Saturday, January 15, 2011

Commons, communities and state appropriation

Commons, communities and state appropriation

Ashok Choudhary and Roma

“Our ancestors protected this forest and land and this is our heritage.
To protect the forest and land for oour future generations. Then howcome
the British ruler has become the owner of our heritage? We cannot accept
—Tilka Majhi from the Jabra Pahadiya Tribe of the Santhal Paraganas,
to the collector of Bhagalpur during a trial when the government tried
to reallocate land. Baba Tilka Majhi was first Santal leader who took
up the arms against the British in the 1789. Baba Tilka Mahji was killed
by the British. In India the majority of the rural population has been dependent on
natural resources for their livelihood. Traditionally, most of these natural
resources—land, forest and water—were commons. But in the historical
process, and especially during the colonial rule, many of these commons
came under private and state ownership. The colonial powers’ quest to
grab land for increasing agricultural revenue, supply of timber and other
forest produce, for industrialisation and for accumulation of capital
necessitated a total change in the pattern of social ownership to private
and state ownership. In this process, the symbiotic relationship between
society and common resources almost got destroyed.
Since then the ownership of forest resources has remained a critical issue,
resulting in a series of conflicts between Adivasis and other forest dwellers
on the one side and the Indian State and corporations on the other. It
has become an important political issue now with the enactment of
Schedule Tribe and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act
2006, popularly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA). With the growing
awareness about the political rights, there is a class struggle now in many
forest areas especially in the central, eastern and Himalayan regions.
It is pertinent to look into the history of these areas in the context of
appropriation of forest land by the Indian State, against the basic principles
of Indian Constitution. Forest people had fought tooth and nail against
the concept of eminent domain established by the colonial powers and
forced the then colonial state to enact progressive laws in certain areas
such as the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CTA) 1908, Santhal Parganas
Tenancy Act (SPTA) 1912 and Van Panchayat Rules 1930 in Uttarakhand.
Ironically, the government of independent India systematically accelerated
the process of annexation of forest land. Thus national independence came
as a curse to the forest people and forest dwellers.
So the struggle for community control over the forest resources still
continues in different regions in different forms. Since the invasion on
forest resource by the neo–liberal regime after 1991, the resistance by
local people’s organisations have also intensified and spread in the last
two decades. In some places the resistance has taken militant forms.
Given the role played by the Indian state as a facilitator for profiteering
rather than a protector of constitutional and human rights of the affected
communities, all these resistance movements are fundamentally for the
defence of the constitutional rights, leading towards the demand for
community governance of natural resources. The situation has compelled
the ruling parties, and ‘mainstream’ politics in general, to formulate
legislations which would recognise community rights fully or partly. FRA
is an important milestone in this process.
Though FRA recognises community rights over forest land, produce and
forest management, it does not fit into the dominant political economy
of the Indian state and of present form of governance, which continues
to be based on eminent domain. As a result, the conflict between the
state and the people on the issue of forest governance is intensifying.
This creates political space for the peoples’ movements who are using
FRA as a tool to empower themselves for decisive negotiations with the
state, on a democratic premise. Till now the state has not negotiated on
these critical conflicting issues directly with the community representatives.
Rather, it is doing so through its own representatives by forming various
committees, through the National Advisory Council (NAC) or with the
committee appointed to review implementation of FRA. But as the forest
rights movements led by people’s organisations grow ever stronger the
state will have to start the negotiation process with the community
Defining the commons, its defenders and destroyers
The commons, according to the provisions of the Constitution of India
and the Panchayati Raj Act, are that every village had a place in its
jurisdiction that was kept for the community usage. They are called nistar,
haqdari and bartandari rights—basically rights of villagers for grazing,
fishing, collecting firewood, hunting, water and other necessities of life.
A majority of the commons were encroached by the landed sections,
corporations, projects, state controlled cooperative societies and government
departments for forests, irrigation, railways and public works. Significantly,
the commons appropriated by private citizens are not taken into
consideration when accounting for alienation of the commons though they
have taken away substantial areas of common resources. Only direct
state appropriation is referred to in most of the cases.
The state has played a major role in appropriation by the private parties.
