NCP defeated Shiv Sena by 58483 votes. In MP’s Chindwara, INC maintained its hold but its vote share reduced to 37536 from 116537.

In Kerala, INC trounced CPI(M) in all seats relevant for forest rights such as Alathur, Palakkad, Alathur and Wayanad.

Jharkhand’s Singhbhum, which is an SC constituency and termed as a good value constituency and was recently in news for its poor record in malnutrition, saw INC trouncing BJP by over 70,000 votes.

Kanker in Chhattisgarhfamous for mining projects, saw BJP coming back to power but this time with a significantly reduced margin of 6914 votes as compared to last time’s margin of 35158 votes. In terms of criticality, Kanker features at second number in the Critical value constituency list with nearly 50% voters eligible for voting.

The results from various places require a deeper reflection on how the BJP was able to secure the Adivasi vote, if at all. Or did many Adivasis face challenges in voting?

Because of their traditional settlements, many voters did face the challenge of access, that is in actually reaching polling booths. At some places Adivasis chose to boycott elections because of the ever present state repression. A case in point was Khunti, the bedrock of Pathalgadi movement in Jharkhand. There were also reports of Adivasis being duped in the name of Ujjawala scheme prior to the elections. It was also that many of the opposition parties failed to put FRA prominently as their campaign agenda and despite Congress having enacted the law, it performed poorly in both 2014 and 2019 polls.

On February 28, the SC had stayed its order on eviction and posted the matter for hearing on July 10. States had been asked to file their responses on what was the process followed for rejection for the claims. While human rights defenders such as Roma had argued that the FRA, 2006 is not about rejecting but recognising land rights of the forest dwelling communities. The fates of several forest dwelling communities hangs in air right now and it seems like the struggle has to start afresh!