Several thousand forest dwellers participate in nation-wide protests against eviction and amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927
Adivasis present memorandums to district authorities
Protests to defend provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, oppose proposed draconian amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and against the government’s antipathy towards the forest dwelling communities rocked the country today at various far flung places.
As many as 25,000 people participated in protests at various locations in different states including Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Tripura, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Himachal Pradesh. At many places, protestors presented memorandums, listing their demands, to the district authorities.
The protesters, all forest dwelling people, including Adivasis, Dalits and Other Traditional Forest Dwelling (OTFD) communities,condemned attempts to dilute the FRA, 2006 and also the proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927. These amendmentswill give Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – like powers to the forest authorities.
The protest call was given by the BhumiAdhikarAndolan after a national consultation on forest rights on July 1 and July 2. Several organisations, including Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), are a part of this umbrella platform.
Millions of Adivasis and other traditional forest dwelling communities are facing the threat of eviction due to the Supreme Court ruling on February 13, 2019. If claims under the FRA are rejected, then the States have been directed to evict Adivasis and traditional forest dwellers from the forests. While, on February 28, 2019, the Supreme Court stayed its earlier order, putting orders for eviction on hold, the forest department is still pushing people out of their lands and destroying their fields. Since February 2019, several such instances have been reported from many states. The Supreme Court is due to hear the various petitions on this issue on July 24, 2019.
The BJP Government is also proposing draconian amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927, to facilitate corporate loot and exploitation of the tribal people. The two-day National Consultation of Land and Forest Rights Movements, held in Delhi, had decided to hold programmes and protest actions, condemning the government actions and proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act, on July 22 at the village, block, district and state levels. Chief Ministers of the different states of the country have been written to, seeking their intervention in the Supreme Courtin favour of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, and the Adivasis.
At JantarMantar, Delhi, several groups gathered to mark the National Protest under the umbrella of BhoomiAdhikarAndolan. The secretary of All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), Roma Malik, who was present there with several hundred Adivasis,noted, “There has been intense objection against Supreme Court’s previous order in all states of India. We don’t think it will take a very drastic step on July 24.”
Ashok Chaudhary, who is also a member of the AIUFWP, told the CJP team that various groups, including All Indian KisanSabha (AIKS), have come together. He said that the Adivasis have declared that they will oppose any such eviction order tooth and nail.
Memorandums presented by local organisations to district authorities raised some grave issues about the implementation or the lack thereof of the FRA, 2006, in their respective districts and blocks.
A memorandum presented in Chhattisgarh noted, “In this regard, the Chhattisgarh government had made it clear after the Supreme Court order, that Adivasis and Other Forest Dwellers will not be evicted from their land, which was an appreciable step. Chhattisgarh government even prepared itself to present its side in this context.But we feel that lack of co-ordination and appropriate legal advice and also, delay in choosing a lawyer to fight the case,have weakened the case.
The affidavit presented by the Chhattisgarh government should have highlighted that the main purpose of the said petition was not the eviction from the forest land, but the evocation of constitutional rights. As mentioned in our affidavit, emancipatory provisions like the FRA, 2006, don’t provide for rejection [of claims] and it should have been highlighted by the state government while presenting its case before the Supreme Court.”
It added, “However, after the new government came to power in Chhattisgarh, it publicly showed appreciable commitment to implement the FRA.It started its work with the correct understanding of the FRA once again, after 11 years of the Act remaining almost dead. It asked the Gram Sabhas to reconsider the rejected claims and give preference to community forest rights. It started preparing a guide for comprehensive training and to create a working group for the correct implementation of the Act and even made a charter. However, after a while, everything has become quiet.”
The Chhattisgarh statement also highlighted that the Tribal Affairs department, the nodal agency to implement the Act, is without a leader. Those officers, who were working committedly, have been transferred.
In Purvanchal, MNREGA MazdoorUnion, PurvanchalKisan Union and National Alliance of People’s Movement came together in Rajatalab/ Rohaniyan to demand implementation of the FRA, 2006 and submitted memorandums to the District Magistrate.
The coordinator of the MNREGA Mazdoor Union, Adv. Suresh Rathor, said that they had submitted before the Supreme Court that first and foremost, the forest dependent communities, who have been living in the forests for several generations, should have rights over forest lands.
A memorandum submitted in Bankura, West Bengal, by district representatives of All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations noted that no Gram Sabha had been formed in the district, thus pointing to the “legally flawed” process being carried out by the district administration in the name of implementation of the Act while rejecting all claims filed in the district.
Despite the overwhelming response to the protest call, media outlets have chosen to black out the protests completely. No mainstream media has covered the protests. In a Facebook live video, the CJP Secretary,TeestaSetalvadhighlighted that climate cannot be saved without giving forest dwelling communities their due rights.
However, international organisations have supported the demands of India’s forest dwelling communities whole heartedly. As many as 43 organisations fighting climate change, from 24 countries around the world, have said that the BJP-led government is threatening the fight against climate change by attacking the rights of tribals and forest dwellers. Referring to the Modi government's silence in the Supreme Court cases against the Forest Rights Act (next hearing expected to be on July 24), and the government's proposal to bring in draconian amendments in the Indian Forest Act, 1927, these organisations have said that "The Indian government’s steps imperil the livelihoods of millions of people, threaten to restore a colonial and autocratic model of forest management, and threaten the global fight against climate change."
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