The issue of commons is therefore directly related to the larger question
of agrarian reforms in the country. The commons or the land used by
the village community for the public purposes such as grazing, pastures,
collection of fuel–wood, rights over territorial waters, fishing rights in
the ponds, rivers, seasonal rivers, collection of non–timber forest produce
(NTFP) from the village forests etc are issues of power and control in
the rural hinterland. Perusal of the land records of any village from any
state will show that the village today has very little commons or no
commons at all. The common lands have been appropriated by the rich
or dominant caste sections. In the case of forests, appropriation is by
the forest department.
History of state appropriation and resistance
The colonial state initiated an economic process for accumulation of capital
by encroaching upon natural resources such as forests, land and water,
in the nineteenth century. The imperial powers started annexing the forests
in the eighteenth century. A powerful section of the Indian merchant class
joined with the British colonial power in accumulating capital and thus
became a partner in the exploitation of natural resources, using Adivasis
(first dwellers, indigenous people) and Moolnivasis (forest dwellers) as
cheap labour to strengthen the colonial power. Many Indian corporations
have actually grown in this process and still maintain the culture of
The government expanded its own forest lands by taking over private
forests of the landed classes and village commons. By doing so it came
into direct conflict with those who worked in or lived in these forested
areas. The approximately 75 million hectares of forest area that remained
in the eminent domain of the forest department, which is 23% of the
total land area of the country, awaits effective agrarian reforms. Forest
dwelling communities have always had diverse dimensions in terms of
population and activities. Each community has its own history of struggle
for their rights against the state. But these struggles remained isolated
from each other. It was only in the 1980s when some social movement
activists started political mobilisation in different areas and also to establish
a linkage among these struggles regional and national level forums and
networks were created.
The National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW)
was formed in this process in 1998, with the primary objective of creating
a national level struggle by linking the regional and local struggles. It was
a difficult task to formulate an appropriate definition of forest based
working people who are dependent on the forest for their livelihood. ‘Any
worker who depends on forests for livelihood or is exploited in any
manner by the forest department, forest corporation or contractors,
or collects minor forest produce or cultivates the so–called forest
land for a living, or is pastoralist depended on the forest, shall be
called a forest worker’. This definition was enriched by the indigenous
people’s concept of Adivasi society organised around labour, but it is also
built around the concept of community and collectivism and is interested
neither in the exploitation of labour nor in selling its own labour.
With the enactment of FRA, a new legislation has opened up a debate
and intensified struggles in various forest areas on the issue of land reforms
inside the forest areas. This critical issue has not been addressed properly
in the last six decades. In enabling an understanding, one needs to be
aware of the facts about the appropriation of common resources by the
state for profiteering by feudalistic and capitalistic forces. In this context
it will be relevant to discuss the background and examine some important
case studies of some crucial areas where conflict is intensifying.
Land grab by the government
Before an effective Land Reforms Act could be enacted in the country,
vast tracts of forest vested with the erstwhile princely states, zamindars
and talukdars were transferred to the forest department. These forests
included huge tracts of commons land which were annexed by the forest
department without any process for settlement of rights. Those who lived
in the forests were ignored and their activities and presence became
These included the forest and forest land in the boundary of the gram
sabha or revenue village. The example of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which
then included Uttarakhand and Jharkhand, is illustrative. There the
movement against Zamindari (landlord) system was very strong. So just
before the Zamindari Abolition and Land Reform Act could be enacted,
the forests of both these states were vested with the forest department
by bringing new legislations. The Private Forest Act 1948 was enacted
hurriedly in the respective legislative assemblies of Bihar and Uttar
Pradesh to legalise this appropriation retroactively. This illegal invasion
from the forest department on the village forest and commons continued
in various forms even till recently. Since forests are in the central list
in the Constitution of India from 1975, state governments became passive
accomplices in this appropriation.
According to the study conducted by NFFPFW in Uttar Pradesh, it is
estimated that about 3 million acres of gram sabha land has been
appropriated by the forest department between 1950 and 2000, apart from
the land under the Land Ceiling Act. If we include estimates of the land
appropriated by private people surpassing the ceiling, it will be exorbitantly
In 1955 these lands were again notified as ‘protected forests’ according
to Indian Forest Act 1927. The Land Reform Act came into existence
in 1952 but enforcement of this Act took another eight to ten years in
these states. It might be noted that protected forests are those government
forests where rights are recorded but not settled.
