Saturday, January 15, 2011

Forest Right Movements, Ecological Justice, State and Militancy: New Challenges

Paper presented in National seminar on Militant Left Radicalism, State and Civil Society: the Centrality of Tribal Land Rights

Organized by Council for Social Development

10-11 December, 2010, New Delhi

27th December’2010

Forest Right Movements, Ecological Justice, State and Militancy:

New Challenges

Roma and Ashok chowdhury

Forest Right movement in India is passing through a very critical period. It is engaged in a hard battle against the direct aggression from the Indian State, primarily in the context of governance over 75 million hectare of forest, forest land, water and minerals. At the same time it is struggling to maintain its independent identity from the armed political groups, which are also active in the forest regions for strategic reasons. There has been a consistent effort from the ruling elites and supported by the dominant groups to prove that all forest right struggles are essentially linked with the Maoist groups, so that they need not to confront the real issues of confrontation between the forest people and the Indian Nation-State. Regretfully, most of the actors of civil societies (barring a very few), which exist in the middle space have preferred to be misled by this propaganda and knowingly or unknowingly taking sides in the ‘drama’ of searching a ‘peaceful solution’. But still voices are being raised from almost every corner of the country and from the sub-continent- from the struggles against forced land acquisition, eviction from livelihood resources, corporate projects, SEZ, slavery in agricultural and unorganized labor and from the struggle to live with dignity for prosperity and peace. So, it is necessary to focus on the real issues as raised by these voices and with a perspective from history of people’s movements in modern India. This is more necessary now since very recently a prominent and credible mainstream left intellectual has criticized all such movements for not being able to suggest any Socialist alternative to the present globalised Capitalism and becoming tool of Capitalist Reform[1]. Such critical view on people’s movements is needed to be addressed very seriously especially in the context of the historic reality that all mainstream socialist alternatives have not only failed to address the basic causes of conflict between the Indian State and the disempowered marginal sections ( Adivasis & Moolnivasis) and its democratic resolution but have collaborated with the elitist perception of building a modern Indian state, which is responsible for displacing Seventy Million people from their livelihood resources and virtually has made them development refugees. About 70% of these disempowered people are from Adivasis, Dalit and other marginalized sections.

Struggle for Environmental Justice

The forest dependent people of India are raising their voices strongly against the loot of natural resources by the corporate and in connivance with the Indian State, either in the name of development or in the name of saving the environment from climate change. They are bringing forth the issues of people’s political economy of protection of natural resources and protection of livelihood against the elite and capitalist interests on the natural resources. According to Adivasis, Dalits and other marginalized people, there can be no solution of the present climate crisis without ensuring the rights of the communities dependent on natural resources. The connotation of these rights also means social equality and social justice that have been denied to them for centuries. In other words the devastation of environment is directly linked with increasing poverty across the world. Without proposing solutions to end poverty in the larger debate of climate change, the debate of saving the environment is futile. In the ongoing debates among the G-8 and G-20 nation-state govts this crucial social and political aspect is completely missing.

The climate debates have now come on to the streets from technical debates of closed door discussions, to become the issue of environmental or ecological justice for Adivasis and Moolnivasis(the indigenous and other sub-altern communities)for protecting their livelihood and cultural resources. This emerging consciousness has raised serious questions about the negotiations on climate change held last year in Copenhagen Climate meet and also about the current Cancun meet. The governments are facing large scale opposition from indigenous communities against climate change solutions proposed by big multinational, which is more of trade treaties between the rich nations and the rich, arrogant, upper class dominating ruling class of the developing countries. An alternative process has also being initiated from Cochabamba Summit by the Bolivian President.

The protection of nature in general and forests in particular is a political and social one as much as about ecology, science and the environment. Unless those reliant on it are full partners with rights under the law, it is not possible for nature to be protected from exploitation or destruction. At present, there is a false divide between preservation groups and forest dwellers. But when the legitimate interests of the latter are seen as central, both causes will gain in many ways. An important initiative in this regard has been started at the international level by the Bolivian Govt through Cochabamba Conference, held in April this year, where efforts were made to bring about 30000 representatives from the movement groups and the southern govts to discuss these fundamental issues.

It was for the first time in the year 1972 that manifesto of international conference on Climate Change in Sweden declared that there is direct correlation between degradation of environment and increasing poverty. Although Imperialist and capitalist forces have their own interpretation and in the garb of eradicating the poverty across the world it rather pushed the policies of promoting trade treaties between developed and developing countries which has further accelerated the process of alienation of people from their livelihood resources especially in global south. Since 80’s the people’s struggles have intensified around forest, land and water issues with the expansion of capitalist interest in these areas. Social and environment activists also started joining these struggles, helping it to have a wider reach among other sections of society. These struggles are not only in the form of resisting these giant companies who have a backing of State power but also asserting their political rights to occupy the democratic and political space that has been snatched away from them during a historical process.

