Founding Conference of
All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP)
All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP)
Town Hall, Puri, Odisha, India
3-4 June 2013
The forests of the country are inhabited by a sizeable section of forest working people who number about 15 crores, (150 million) dependent on the forests in some way or the other for their self-employed livelihood – procurement and sale of Minor Forest Produce (MFP), agriculture on forest land, plantation work, rearing cattle, extraction of minor minerals, fishing, making articles from forest produce, construction work, extinguishing forest fires, etc. A very small section of the forest people work as wage labourers in various Forest Department work, like plantation, construction work, putting out fires etc.
Forest based working people may be classified into two broad categories – one, who for centuries have been traditionally deriving livelihood from the forests and who are referred to as forest people (Adivasis or moolnivasis -original inhabitants) and the other being those, who were settled by the Forest Department ,since the colonial period ,for plantation and other related forest work, from outside the traditional forest boundaries, into the forest, and those who are referred to as forest workers(Van Taungyas). About 60 % of forest dependent communities are adivasis including those who are not Scheduled tribes. Pastoralist/nomadic tribes have sizeable sections who are muslims. Women constitute the biggest percentage of the working force in the forests. Paradoxically, even though constituting such sizeable numbers, the forest working people lack visibility and are not even considered part of the larger recognized working class as such. However, from time immemorial, this community has been engaged in primary production and has played an important role in creating and preserving the country’s resources. From the beginning of primitive accumulation of capital which started in the colonial era in the capitalist development process, their labour has been wantonly exploited. This phase was marked by raw exploitation of a large section of the forest working people especially those constituting the Taungya community, who were subjected to primeval slave like treatment with bonded labour/ captive labour status.
The onset of the British presence on Indian shores saw the beginning of severe attacks on the forest based communities in the name of “development”, unleashed by the imperialist/capitalists for exploitation and appropriation of the forest and natural resources of the country. This resulted in the rapid and tragic displacement of the forest based communities from the very lifeline and socio-ecological bases of their existence. These attacks on the very foundations of their existence was opposed and many instances of heroic uncompromising resistances- sometimes long drawn out, on issues of their self rule and preservation of forest and natural resources- dot the period of establishment of colonial ownership of the forests. These struggles were led by icons like Tilka Majhi, Sidhu Kanu, Birsa Munda, Sitaramaya Raju, Lakhsman Nayak and leadership of multitudes of adivasis. But all these resistances remained local or regional at best and were suppressed with ruthless superior armed power. However the fury of these strong indigenous revolts made it amply clear to the colonialist rulers that such blatantly oppressive techniques of governance would not work out too long and that such struggles could take on a national character in no time. So after one hundred years of blinding loot of our forests, the British rulers brought in Forest Policies and Rules towards the later half of the 19th century, thereby legalizing the loot through such oppressive legislations. All forest policies and rules made by the British had only one underlying objective – loot of forest resources.
In 1947 India became politically independent and in 1950, with the adoption of a new Constitution, India became a republic. Like the flood of democratic liberating expectations sweeping the multitudes of the country, the forest based communities were also hopeful of betterment in their lives. Nothing actually happened and worst, the Indian forests continued to be administered in the same colonially exploitative vein by the Indian government where people continued to be deprived of their basic rights. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guaranteed “Right to Life” – implying that all Indian citizens had the right to live an honorable life by getting full opportunity for income generation and livelihood options. But the Indian ruling class through the colonial institution of the Forest Department went on a public land usurpation spree, and the boundaries of “forest land” expanded with the illegal occupation of village land and at the same time the rapid destruction of the forest continued and forest based communities kept getting displaced from traditional forest based habitats. As the pillars of “development” – industries, power plants, mines, big dams appeared, the forest cover depleted, people got displaced, millions of lives were torn asunder, unemployment grew....and when people opposed, the governments relied and believed only in increased state violence. The forest regions gradually became a terrain of violence. Neither people survived nor did the forests or the bio diversity of the forests. In the name of Wild Life or Environment protection stricter rules of controlling the forests were passed with more powers to repress any dissent. In three decades after independence it had become clear to the forest based communities that they continued to be slaves of the Forest Department and only a second war of independence could liberate them from this slavery. From the 90s the “neo-liberal” package of capitalist responses to counter the apparent deepening structural crisis of Capital, saw multi and translational companies arriving in hordes in the forests resulting in rampant exploitation of forest, land, water, hills. People had to organise themselves in to protests against such ruthless exploitation. Post 80s, some sections of social movements and peoples movements started interacting closely with such movements of forest based communities and gradually a regional and national coordination began and grew, and within such co-ordinations and co-operations a process of forming a national platform began to take shape from 1993-94, resulting in the formation of Nation Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW) in 1998. Some more processes also existed at a regional level. This proved to be a critical moment in the Forest Rights movement in the country. An interesting aspect in the very formation of the Forum was a decision to, in future, transform itself in to a national federation of forest working people. It was clear such a transformation would be necessary to counter and replace the anti-people forest administration with a community based self rule of the forest people which would run on democratic republican principles. The forum from its formative days kept in touch with national, international workers movements with labour rights, environmental justice and right to livelihood as key common denominators. Simultaneously two other processes were seen in the forests – (a)the environmental process - which questioned the very functioning of the Forest Department and talked of protection of natural resources, but did not give primacy to the question of right to livelihood or the question of changing the colonial forest governance structures. They kept searching for alternatives within the given structure – joint forest management, eco-development, social forestry etc (b) the political process - from the 80s onwards extreme left political ideologies engendered some political processes in the forested regions of the country and also established themselves within some forest based communities, these “processes” are currently broadly termed as “Maoist”. They also talked about dismantling the colonial governance structure but never based on the self rule of the communities; the only alternative they envision is capture and creation of a new state power by the Party. In the midst of the tussle of these different trends, the Forum concentrated on building a democratic movement for the creation of a new legislation replacing the government and the “eminent domain” of the state and their ruling classes over the forest and replacing current anti-people forest governance with a democratic community centric governance structure.