Even before the land reform legislation came into force, the government
strengthened the forest department. It soon became a biggest landlord
in the country, much against the spirit of the Constitution enshrined in
Article 31–A, the object of which is to facilitate agrarian reforms providing
for acquisition for any ‘estate or any right therein, extinguishment or
modification of any such rights, shall be deemed to be void on the
ground that list is inconsistent with or takes away or abridges any
of the rights conferred by Articles 14 to 19 of the Constitution. Hence
these were all illegal transfers of land, as they were not acquired under
Land Acquisition Act and also none of the state revenue laws has any
provision of transfer of lands under the jurisdiction of the gram sabha
to the forest department.
A glaring example could be seen in Khunti district of Jharkhand which
is ‘Khuttkatti’ area, where CTA is applicable since 1908. Around 450
villages had the control of forest land and forest according to this Act
at that time. The land records, the khatiyan, are with the Munda tribe.
But in 1955, the forest department demarcated its own boundary in this
very area without going for verification of rights and demarcation.
The Revenue Department notification dated 1 July 1955 reads that, ‘The
forest and the waste lands comprised in this notification shall be
called Protected Forests. The nature of extent of rights and government
and of private person in and over the forest and waste lands
comprised in this notification has not been enquired and recorded
as laid down in sec 29 of the Indian Forest Act 1927, but as the
State Government thinks that such enquiry and recording will occupy
such length of time as in the mean time to endanger the rights of
the government and as the enquiry and record–of–rights will hereafter
be made, this notification is issued subject to all existing rights of
individuals or communities.’
This happened in the area where communities were already in possession
of lands. Despite the power of the CTA, the Indian Forest Act (IFA)
1927 was applied to acquire lands without settling the claims. This fraud
has been committed by Government of India in all the states where
hundreds of thousands of hectares of land with the community and gram
sabha and other common purposes were illegally transferred to the forest
department after independence.
The similar process took place in Himachal Pradesh (HP). All government
lands are forest land in HP after the new state came into existence in
1971. People of the state enjoyed rights from these forests well recorded
in Wajib–ul–urz, which is a document of record of rights that existed
before British period in Urdu. This record of rights mentions the rights
such as timber for house construction, grazing rights, timber for making
agricultural implements, grass for thatched roof, fodder, fuel–wood, lopping
trees for cattle, Chirgoza and Kail dry leaves for bedding of cattle, wood
for ceremonies, dry wood for dead etc. These rights are known as
‘Bartandari Rights’ in the local language.
In the 1927 settlement, 24 rights were recorded according to the Indian
Forest Act. Over the years these rights have been transformed into
concessions. While entering into the twenty–first century, all these
concessions were eliminated too. The landless and other poor communities
who depended on forest and commons were termed as ‘encroachers’
in independent India. The Government of HP states that the record of
rights has already been compiled since 1921, and rights have already been
settled under the Forest Act 1927. The state authorities say that the HP
Land Revenue Act is also applicable. Chapter IV of the HP Land
Revenue Act envisages that if there is any change in the record of rights,
there is a detailed procedure for making new entries, variations,
alterations, additions’ in the record of rights. Thus there is a complete
code, statutory enactment and rules and regulations pertaining to these
rights especially in three tribal districts on HP. The record of rights i.e.
individual and community which were earlier recorded in Wazib–ul–arj
were finally reduced in the shape of Forest Settlement Report.
The Timber Distribution Rights (TDR) that people enjoyed from the
commons, was taken over by the forest department who controlled the
TDR of the villages. The TDR policy made by the Government of HP
on April 2010 has been widely criticised by the forest dwelling
communities. They have refused to accept the new TDR rules that have
been formed under the colonial Indian Forest Act 1927, that is against
the spirit and usufruct rights of the people, and despite the FRA being
in existence since 2006 and the rules notified in December 2007.
Despite the FRA that strongly advocates community rights, the Act has
not been implemented in non scheduled areas. The land that belongs to
community is being diverted to big multinational companies and mega hydro
projects without the requisite forest and environmental clearance. The
cement factory in Majathal sanctuary in Mandi District, Renuka Dam
in Sirmour District and hydropower projects in Kinnaur District to name
a few are proposed to be halted by the various committee reports due
to its non viability.