Present Challenges

Presently, the struggles in the forest areas are posing a big challenge to the rulers of modern Indian state. In Indian forests and in the interior fields hundreds of militant mass struggles are going on against the eminent domain of the State. But all these popular struggles, which are essentially democratic and lead by local organizations and its leaders, are being branded as ‘Maoists’ struggles. According to the government, number of districts showing Maoist influence has increased (from 56 in 2003 to 200 today). On the other hand there is equal number of growth of independent mass struggles, which is much larger than the Maoist struggle in various parts of the country. Unfortunately, such stories don’t catch the attention of Media, researchers, academician. Generally speaking, mainstream national and regional political parties and its affiliated trade unions are not interested in these democratic struggles as their politics is rooted around power in a centralized form. The reality is that these independent democratic struggles are spreading like fire in many areas and becoming a major threat to the State. These struggles today are not merely giving petitions bur challenging the development paradigm of the State, which is focusing growth rate as determining index. In some areas such popular struggles are becoming the main opposition to neo-liberal regime. The struggles carried out in a democratic framework whose leaders are ordinary adivasi, women and youth are challenging the State with their raised mass political consciousness. But instead of starting a serious negotiation process with such movements the State is trying to crush all the democratic movements in the name of Maoist, in the forest and backward areas. Today Forest Right Movements have two fundamental challenges. One is its direct contradiction with the Indian State & its resolution within a democratic framework and secondly to maintain its identity independent from the Maoist movement.

Forest movements and Historic Injustice

The history of the forest struggle in India is around 250 yrs old, the torch bearers being illiterate, poor, simple adivasis and forest dwelling people. Right after British invaded forests for the commercial exploitation, these struggles were gloriously fought under the Adivasi leadership who put forward political questions of community governance, land reforms based on community rights, social and ecological justice. This series of historic struggles for past 250 years fought under the leadership of Tilka Majhi(Jabra Pahadia), Sidhu Kanhu, Birsa Munda, Kana Bhagat not only forced British to keep off from the forests in struggling areas but also forced them to enact such legislations that ensured community governance. These historic acts such as Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act (1908), Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act (1912), Vanpanchayat Rules of 1931(Uttarakhand), are few examples of such Acts passed after the historic struggles. But such acts were enacted in a piecemeal way and they were weakened further after independence. On the contrary the acts that were anti people and anti environment like Indian Forest Act , 1927(which were enacted primarily to increase the revenue) were strengthened to give more power to the colonial institution Forest Department (FD), that became the biggest landlord in independent India.

The fraud committed by Indian State on Forest People

The enactment of the new legislation “ The Scheduled Tribe and other Forest Dweller ( Recognition of forest rights) Act 2006, popularly known as “ Forest Rights Act” (FRA), in its preamble talks about for the first time of eradicating the “ historical injustices” committed on the forest people since the colonial times. However, the act is silent on giving the account of these historical injustices. The historical injustice process started from colonial rule when the colonial state initiated an economic process for accumulation of capital by encroaching upon natural resources (forest, land, water), in the 19th century. Although the annexation of the forest started in 18th century, at the same time when colonial power also started annexing political power in various states in Indian subcontinent. The section of Indian merchant class joined with the British colonial power in accumulating capital and thus became a big partner of exploitation of natural resources and using adivasis and moolniwasis as cheap labor to strengthen the colonial power. There is strong linkage with the concept of modern Indian State with this exploitative economic process. The concept of modern Indian nation-state grew with this exploitative system very strongly during the period of national movement. However, seldom the relationship between the exploitive colonial system and growth of Indian nation-state concept was questioned. Whenever such questions were raised even in embryonic form it was brutally crushed. It is to be noted that the Congress Party, founded in 1885 which spearheaded the mainstream national politics could take the resolution on Political Freedom only in 1928.Till then they were only demanding Economic Freedom. It was evident that the mainstream national politics did not include fundamental change in colonial administrative system and more importantly in the socio-economic structure which was based on reactionary feudal and Bhraminical ideology.

Indian society for thousands of years has remained divided in hierarchical caste system, which created two very distinct classes- privileged and under privileged. While the privileged (elites), through their control over the kingdoms owned the resources and other institutions the under-privileged had virtually no resources of their own and thus remained dependent on the elites for survival. However, indigenous societies (adivasis) remained outside the hierarchical Hindu social structure and this was one of the main reasons for conflict with the mainstream.

Therefore one needs to challenge the very root of continuing historical injustice. Why there is continuing conflict between Indian State and adivasis & moolnivasis? Other wise the historic injustice will be continued. The Central and the State governments are still hesitant in showing their political will in implementing this historic Act. But at the grass-root level this act has given a breathing space to the forest dwelling communities to spell out what these historical injustices are. Acording to Munnilal from Vangram avem Bhumi Adhikar Manch , a prominent community leader of Taungiya forest village settler of Uttarakhand and one of the conveners of NFFPFW “we the forest people have attained independence only on 15 December 2006 and not on 15 Aug’1947, when FRA was enacted in Indian Parliament. This is independence from tyrant rule of Forest Department (FD) which is the carrier of colonial legacy”. Noor Alam, leader of the nomadic tribe Van Gujjar community of Rajaji National Park had to say something further “why there is so much of hue and cry of saving the environment, no climate can be protected without ensuring the rights of the people living in the forest, no body talks about that. Even the animals are talked about but we the human beings who have a very symbiotic relationship with the forest are not consulted in any of the conservation programme and no one discusses about us as if we do not exist”.

The enactment of new legislation has opened up a debate and intensified struggles in various forest areas on the issue of land reform inside the forest areas that remained unaddressed since last six decades. The forest area that remained in the eminent domain of FD, which is 23% of the total land area of the country, awaits effective agrarian reforms. The issue is whether this question can be addressed by FRA or not?