In formation of Forum women force played a very important role. They also played a very important role in all the struggles against the colonial legacy of State inside the forest area and in some key tensed areas such as Kaimur, Bundelkhand played instrumental role in creating a democratic space. They contributed immensely in forming, strengthening and widening the local organization. They could very well imagine that in order to take back their rights they have to fight the repressive and exploitative state that is present in the form of police, forest department, contractors, mafias, companies, feudals, capitalists, dominant sections etc. Simultaneously they launched multilayer struggles against these forces. The driving force for them was security and good life for their future generation. They were clear in their mind that they are fighting for generations to come and not for a short span of life. Hence they were more vigor, energetic, active to develop the strategy to fight these forces in a collective manner. In many areas such as MP, Bihar, UP, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand they were instrumental in implementing the Act in their own way by reclaiming thousands of hectare of forest land and sustaining it in a collective manner. It was through these initiatives that they felt very strongly that they need to unionize in order to sustain these lands and forest for their future generation, build economic activities based on the natural resources, build their own infrastructure of development, education , health etc and form new institution like cooperatives to strengthen these economic activities. Eventually union will help them to protect their rights and dignity.
It is noteworthy that in the all the issues about environmental crisis and forest governance, the community never participated and were never in fact included in these debates. These debates were confined within the “expert” middle class and elites. It may be recalled that English education system and the professional/expert middle class were given birth to strengthen the bases of colonial rule, so that colonial governance could function smoothly. That is why this class has always been against people’s movements and the reason why the management of forest, land, water has continued to be dominated by official administrative thoughts, principles and actions and democratic processes have never been allowed to surface. This also resulted in the fact that democratic republican content was mostly absent in legislations on land, water or forests. To keep constricting the development of democratic spaces, such critical legislations like the Zamindari Abolition Act were passed with escape routes and loopholes were kept consciously so that manipulations could be done. The landless and the deprived thus could not derive any benefit out of such legislations. In this context the struggle for a democratisation of forest governance, the fight for forest rights was an important political struggle. Significantly, left political parties in UPA-1forced the inclusion of this issue in the common minimum programme and raised their voices in the Parliament. A new political climate emerged and Forest Rights Act was passed by the Parliament of India in 2006 and this was a victory of the strength of peoples’ movements across the country.
This was the beginning of a new phase in the Forest Rights movement – for the first time the issue of democratic rights of the forest based communities came up on the national political plane. Almost simultaneously two other important legislations were passed by Parliament – (i) National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 and (ii) Unorganised Workers Social Security Act,2008. The rural and forest regions of the country are seeing a new dimension being added to the communities ongoing struggles ,resulting in an unprecedented upsurge in mass peoples consciousness – which is now in the forefront of challenging the neo-liberal policies and onslaughts. Interestingly, other social and political forces are receding from the battle grounds. It is now necessary to unite the scattered pockets of forest based community resistances dotting the forests of the country and to establish it as a national political force. This was unanimously decided in the 4th National Conference of the Forum in 2012 at Dehra Dun which felt that to establish a democratic community based governance of the forests, a national union of the forest based communities needed to be formed which would be able to establish the community leadership on a national plane. This national Union would struggle for the implementation of labour laws, social security laws and forest rights laws in the forest regions and accepting the many diversities across the forested regions of the country would build up the Union on federative principles. The Union would rely on militant mass struggles as the means to achieve its goals where members at all layers and levels would actively participate in such struggles. The Union would aim to develop and project women leadership; to assist members to organise cooperatives of the members to conduct economic activities to generate employment and enhance livelihood; to establish community control of the primary producers on the forest resources to ensure protection of forest resources, environment and livelihood of forest working people; to recognise women’s work, both paid and unpaid in the economy and the family.
In this Conference delegates from different regions would deliberate on various political, legal and organisational aspects of the Forest rights movement and arrive at conclusive positions and draw up the future strategies of struggle. The key issues to be debated would be :
1. Right to livelihood in the context of environmental justice.
2. The relevance of labour rights laws in forest rights movement.
3. Social and political protection of forest working people.
4. Development of women community leadership
Organisational issues and new organisational structure and forms would be debated and discussed around the draft constitution.
Today we see the direct attack for control on the natural resources of the forested regions of the country from the capitalist forces. There is today a direct conflict between Capital and the Community and progressive sections. The government is siding unabashedly with the forces of Capital. It is extremely important for us to understand as to who are on our side and who are on the Other side – this will help determine our strategy.
All India Union of Forest Working People would try to unite as many friendly forces as possible in this decisive fight against capitalism, feudalism and forest mafia , keeping its firm belief in collectivity and justice as underlying structures of a new society it envisions.
With an outlook of protracted, long drawn mass peoples movement as the guiding strategy, the Union formation conference has been convened from 3-5th June 2013, at Town Hall, Puri, Odisha. At this time Odisha is witnessing many important struggles on issues of safeguarding forests and natural resources like anti- POSCO, Niyamagiri, Kalinga Nagar, Gandhamardan Hills,anti Vedanta University,anti Samuka Beach Tourism project (Puri) etc and it is important to build up strong co-ordination between struggling communities of other states and regions. Communities are expected to send their elected representatives to this inaugural conference, establish a strong organisation to ensure the protection of livelihood of forest based communities and forest resources.