Similarly, in Uttarakhand (previously Uttar Pradesh Hills) 65% of the total
land is forest and in the hilly region it is 84%., In the hilly regions after
historic struggles, two types of forest management were being practiced
since the British Raj. Van Panchayats in British Garhwal areas used to
manage the forest adjacent to the villages which would provide fuel, fodder
and other NTFPs for daily use. Van Panchayats were under the revenue
department and not under the forest department. Over the years, various
amendments were done in the Van Panchayats rules and they were
gradually taken over by the forest department. They became virtually
non–functional except in some areas where women have taken some
initiatives. For the interior forest there used to be Village Reserve Forest
(VRF), managed by the communities which would provide other
requirements. But in 1962 the forest department took control of these
VRFs and made it reserve forests, through a government order without
any consultation with the communities or with the legislators. The area
acquired from VRF in three districts (Pauri Garhwal,Rudraprayag and
Chamoli) was 3.75 hectare and only 50,000 hectares were left for van
panchayats. This had a very adverse impact on the communities since
large scale commercialisation of forest produces and commercial plantation
was started. The famous Chipko movement started in the 1970s in the
tribal areas of Nanda Devi to stop commercialisation in forest. The Van
Panchayat rules were never converted into an Act despite a strong
movement by local residents. These rules still do not cover the reserve
forests and national parks. Both the forest department and the Government
of Uttarakhand oppose the implementation of FRA in the hilly region
saying that the Act is not needed since Uttarakhand has Van Panchayat
regulation, which is not even an Act and under the domain of Forest
In the name of scientific forestry the forest department in its ten year
working plan included the commons and treated them as ‘forest land’,
hence encroached on public land since 1947. On the basis of the working
plan, the forest department since then has been victimising the tribal and
other poor sections who were already owners and dependent on these
lands for centuries. The forest department also generated revenue from
these lands that were included in working plans by the senior forest
officials. A well detailed study in Madhya Pradesh by Anil Garg reveals
that the lands that were notified in working plan under section 4(1) of
IFA 1927 were treated as forest land without completing the procedure
laid down from section 5 to 19 in IFA since 1960. The private lands were
also not spared and were notified under section 4(1), without any land
acquisition process and without paying any compensation to the tribals
in forest areas.
Another injustice done by the forest department was that, in the
Raiyatwari villages, the lands notified under gair khata (unrecorded land)
and non forest land comprising of commons were not only notified as
protected forest but were also taken over by the forest department to
include in the working plan by notifying those under section 4(1) and
continued to generate revenue, logging and also continued to produce false
data of ‘forest land’ in its records, when in reality these were actually
revenue land.
The forest under Zamindari villages and Malguzari villages were notified
as protected forest land under section 29 of IFA, but the non forest land
under these systems (that were not transferred to revenue department)
were also notified under section 4(1) of IFA and gazette notification was
done. These lands were also included in working plan and the forest
department took over its management without following the legal process.
In 1996 the declaration of ‘orange area’ by the forest department did
another fraud on commons by appropriating around 9.8 million hectares
of people’s land. The notification of orange area comprised of already
notified reserve forest, land notified under section 4(1), renewal of land
under 27 and 34(a) of IFA 1927. All were notified as orange area, included
in the working plan and false data were reproduced by the forest
department in working plan. These lands have been identified as the
revenue land by the legislative assembly and the order to transfer all these
lands back to the revenue department has been issued. Yet the process
has not been started till date.
In Madhya Pradesh, all lands for common purposes were acquired under
section 29 of IFA and were notified as protected forests that extinguished
the rights of the forest dwelling people. The record of rights were fully
documented in the land record known as Wajib–ul–arz, called nistar patrak
in Madhya Pradesh. In all such lands of the villages were acquired under
section 4(1) of IFA 1927, all rights recorded in the nistar patrak were
extinguished. Such fraud has been done in other states also by the forest
department, in connivance with the revenue department, to expand its
Subverting the constitution in Sikkim
The case of sixth schedule area is no different. Before the merger of
Sikkim to India in 1975, the land holdings were divided into two categories.