It is a well known fact that the new Congress government formed after the independence brushed the issues of agrarian reforms under the carpet. Before effective Land reform act could be enacted in the country, vast tracts of forest vested with the erstwhile Princely estates, Zamindars, Talukdars were transferred to FD without processing the settlement of rights. These included the forest and forest land in the boundary of the Gram Sabha. To list an example of Bihar and UP, where the movement against Zamindari system was very strong, just before ZA and Land Reform Act could be enacted, the forests of both these States (that included Uttarakhand and Jharkhand also) were vested with FD by bringing a new legislation Private Forest Act 1948, that was enacted hurriedly in respective Legislative Assemblies of Bihar and UP. 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. Before the land reform legislation could come into force Indian State strengthened FD to become a biggest land lord in the country, against the spirit of the Constitution. These were all illegal transfers of land, as none of the State revenue laws has any provision of transfer lands under the jurisdiction of Gram Sabha to FD. In a study conducted by NFFPFW in U.P on transfer of land to FD from 1947 to 2000[2], it was found that more than 30 lakh acres of land has been transferred to FD through notifications done in gazette in this period.

A glaring example could be seen in Khunti district of Jharkhand[3] which is “Khuttkatti” area, where Chota Nagpur Tenancy (CNT) act 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 tribal Munda, but in 1955 FD demarcated its own boundary in this very area without going for verification of rights and demarcation. The Revenue Department notification dated 1st July 1955 read 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 IFA 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 and CNT act was powerful but even then by applying IFA 1927 the land was acquired without settling the claims. This fraud has been committed by Indian Government in all the states where lakhs and lakhs of hectare of community, GS and other common purposes were illegally transferred to FD.

To cite some more examples from other states, in Himanchal Pradesh[4] people of the State enjoyed rights from these forests well recorded in Wajib-ul-urz, which is a document of record of rights 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, looping trees for cattle, Chirgoza and Kail dry leaves for bedding of cattles, wood for ceremonies, dry wood for dead etc. These rights are known as “Bartandari Rights” in local language in HP.

In 1927 (according to Indian Forest Act) settlement of 24 rights were recorded. But over the years these rights have been transformed into concession. While entering into twenty-first centaury 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 Timber Distribution rights (TD) that people enjoyed from the commons was taken over by the forest department who controls the TD rights of the villages. The fact is that despite the FRA legislation that strongly advocates community rights the act has not been implemented in non schedule areas of HP. The land that belongs to community is being diverted to big multinational companies and mega hydro projects such as Jaypee, Lafarg without giving forest and environmental clearance. The cement factory in Majathanl sanctuary in Distt Mandi, Renuka Dam in Ditt Sirmour and hydropower projects in Distt Kinnaur to name the few are proposed to be halted by the various committee reports due to its non viability. [5]

Similarly, in Uttarakhand (previously U.P. Hills) 65% of the total land is Forest land where 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 MFPs for daily use. Van Panchayats were under revenue dept. and not under F.D. but over the years various amendments were done in Van Panchayats rules and gradually taken over by F.D. and virtually they became nonfunctional 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 F.D. took control of these VRFs through a govt order without any consultation with the communities or with the legislators. This had a very adverse impact on the communities since large scale commercialization of forest produces and commercial plantation was started. The famous Chipko movement started in the 70s in the tribal areas of Nanda Devi to stop commercialization in forest. The Van Panchayat rules were never converted into Act despite a strong movement by local residents. These rules still do not cover the reserve forest and national parks. Even then the F.D. and the Uttarakhand Govt are both opposing the implementation of FRA in the hilly region saying that the FRA is not applicable in Uttarakhand.

In MP all lands for common purposes were acquired u/s 29 of (Indian Forest Act )IFA(1927) and were notified as ‘Protected forests’, this led to termination of rights of the forest dwelling people. Before the British invaded the record of rights were fully documented in the land record known as ‘Wajib-ul-arz’ that is also known as 'nistar patrak’ in MP, but all such lands of the villages were acquired u/s 4(1) of IFA, all rights of people were extinguished. In the name of scientific forestry FD 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 working plan FD since than has been victimizing the tribal and other poor sections who were already owners and dependent on these lands for centuries. The FD also generated revenue from these lands that were included in working plans by the forest officials. A well detailed study in Madhya Pradesh by Anil Garg reveals that the lands that were notified in working plan u/s 4(1) of Indian Forest Act (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 u/s sec 4(1), without any land acquisition process and without paying any compensation to the tribal in forest areas.

Another injustice done by FD was 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 FD to include in working plan by notifying those u/s 4(1) through gazette notification. The FD continued to generate revenue and also continued to produce false data in working plans and treated this revenue as forest land in its records.

The forest under Zamindari villages and Malguzari villages were notified as protected forest land u/s 29 of IFA, and also the non forest land under these system (which were not transferred to revenue department) were also notified u/s 4(1) of IFA through gazette notification. These lands were also included in working plan and FD took over its management without following the legal process.

In MP in year 1996 the declaration of “orange area” as forest land[6] was another fraud committed by appropriating around 98 lakh hectare of commons. The notification of orange area comprised of already notified reserve forest, land notified u/s 4(1), renewal of land u/s 27 and 34(a) of IFA 1927, all were notified as orange area and was included in working plan and false data were reproduced by FD in working plan. These lands have been identified as the revenue land by the Legislative Assembly and order has been issued to transfer all these lands back to the revenue department but till date no progress has been achieved in this front.

Such fraud has been done in other states also by the F.D. in connivance with the Revenue dept in order to expand its territory.

The North Bengal region, Sunderbans and Jungle Mahal areas of West Bengal are too in a very turmoil state. The Indian State here also annexed forest and continued the colonial policy of the British. Around20 0 forest villages ( Taungiya and Fixed Demand villages) were established by British in Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling district in order to do various operation inside the forest such as building roads, felling the timber, clearing the forest, plantation work etc. These villages till date are devoid of their Constitutional rights.[7]The PTG’s Toto tribes that use to own entire forest range was taken over fraudulently by FD in 1960’s. The forest people who planted vast tracts of forest, protected and managed forest were treated as encroacher of the forests. Despite the fact that Left front government is ruling the State the forest people especially tribal are being killed by the armed forces and FD.In Buxa Tiger Reserve during last three years eight Rava tribe persons have been killed by F.D.Many such incidents have taken place in recent past.

The historical injustice committed on forest villages are of more serious nature. These villages were settled by the Forest Department in order to plant and regenerate the forest in 1920’s. Many of the existing revenue villages situated in deep forests were converted into forest villages by British. These villages somewhere are also known as ‘Taungiya villages’, fixed demand or any other type of village were settled in UP, Uttarakhand, MP, West Bengal, TN, Maharashtra, Tripura, Assam, Gujarat, Jharkhand etc. Official record put them as 2474 villages but they are around 7000 of them (according Late Dr. Chattrapati singh (Environmental Lawyer). But unfortunately State has not done any effort till now to do a proper survey of these villages who have contributed tremendously in planting thousands and thousands acres of forest. Also governments have also not done anything to ensure their Constitutional rights.

The fraud has been not only been committed in the Central India but also in North-Eastern part of India including six schedule areas. E.g the State of Tripura that was not under the colonial rule, it merged with India after 1947 that had abundant forest cover around 80%. The entire jungle was inhabited by tribal who practiced “Jhum Cultivation”. But due to India Bangladesh problem, massive migration from erstwhile East Pakistan in this region took place after 1950’s that created lot of pressure on forest. Instead of protecting the rights and customary practice of “Jhumias”, after the merger the same colonial Act “Indian Forest Act” was applied and large tract of forest was annexed by the FD. The imposition of colonial laws, influx of refugees, the issue of alienation of tribal from forest, the time taken in declaring the schedule areas were the reason that led to many militant struggles inside the forest areas that led to huge conflict in recent years. The entire attempt of the government was to condemn the “Jhumia” system that was ‘scientific’. The pressure on these communities was to become settled cultivators. Though presently Left Government is implementing the Forest Right Act as priority to address the issues of militancy in the forest areas but the government is again using the Act to issue individual titles to make the “jhumias” settled cultivators. There is no emphasis on community rights that can only address the issues of shifting cultivators in this region.

The state of Sikkim that merged in India in 70’s also faces the problem in relation to forest areas. The moment it merged into India, the colonial law IFA was applicable in the vast tracks of forest area. The [8]Chief Secretary of the State Mr. T.Dorji said that “our state which has 80% of forest cover was better before merging into India State as the forest were governed by the customary law but now the rule of Forest Department prevails and we are not even allowed to construct one road for development because of NoC not granted by FD”. In certain circle of bureaucracy it is being maintained that the Army is the largest grabber of forest land in this region because of international boundaries with China. Moreover there is lot of talk about the biodiversity, flora, fauna and environment but again the socio-political linkage of people with forest is hardly talked about. The State government of Sikkim says that there are no forest dwellers in the State and hence there is no need to implement new Forest Rights Act.

[9]In Assam – it was the Endeavour of the British to bring large forest area into cultivation and whole policy tended into that direction. Tea industry contributed significantly in deforestation of government forest. Clearing of vast tract of forest for tea cultivation and wooden boxes needed for packing tea denuded vast tracks of forest. But later monoculture forest was grown in these denuded areas. Thus it may be stated that most tea plantation was established by clearing natural forest of lands acquired or purchased for the govt of India. Whenever markets for tea were strong enough expansion of plantation were done and forest cover correspondingly got reduced. Most of them were of view that encouragement of steady increase in the area under tea would serve the interest of public. The other factors leading to pressure on forest were massive destruction of cultivable land by Brahampurtra river forced people to migrate into the forest areas, the continuous ethnic violence led to serious conflict between the inhabitants, tribal Bodo’s and the tea workers from Jharkhand created many pressures on the forest areas.

The fraud by Indian State in the case of Orissa has been totally exposed in the case of Vedanta in Niyamagiri hills and Posco in Jagatsinghapur where State has been conspiring with the international companies in loot of nation’s natural wealth and biodiversity. The loot of these companies could only be exposed by a strong and sustained movements by the local community and supported by other people’s movements, which forced the central govt. to take some positive steps. Two committees formed for evaluation of these projects Saxena Committee and Meena Gupta Committee brought forth the facts that in both the cases Forest Rights Act, Forest conservation Act and Environment Protection Act were grossly violated. Though, these facts are in front of the nation today, even than the land of the law is allowed to be violated by the State Government in Orissa to favour these big multinational companies.

This issue of forest land is the most critical issue of dispute inside the forest areas between people and the Indian State.

The Struggle

Ramchander Rana, a member of Tharu tribe and of Tharu Adivasi Mahila Mazdoor Kisan Manch,resident of Surma village in Dudwa N.P. says very clearly that “ aab jungle ke andar sarkar aur logo ke beech mein sidhi takkar hai.” (Now there is a direct conflict of forest people and Indian State inside the forest areas). The adivasis residing inside the forest are quite clear that this conflict is over the control of natural resources and minerals, the conflict is of community governance vs corporate interests. “ Tum apni sarkar Dilli me chalao, Hume hamara jungle wapas de do” (You rule your government in Delhi and give us back our forest) So says Hulsi in a public hearing at the Constitution Club, New Delhi in 2009.Hulsi belongs to Darma, a tribal village of Sonbhadra district in U.P. where the women under the banner of Kaimur Khhetra Mahila Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Samiti reclaimed about 700 bighas of land from the clutches of F.D. in 2005 and initiated and continuing collective agricultural production since then.