One was the land belonging to the Chogiyal state and other was individual
land holdings. Individual land holdings were less compared to the land
belonging to the forest. The reserve forest were brought under IFA 1927
after the merger by a presidential notification under 371(f)(n). It is
pertinent to note here that these lands were not surveyed and by a simple
notification entire 80% of dense and cold dessert was transferred to forest
department without any records of the land. Sikkim has never had any
record system for land. The revenue records are still the same as those
maintained during the King’s rule. The records do not even have a column
to record the area of the forests.
According to IFA 1927 it is essential to complete the land settlement
procedure detailed from sections 4 to 20, IFA 1927. But no such process
took place and in fact no rights (in this matter the community rights, rights
of the pastoralist community or any other stakeholder) were settled. No
settlement officer was appointed and no demarcation of the land has been
done so far. During the Chogiyal’s rule also the community rights of the
tribal and other population were not recorded. So these records are totally
oral and not recorded in writing anywhere. The chief secretary of the
state has maintained that there has to be a settlement of the forest land
between the Chogiyal estate and the GoI. No such settlement has been
done so far. The common land is around 80% of the total land of which
40% is the cold dessert stretching across the Himalayan Kanchanjunga
Yet in various parts of the state various sanctuaries and national parka
have been created where the rights of the people have been curtailed.
They enjoyed certain rights such as collection of fuel wood, NTFP, herbs,
fruits and vegetables, passages and other grazing rights, pastures for
nomadic tribes during Chogiyal regime. These rights have been restricted
and many of the nomadic grazers have been evicted from their traditional
seasonal makeshift houses. This was admitted by a senior official of the
east district in a private conversation.
The state was under the rule of the Crown till 1975 until Sikkim was
merged with India. The land and forest history of the state is very
interesting. It is still governed by its own customary laws rather laws
framed by the Crown. Around 84% of the land is under the control of
the forest department. All land management and forest management took
place during Chogiyal regime. In 1909 only the forest were declared as
reserve forest by the Chogiyal regime and were vested with creation
of the forest department by a Crown order. In all zones of Sikkim, Kazi
and Thekedars were the landlords and had many forests under their
control. In 1945 landlordism was abolished and the lands that were under
the private ownership and occupied by the tribes and other inhabitants
were regularised by the notification of the Crown and the rest of the
forest areas were vested with the forest department by a notification.
During the Chogiyal regime three types of forests were recognised: the
reserve forest, khasmal forest (in between villages to meet daily
requirement of the village) and gocharan land (for grazing of the cattle
of villagers). There were some private forest which was under the control
of monasteries were known as Monastic Forests. Only reserve forests
were under the control of forest department.
The first cadastral survey took place in 1952. Prior to that there was
no survey done of the total land of the state. It was during that time
land titles were given to the people. The second survey was started in
1978 and completed in 1983. The irregularities in the previous survey
were rectified in this survey and all have land. There is no landless in
the state but there is no ceiling of land also. The holdings are continued
according to the occupation of the land during the King’s rule. The forest
department argues that the community rights are not required to be
recorded as the communities already enjoy certain rights without any
restrictions. Moreover all these rights are being enjoyed from gaucharan
and khasmal lands. Instead, the forest department is advocating joint forest
management and other charity and welfare schemes to the communities
rather than implementing FRA in its true spirit. It was quite evident that
the forest department is more afraid of loosing control of vast forest lands
in the state and feels that FRA is not applicable in Sikkim as there are
no forest dwellers.
Another crucial issue of conflict between the communities and the forest
department is on the ownership of Minor Forest Produce (MFP). While
more than 60% of forest revenue comes from MFP large majority of
forest dwellers are dependent on various items of MFP for their daily
needs and also for livelihood support. No Forest Act has quantify the
list of produces specifically and the forest department arbitrarily used
to decide which one was MFP and which one is not. Bamboo and cane
are considered as timber and not as MFPs. Interestingly, in FRA the
items of MFPs are specifically mentioned which includes bamboo, cane
and tendu leaves. Both PESA and FRA has ensured ownership rights
on MFP as community rights. But the forest department is not keen to
loose the ownership of MFP since it is a profit making business for the
department and its staff. MFPs are being managed for commercial
purposes by state forest corporations and by state sponsored marketing
As late as November 2010, this is what Down To Earth has to say about
the position of the forest department:
The MFP economy is fragile but supports close to 275 million people in
rural India, according a World Bank estimate. These people comprise
the poorest, including 54 million tribals.