The period of year 2002 to 2006 is very important in the struggles of forest people that resulted into enactment of FRA in the year 2006. In 2002 following the F.D order, supported by the Supreme Court, large scale evictions took place inside the forest areas across the Country and a strong resistance movement started in almost all the forest areas at that time. To name few of them are the struggles in Rewa of MP, Assam, Orissa, Kerala, Jharkhand, Bihar, UP and Uttarakhand. Just before the enactment of FRA in many areas such as in Kaimur area of UP, Jharkhand and Bihar, where the forest land conflicts are most complicated, the forest people started reclaiming their lost land that was robbed away from them during the colonial and post-colonial process. Around 20,000 acres of land were reclaimed in the leadership of dalit and adivasi women in Kaimur of these three States. Similar movement also started in Rewa district of MP where tribal and other forest dwellers reclaimed around 4000 acres of land. In both the areas the struggles were branded as Maoist struggles and unabated State violence started. Many were arrested, sent to jail, beaten, false FIR’s were filed on hundreds of tribal men and women, but this did not lessen the spirit of people and not an inch of land that was reclaimed was relinquished. Though FRA was enacted in 2006 but it took more than a year in framing the rules of the act but FRA was implemented by the local people in many areas in their own way even before FRA was formally notified on 31st Dec’2007.These are the community rights reclamation. The vibrant struggle of Kaimur adivasis was fought under the strong leadership of women, who even taught forest rights to officials in their region and confidently argued that the land and forest belongs to them and Indian Parliament has given them the certificate (they would show the copy of the President’s signed copy of the act). The reference to the Parliament approved legislation by the ‘illiterate’ masses is very significant. A similar struggle is being taken ahead in the BJP ruled State Uttarakhand by the nomadic tribes Vangujjar and forest village community known as Taungiya cultivators. The Vangujjars were given eviction notice from Rajaji National Park( R.N.P) authority without a proper rehabilitation package. The notice was challenged by the Vangujjar community in Nainital HC in 2005. The High Court gave judgment in 2007 February that the Vangujjar families’ disputes should be settled according to the provisions of FRA, without which no eviction can take place. It is perhaps the first judgment by any Court in the Country, directing the state govt. to settle the rights inside any national park according to FRA. Ironically, the R.N.P.Director and, Uttarkhand Govt also failed to comply with the court order and to take any initiative in implementing this historic act.

The forest dweller movement in Assam evolved after the brutal eviction by FD by using elephants in 2002. The organization of OTFD (Other Traditional Forest Dweller) has emerged as a major political force under the leadership of “ Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti”(KMSS) that is not only addressing the issue of forest rights but also the question of ‘big dams’ that will devastate the entire landscape, culture of Assamese people. The KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi in a public gathering of 20,000 people in Kaki, Nogaon ( on 12 July 2010) questioned the PM of this country saying that “ why division have been done in the FRA that talks of mitigating historical injustice in its preamble, cut off date for ST’s is 13 December 2010 and 75 yrs provision for OTFD? We were not even independent before 75 yrs than why this onus to give proof has been kept on innocent people who survived in forest areas of Assam fighting great natural calamities, colonial exploitation and ethnic violence? Can PM of this country give his residence proof of 75yrs? He cannot give as he was born in Pakistan and 75yrs before the partition didn’t take place…..but we can give our residence proof of last 250 years and maybe more. Our ancestors lived here and died than why this unconstitutional provision was inserted in FRA, the ruler’s needs to answer this?” The rise of forest dweller movement is so organized that now it has taken the entire oppositional political space and unearthing the big scams done by various ministers in the Congress Government ruling in the State.

Similarly in HP, a massive struggle is being launched by the forest dwellers across the state under the banner of Himalayan Niti Abhiyan that has not only engulfed the forest rights struggle, but built up alliance with the struggle against big companies who are signing MOU’s with state government on mega dams, cement plants, power plants, hydro power plants etc. The forest people are the centrifugal force in uniting all these movements, as in HP all the forest dwellers are considered as “encroachers”. This labeling has taken away their rights to even contest the Panchayat elections and in the law itself it is mentioned that “the encroachers are debarred from contesting elections”. This will also mean taking away all their fundamental rights and majority of the population being forest dwelling people’s forest and rights will be sold off to companies by the BJP government”, leader of Himalayan Niti Abhiyan Guman Singh says.

The North Bengal regional committee (NBRC) of NFFPFW,a regional body of forest dwelling people and forest villages organized themselves after large scale atrocities inflicted on them by armed security forces and FD from 2000 onwards. There was a threat of eviction and innocent tribal being killed for entry into National Park areas. “How the historical injustices will be mitigated if despite of FRA enactment the tribal people are killed one after the other. Since last six year atleast 12 forest dwelling tribal people have been killed. And not even a single FIR has been done on the officials of FD and security forces. If this continues than people will be left with no option except taking up arms and become Maoists” says Lal Singh Bhujbel, Convener of NBRC.

It is quite evident now that the central govt. and most of the state governments are not interested in implementing the Act. Rather, they are doing everything to make this act ineffective, as it was in the case with Z.A. (Zamindari Abolition) Act in the 50’s and Land Ceiling Act in the 60’s &70’s. The state is perhaps apprehensive of the fact that the effective implementation of such act may destabilize the existing social and political structure, which would have serious political implications. So, most likely we are not going to see any major initiative from the central and state govts to terminate the era of historic injustice except some patch work and rhetoric from time to time..

But on the other hand there is an increasing enthusiasm among the forest communities for effective implementation of the Act, especially in the areas where forest right struggles have been continuing. They are becoming more conscious with the realization that they themselves have to play the key role to make this historic act a reality and not just a dream. In some areas new horizons are being created through community initiatives. Most remarkable feature is the initiatives by the organized movements to ‘Reclaiming the Lost Space’. Many initiatives are being taken by communities to protect their forest from timber mafia who operate through the connivance of FD. Women from Minarbali village ( Orissa) caught hold of truck loaded with illegal cutting of timber in March 2010 and guarded whole night to hand over the thieves to the officials. [10] However no action was taken but people have started asserting their power that they got through FRA. In the forest of Dudhwa National Park (Khiri, UP), the villagers have decided to give notices to FD officials if they stop them collecting NTFP from the forest. They have threatened the officials that if they are stopped a legal action will be taken by the Forest rights Committee.

Now the forest people are challenging not only the FD and the local administration but also the local feudal forces and mafias and thus creating new alliances in the region. In this process a new process of formation of a composite class is emerging.

Although, the accumulation of primitive capital started in the forest area since the colonial days and continued in the post colonial era the formation of a class of working people could not have taken place among very diverse ethnic groups of forest based working people with equally diverse kind of demands. With the unprecedented direct attack from the neo-liberal regime on the forest resources and that on the forest communities started bringing the diverse communities closer to fight the neo-liberal and feudal forces collectively on a common demand as happening in Assam, U.P., Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Inclusive definition as derived by the J.P.C ( Joint Parliamentary Committee) and given in FRA about the right holders which included Other Forest Dwellers and Forest Villagers has definitely helped this process. Some of the movement groups have also been working on this concept for over a period of time. National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW) have been working on this concept since its inception in 1998. A comprehensive definition of forest based working people was formulated by eminent anthropologist Dr.B.K.Roy Burman, which was adopted by NFFPFW founding conference at Rachi after thorough debate. The IInd Labour Commission accepted this definition in its report on Forest Workers in 1999.But the debate continued till the next conference held on 2002 at Nagpur.

Emergence of a collective consciousness on composite class can be evidently seen in the forest right struggles, both at the political and also at the economic production level as the there is direct conflict with the companies in the forest areas. At the political level new alliances of diverse communities are taking place outpacing very fast other traditional political alliances of dominant groups and the state forces. These forces are facing serious crisis within themselves but at the same time trying to divide the communities on traditional lines. On the economic production level new form of relationships are coming up very strongly in some areas in the form of collective production in agriculture and in forestry also, initiated and led by women. This has definitely helped the communities to sustain their production even in the drought period. Although it is very difficult at this stage to predict about the future outcome of this process but the collective process is definitely strengthening the community based leaderships.

The new rejuvenated community leadership is also engaged in linking forest right struggles with the other struggles and thus helping the forest right struggles to come out from the traditional isolation. This could be evidently seen in the protest rally in front of the Parliament house (Sansad Gherao), against the proposed Amendment on Land Acquisition Act. Thousands of forest community members from different states came together with other communities to protest against the draconian colonial law from 22nd to 25th November at Juntar Mantar, organized by SANGHARSH, a joint platform of diverse struggling groups with a common agenda to resist the neo-liberal aggression. Perhaps for the first time 1000 forest dwellers from Assam came to participate in week long dharna, they travelled three to four days hungry in train to reach Delhi. Forest right struggle today is at the threshold of a radical transformation from an isolated movement of unknown interior area to a comprehensive social and political movement which would include other right based struggles and especially that of natural resource based communities like Fish workers, landless and poor peasants, and mining based people.

In other words various ongoing movements in the forest areas are the struggle for social justice which is turning into larger voice of environmental justice. There is a strong tendency from the state of linking the militant mass struggle with CPI (Maoist) controlled political movements. Although the centre of Indian Maoist political movement and independent mass movements is on the same plane that is the areas dominated by dispossed and marginalized sections that are under constant attack from combination of State, corporate and feudal forces, one needs to understand the basic differences between these two forces very clearly.

Independent mass movements have a central demand of people’s control of natural resources against displacement and these are initiated totally by the local people’s aspiration and their involvement. Whereas Maoist controlled movement does not raise the people’s control of resources, there is no clear cut position of Maoists on these issues. Rather, all the activities are strictly controlled by Party armed militia. That is why violence is the main theme in their conflict with the state which is not for the people’s movement. The alienation of tribal population is secondary in their movement. The central issue is of capturing the state power through arm struggle. Although they have a strong bias for oppressed people but role of people’s movement in their controlled areas is subservient to arm struggle, which cannot be lead and owned by people’s initiative. Ironically, this is very much against the philosophy of Mao, the great leader of the Chinese revolution. In fact, genesis of this fundamental contradiction about the role of mass movements and arms struggle lies with the formation of CPI(M-L) in 1969, under the leadership of firebrand peasant leader late Charu Mazumdar. The party in its first political document claimed that the political situation in the country is mature for revolution and so arms struggle be the only form of class struggle and the youth would lead the armed struggle and vanguard of agrarian revolution. At the same time it denounced all forms of mass organizations as centre of revisionism and reformism and as a result all activities in the mass democratic front were withdrawn. It is important to mention here that it was a period when left wing peasant movements in different states along with radical student movement were getting very stronger since the mid sixties. Ironically, leftist trade union AITUC had a formal major split in the same period (1968). All these developments had a serious impact in the left democratic mass movement which got weaker and weaker and thus cleared the passage for the centrist and rightist forces to take the dominant role in the public sphere.