Jharkhand has 90,000 collectors of lac. Agriculture takes care of their
food while MFP is the main source of cash income. The Planning
Commission has put the annual trade of MFP at Rs 50,000 crore, but
MoEF claims the trade is worth less at Rs 5,000 crore.
Very little of this money goes to forest communities. Take bamboo. It
has about 1,500 documented uses. But communities do not have access
to bamboo. Reason: the forest department treats it as timber; therefore,
it cannot be felled. Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh
and Maharashtra, which are among the worst Naxalite–affected states,
account for 47% of the total area under bamboo cultivation. The forest
departments of these states together earn up to Rs 82 crore a year from
bamboo. Despite FRA, which says bamboo is MFP, government, not people,
continues to be the sole owner of the produce.
A Supreme Court verdict of 2002 and arguments that bamboo is a grass,
not tree, have not changed the forest department’s thinking.1
Other government departments like railways, irrigation and the public works
department have also appropriated huge tracts of land in the name of
national interest. The Indian Railways have a land bank of 133,000 hectares
of land according to the statement of the Minister for Railways in
parliament. Besides this there is a huge amount of land in possession
of the Department of Railways on both sides of the 63,000 km long
railway tracks. All these lands have been appropriated from the village
common land and forest land.
This issue of forest land is the most critical dispute inside the forest areas
between people and the state. It is notable that in areas like Jharkhand,
the forest department extended its control over land, forests and resources
in new forest areas in the recent post–independence past.
After independence, non implementation of the constitutional provisions
inside the forest areas has totally destroyed the community’s relationship
with the forest and with the land. All across the country, disputes arose
between the village and the forest department, village and revenue
department and the forest and revenue departments. This conflict started
right from the colonial times (see Saberwal, Vasant: Pastoral Politics).
The crisis has deepened in such a way that the entire forest belt of India
is under turmoil where forest people and tribal are being treated as anti–
national and as enemies of the forest.
There are primarily three kinds of disputes.
• he revenue lands that were spared after Zamindari abolition were
vested with the forest department and were termed as ‘forest land’.
All the rights enjoyed by the people in these lands were extinguished
by the forest department after independence.
• Both the forest and revenue departments have been doing separate
actions in their respective land records relating to the same land (both
common and private) for the last 50 years. As a result, the spirit of
land reform in the country has been completely defeated.
• After independence serious disputes arose countrywide between the
forest department and the village, revenue department and the village
and the forest department and the revenue department.
Displacement is the most visible effect of the encroachment of public
space by the state and the private companies. There has been direct and
indirect displacement due to loss of livelihood. All these displacements
are made in the name of development projects, which actually have
promoted accumulation of capital both by the state and by the private
companies. The types of projects which have caused major displacements
• Dams for irrigation, hydro energy and drinking water that create lakes
on previously inhabited areas.
• Transportation corridors, railways, highways, airports, transmission lines,
irrigation canals.
• New ports and towns.
• Urban infrastructure.
• New mines particularly open mines.
• Major industrial estates, Special Economic Zones.
• Forest reserves and national parks.
• Big farm houses.
The major cause of displacement, in intensity and extent, is due to dams
and reservoirs which affects about 40 million people—62% of total
displaced. According to D Bandopadhaya there is no official database
of persons displaced and affected by these ‘development’ processes. But
a study conducted by Dr. Walter Fernandes2 shows that approximately
60 million persons were forcibly evicted from their land, livelihood and
habitat during the periods from 1947 to 2004. It involved 25 million hectares
of land, including seven million hectares of forests and six million hectares
of common property resources. Thus around 12 million hectares of
farmland were lost to development projects. The social impact is
horrendous. While the tribals constitute 8.08% of the country’s population
(Census of India 2001) they are 40% of the displaced/affected persons.