The initial exuberance of armed struggle that inspired many youth and especially the urban youth to go to the country side and waged armed action against class enemies died very soon (within two three years). It created lot of confusion about the party line whether to continue the armed conflict, as principle strategy or to start “mass organization” under the strict guidance from the party leadership. Next two decades saw series of split in the ML movement and thus became a fractured force. However, some groups like PWG in Andhra Pradesh still continued with the arms struggle line but with a different tactics. They too formed front organizations of peasants and youths which were very much under control of the party leadership and not as independent mass organizations. Finally, PWG combined with MCC (Maoist Communist Centre) which was active in eastern India to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Incidentally, MCC was never a part of CPI (ML) movements and always remained an underground political group since late 50’s. While one needs to pay attention to the significant role played by Indian Maoist party in resistance movement against the state especially in some tribal areas one should not forget the lessons of history of very recent past. Mass movements must remain independent to play a significant role in this critical juncture of history.

It is also important to critically review the role of the middle class and progressive forces in the process of alienation of adivasi and other marginalized working people, which was started in the colonial period that continued in the post colonial period and being intensified in the present neo-liberal regime. During the anti colonial struggle and immediately after the independence middle class progressive groups remained supportive to the mass struggles. Although, in the first few decades after the independence majority of the progressive groups and middle class in general did support the development paradigm perceived by the new independent Indian state that actually has been responsible for further alienation and displacement of adivasi and other marginalized sections but some of the progressive groups play a significant role in the mass movements of the 60’s and 70’s. In the post emergency period many middle class activist got disillusioned with centrist politics and mainstream left parties started working in interior areas with the marginalized people on critical issues like displacement, livelihood, human rights, environmental issues, health, PDS etc. and played a major role in organizing the poor for achieving social and economic justice. The period between 1980 and 2005 witnessed series of social movements all over the country on these fundamental issues and questioned the governmental developmental paradigm. The intensity and passion of protest against neo-liberal regime was strongly demonstrated during the WSF (World Social Forum), within and outside the event in Mumbai. During this period middle class social activists took an active part in various national and international forums against WTO, W.B, Climate change summit etc. They have also started trying to influence the govt policy and programme. At the same time a new generation of development managers has entered in the scenario as professionals. This period has also seen the emergence of peoples' assertion in the social and political arena. New generation of community leadership is developing through mass resistance against various projects owned by national and international capital resulting closure or stoppage of many projects. In some of the areas the resistance has been very militant and independent. Such development has created serious impact in the political scenario. Ruling parties are being threatened to loose its base in some areas. It is emerging as an independent force and has started creating impacts in political and social fields. It has also started affecting the social activists. They are generally unsure about the emerging community leadership who believe in collective action and are keen to be engaged in all negotiation process, evolving new methodologies for resistance. This is needed to be encouraged to ensure the involvement of critical masses in the political and social processes. In this context, role of the middle class activists needs a radical change to remain relevant in the social movements. They have to play an actively and consciously supportive role to strengthen the community and community based leadership.

In the environmental sector till now middle class activists have played a dominant role in settling the issues and in the negotiation processes at national and international levels .In the present situation when forest right movement is getting stronger and with an emerging community leadership the role of the middle class activists is changing. It is needed to be different. But there is also a growing tendency to make the issues technical and complicated. In the climate crisis debate which is going to affect lives and livelihood of larger sections of society there is hardly any literature in vernacular or regional languages. Such tendencies which alienate community involvement needed to be checked, so that the compatibility of these two important forces can be maintained. It is true that in the era of capitalist globalization access to information has tremendously increased for the professionals and it has also helped to create a new class of internet activists within the middle class. This group along with the army of professional development managers is becoming bogey of International Activism. Such activism takes the mass movements only as a point of reference and not as a source of ideological inspiration. Access to information must be used to strengthen the communities rather than terrorizing them with intellectual arrogance. Technical and professional knowledge can not alone change the world for the disempowered or the dominant worldview. History tells us that the struggle of the masses is the key for such radical change. Arrogance of technological knowledge should not dominate over the knowledge of history of societies. We must always remind ourselves with what Karl Marx said about150 years before,” Theory becomes material force when grasped by the masses”. It is still very much relevant today as Mao Ze Dong had also categorically said that the correct idea can only come when theoretical knowledge meets with the knowledge of class struggle. It is necessary now to review the role of middle class intellectuals and mental workers in the movement by themselves and the progressive intellectual forces have to take the lead in linking the middle class activists with the growing mass movements.

Political struggle for Justice at large in forest areas

To say more precisely, today the forest areas are witnessing political struggles basically exposing the myth of Nation States created during the colonial regime on false grounds without taking into consideration of people’s culture and their livelihood practices. The Government is in dilemma whether to promote corporate interest or to implement political programme to ensure their vote banks. The enactment of FRA was not just the wishes of UPA 1 but the government was forced to address the conflict issue to isolate the Maoists in forest areas and to convince its own constituency. This was the reason that forced UPA 1 to enact this law after a big defeat of NDA and its core slogan India Shining in 2004. The collective political consciousness generating inside the forest areas is the logical culmination of 250 years of struggles and not dependent on any political party or Maoists. If they are challenging the State then they are also entering into debates with Maoists challenging their methodology also. e.g in Adhoura block of Kaimur district of Bihar, the villagers were very agitated when Maoists bombed the schools. Villagers have announced that no one will feed Maoist in the village.

The struggle of creating and widening the democratic space is being done by the struggling people for whom the forest rights are their life, source of their survival and their dignity. They are not talking of individual rights but of community rights and community governance, opposing commercialization of forest resources, creating community based approach of Critical Wild Life Habitats. For the community, natural resources are not for profits but it is future reserves for whole of the society.

Most important challenge for the future of the forest right movement is to build up a broad based organization from the grass-root to the national level, under the leadership of the community leaders and with active associations from activists and progressive thinking people.

This expression has been spelled out so vocally in Dehradun declaration where more than 200 community representatives of forest movements from different regions of India gathered on 10-12th June 2009, they sent the message to entire world that they want Climate Justice by saying that-------

“This is no ordinary crisis. Not merely a climate crisis – or in your words, this magnified self-created monster of a financial crisis. We believe it is a Crisis of Civilizations. It’s no ordinary clash but a fundamental clash between our knowledge systems; of being, of nature and your wisdom, technology, and demonic tendencies. Your world rests on ideas of power, territories, boundaries, profit, exploitation and oppression and you try to own everything, including Mother Nature.

Some of the important resolutions taken collectively by the forest communities were:

· Before demanding individual rights we will collectively struggle for claiming community rights, We will constantly engage with the government and responsible officials for the implementation of the FRA , We have an inalienable right over our forest land, We will collect all those documents from government records where our rights have been registered, We will fight to stop all those companies that have attacked our forests, We will strengthen the struggle against commodification of forests, In order to reach our goal we will each strengthen our organization in our area as well as bring together all such organizations such that we can together fight with strength.”
They are determined to build their and their children’s future by own initiatives and not as remaining beneficiary to the Govt. Rajkumari Gond, an adivasi women leader from Sonbhadra articulated this sentiment very strongly on the issue of Food Sequrity Bill in the recent ‘Sansad gherao’ at Jantar Mantar: “ Arey is chugalkhor dalalo ki sarkar se kya anaj mangenge.Hum to apni 4 hectare jamin apne haq se lenge aur usime hi hum apne parivaron ko chalayenge.humey kisi ke aage haath nehi failana hai” ( why should we ask this divisive and broker Government for food grains, if we women get 4 hectare of our land than we can grow grains ourselves and feed our families. We don’t want to lay our hands for begging)


About the Authors:

Roma ( has been working as a social activist on the issue of forest /land /wages/gender with Dalit, Adivasi and minority sections for the last 18 years. Presently working in Uttar Pradesh, on the issue of land/forest/tribal/displacement, strengthening the local initiative, people’s organization and helping to form strong women’s leadership and leadership from Dalits and tribals/Adivasi. Associated with the Uttar Pradesh Land Reform and Labour Rights Campaign Committee (UPLRCC) and New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI). Nominated as people’s organization representative in the State Level Monitoring Committee constituted under Forest Rights Act, Uttar Pradesh; Steering committee member of National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW) and Ex Specialist Member, Joint Review Committee, constituted by MoEF and MoTa GoI on Forest Rights Act to review the implementation of the Forest Rights Act in the country.

Ashok Chowdhury ( is a veteran in the field of social development, involved in unorganized sector labour movements and organizing forest workers. In the 1980s he initiated the forest workers cooperative along the Shivalik ranges, off Sahranpur in UP. In the 1990s he was key member in the foundation and formation of the National Centre for Labour. He is the founding member of the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Dwellers. With the Uttar Pradesh land rights network since 1997; Vice president of the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) since inception in 2001; Participated in the formation of Sangarsh since 2007 a common platform for campaigns working on community rights over common resources.

[1] Prabhat Patnaik: Socialism or Reformism

[2] Unpublished study by Roma, Rajnish and Pawan Vishkarma, estimation done through data collection.

[3] Jt review committee GOI on FRA consultation in Jharkhand July 2010. ( Report by Roma, Sharad Lele and Vasavi Kiro) for ref : fracommittee.icfre

[4] Jt review committee GOI on FRA consultation in Himachal Pradesh July 2010. ( Report by Roma, Arup J Saikia, Jarjum Ete and Vasavi Kiro) for ref : fracommittee.icfre

[5] Rahul Saxena : Status Report on FRA for WWF, May 2010

[6] Anil Garg : Buniyad organization, Kothi Bazar, Betul, MP

[7] Taungiya villages are the forest villages established by British in entire country to do silvicultural operations. These villages were not allowed to construct pucca houses, they have no right of education, health and any other development activity. They are still treated as bonded laborers of FD. It is for the first time that FRA has talked about converting these villages into revenue villages. But till now none of the states have started this process.

[8] Meeting with Jt Review Committee members, GOI, on 22nd September 2010 with Roma, Jarjum Ete, Vasavi Kiro, Dr. R.L Meena, Sh M.L Markam

[9] British forest policy in Assam by Rajib Handique

[10] Forest Governance in India: Collective Rights and Claims in the FRA by Prakash Kashwan.( Indiana University)

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