Conflict between the state and subalterns
If it was the ‘Raj’ then, it is the ‘nation–state’ now which is constantly
impinging into the territory of human dignity by seizing the lives and
livelihoods of the forest dwellers. There is ruthless invasion of the natural
resources by the state, state sponsored corporations and private
corporations—both national and multinational. It is very crucial to note
that the concept of the ‘Modern Indian State’ was born and started
growing in the colonial era and was highly influenced by the Raj. A new
class, educated and trained by the then rulers to become future rulers,
was grown to protect the landed and financial interests against the
subaltern groups who became a real threat to Raj by the mid–nineteenth
century. A series of revolts by the indigenous groups which started in
the eighteenth century against the colonial domination over natural
resources forced the colonial rulers to take some legal and political steps.
i) To make certain rules and regulations to control the social process.
ii) To create an intermediary class who would function as a buffer
between the Raj and the revolting groups.
iii) to enact some progressive laws on social and economic issues.
In this process, the idea of mainstream was promoted and two major
‘nationalist’ parties were formed—the Indian National Congress in 1885
and Indian Muslim League at the dawn of the twentieth century.
Incidentally, both these political parties demanded economic concessions
from the colonial rulers and not political freedom. With the support of
these parties the Indian merchant class, in collaboration with the colonial
power, entered the industrialisation process, which was initiated by the
British companies. The Indian bourgeoisie became partners of these
companies in looting the natural resources—mining, forests and water.
The inherent economic and political interest in this process was to oppress
the indigenous groups who were dependent on these resources and on
the land. Such plunder of resources and oppression of indigenous groups
continued after the transfer of political power from Raj to Indian rulers.
This was continued in the name of ‘development’ and many new forces
like progressive intelligentsia, industrial working class and technicians in
the name of ‘nation building’ were drawn into this. Indigenous groups
remained isolated and more commons were lost.
In the era of capitalist globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation, the
situation has become more critical as the trinity of international financial
institutions, (the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Asian
Development Bank etc), World Trade Organisation and multinationals have
taken policymakers in their grip to gain control of these resources. The
Kyoto Convention on Climate Change has become a new tool for the
northern countries and corporations to gain free access over large natural
resources in developing countries. In the neo–colonial era, global capital
is applying a uniform policy for all the countries unlike the past where
they had been pursuing policy separately for each colonised nation.
Steps towards establishing a capital regime even in forestry have not
been accepted by the communities. There is a history of opposition and
resistance to all this and Adivasis across regions have braved it all. The
protests have not been merely a loud protest but a series of revolutionary
movements and had defining results, which started as early as the
eighteenth century and continued, till the twentieth century. In India, these
revolutionary movements started from Jharkhand spread up to South Central
and Western India. The central issue in all these movements was
independence from the colonial rule. In essence it was absolute sovereign
rights over the natural resources, which had been the source and symbol
of social and cultural heritage. So the communities were involved totally
in these struggles in their entirety.
Resolving the conflict
In this context, the struggle for an secure livelihood and protection of
resources have not remained a simple process. It is inevitably linked with
right to work, right to food, right to education and health and right to
social security. Therefore the challenges before the movements are to
develop an inclusive understanding of this key issue in building up long
term and short term strategies collectively. In the given context, old forms
of struggles need radical changes to face the aggression of powerful capital
and its allies. New alliances and new forms of struggles have to be built
up which can ensure community ownership of the resources, collectivism,
democratic space and leadership of all the deprived sections in the
organisational process. There is a need to promote alternative mechanisms
that reverse the present trend and revalue land and its products so as
to ensure egalitarian society—a new world order.
It is heartening to note that such process has already being started by
common and disempowered people in different regions in India and in
other parts of South Asia—from north to south and from north–east to
north–west. The struggle to live with dignity is essentially a struggle to
‘reclaim the lost physical and political space’. This is also a struggle
between the subalterns and the elitist Indian state. Indian societies are
in the threshold of a radical transformation—from the captivity of eminent
domain to independent and sovereign societies, which would lead to the
formation of a true egalitarian nation state. Intellectual and technical
workers need to look at this transformation process objectively, so that
they can find their appropriate and relevant role in this. Ironically, the
majority of this section have till now remained within the state premise
and in its development paradigm rather than seeing the changing process
from the people’s perspective. They need to look forward towards the
emerging situation, and creatively engage with the new world being created.
1 Down to Earth, 15 November 2010, page 35;
2 Fernandes, Walter. 2008. “Sixty Years of Development –Induced Displacement in India :
Impacts and the Search for Alternatives,” in Hari Mohan Mathus (ed). India : Social
Development Report 2008. New Delhi. Council for Social Development and Oxford niversity
Press, pp. 89–102.

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