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Conflict over Forest Rights and tribal revolts

The term ‘adivasi’ denotes the prime dwellers of an area since time immemorial. Despite ‘progress’ elsewhere, they were happy in their own abode, if not disturbed by the ‘civilised’ in the name of extending territories into ‘their’ forests.

The late 18th and early 19th century were a decisive period for the British rule in the Indian sub-continent. When the British were keen to expand their control, the conflicts over India’s forests were one of the most important forms of protest ascribed to tribals all over the sub-continent. With the introduction of the Forest Act 1878, subsequently amended in 1927, shifting cultivation, foraging, grazing and hunting were all banned, thereby eliminating the livelihoods of those living in and on the margins of the forests.

However, the adivasis were not passive to this development. Their armed rebellions and the active retaliation of the Andamanese in particular were branded as ‘savage attacks’ by the British even when the tribals were actually defending their long-standing rights over the forests. When the forests were finally brought under their control and the tribals were subdued, the British became paternalistic.

In order to establish supremacy over the indigenous population, the British had started terming them as savages while themselves using methods of extreme savagery. To justify their actions, the colonialists cited many practices of the tribals. The ‘Meriah’ rite of sacrifice amongst the Konds of Odisha was one such. It was often held up as the foremost example of savagery and depravity of the tribals in central India. It was not only a rite, but a powerful myth, used here as elsewhere to justify the colonization of areas of the globe defined as ‘savage’. In a sense, this rite was more than spilling blood to propitiate their deities and ensure good harvest, but instrumentally served both social and political functions.

Such was the case with the Andamanese too. The British colonial power and, in its footsteps, the state power post-Independence tried to control their lives. Extreme violence was used to impose ‘civilisation’ on the population and the idea of the savagery of Andamanese became clearly essentialised in order to legitimise the violence of such colonial policies. The other spectrum of this sad episode is the constant fight of Jarawa people since colonial times till date against the attack on ‘their’ forests and their mobility within the forest. In a sense, the ‘savagery’ of the Andamanese is very much a reflection, even an imitation, of the violence to which they were subjected.

During the Communist movement for land and wage reforms in the 1960s in Kerala, the upper caste paternalist concern for Dalits and adivasis could still be considered revolutionary. With the rise of the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha (AGMS), they had shown the party that it had to take them seriously. Their loyalty became strictly conditional.

Since 1980s, Central and Eastern India — also home to a large portion of India’s tribal population — became the perfect guerrilla terrain for the Naxalites. The Maoist movement spread in these tribal belts not just because it addresses their historical marginalisation but also because of the intimacy the movement has managed to build with local people, overriding differences of caste or tribe.

It may be pertinent to mention here that despite bringing the forests under their control, through the Govt. of India Act 1935, the British kept the tribal areas under their direct administration through Governors and kept ‘their’ forest almost intact until they left India.

Under the new economic policies, the Government took away 1.14,484 hectares of forest land under Schedule V in the name of development to ultimately hand it over to MNCs and big business houses which affected the natural rights of the tribals’ and also invited severe ecological disasters such as the landslides from Uttarakhand to Malin. Except a glaring omission about the uprising of Santhals and the revolt of adivasis of western India, more particularly of Warli tribes of Maharashtra under the leadership of ‘Ma Tai’ Godavari Parulekar and her husband Shamrao Parulekar, in all, this volume, in a unified voice, brings forth the urgency of the problems of some of the poorest and most seriously disadvantaged communities in the sub-continent that need to be properly addressed and urges a lasting solution.

Forest Rights Act 2006

Millions of people live in and near India’s forest lands, but have no legal right to their homes, lands or livelihoods. A few government officials have all power over forests and forest dwellers. The result? Both forests and people die. This Act recognises forest dwellers’ rights and makes conservation more accountable.

What are called “forests” in Indian law often have nothing to do with actual forests. Under the Indian Forest Act, areas were often declared to be “government forests” without recording who lived in these areas, what land they were using, what uses they made of the forest and so on.82% of Madhya forest blocks and 40% of Orissa’s reserved forests were never surveyed; similarly 60% of India’s national parks have till today (sometimes after 25 years, as in Sariska) not completed their process of enquiry and settlement of rights. As the Tiger Task Force of the Government of India put it, “in the name of conservation, what has been carried out is a completely illegal and unconstitutional land acquisition programme.”

Because of this situation, millions of people are subject to harassment, evictions, etc, on the pretext of being encroachers in their own homes. Torture, bonded labour, extortion of money and sexual assault are all extremely common. In the latest national eviction drive from 2002 onwards, more than 3,00,000 families were driven into destitution and starvation. In Madhya Pradesh alone, more than 125 villages have been burned to the ground. The situation is so bad that the then Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, in his 29th Report, said that “The criminalisation of the entire communities in the tribal areas is the darkest blot on the liberal tradition of our country.”

The Indian Forest Act, 1927, India’s main forest law, had nothing to do with conservation. It was created to serve the British need for timber. It sought to override customary rights and forest management systems by declaring forests state property and exploiting their timber. The law says that, at the time a “forest” is declared, a single official (the Forest Settlement Officer) is to enquire into and “settle” the land and forest rights people had in that area. These all-powerful officials unsurprisingly either did nothing or recorded only the rights of powerful communities. The same model was subsequently built into the Wild Life Protection Act, passed in 1972, with similar consequences.

It is not just people who have lost. The very purpose of the Forest Acts was to convert forests into the property of a colonial department; and when you convert an ecosystem into someone’s property, there will always be stronger claims to that property than conservation. To destroy a forest today requires nothing more than either a bribe to the local forest officer or an application to a committee in Delhi. The results include:

  1. The loss of more than 90% of India’s grasslands to commercial Forest Department plantations.
  2. The destruction of five lakh hectares of forest in the past five years alone for mines, dams and industrial projects;
  3. The clearing of millions of hectares of forest for monoculture plantations by the Forest Department;
  4. Recent proposals to privatise “degraded” forest lands for private companies’ timber plantations.

Moreover, the forest laws destroyed all the community management and regulation systems that had existed before, forcing people to choose between either abandoning the forest entirely or living as ‘criminals’ within or near it. To this day it is a criminal offence for you or I to plant a tree in a reserved forest; but it is legal for the Department to fell the entire forest so long as it has Central government permission.

The Act basically does two things: Grants legal recognition to the rights of traditional forest dwelling communities, partially correcting the injustice caused by the forest laws, and makes a beginning towards giving communities and the public a voice in forest and wildlife conservation.

There are two stages to be eligible under this Act. First, everyone has to satisfy two conditions:

  1. Primarily residing in forests or forest lands;
  2. Depends on forests and forest land for a livelihood (namely “bona fide livelihood needs”)

Second, one has to prove:

  1. That the above conditions have been true for 75 years, in which case you are an Other Traditional Forest Dweller (s. 2(o));


  1. That you are a member of a Scheduled Tribe (s. 2(c)); and
  2. That you are residing in the area where they are Scheduled (s. 4(1)).
  3. In the latter case you are a Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribe.

The law recognises three types of rights:

Land Rights

No one gets rights to any land that they have not been cultivating prior to December 13, and that they are not cultivating right now. Those who are cultivating land but don’t have document can claim up to 4 hectares, as long as they are cultivating the land themselves for a livelihood. Those who have a patta or a government lease, but whose land has been illegally taken by the Forest Department or whose land is the subject of a dispute between Forest and Revenue Departments, can claim those lands. The land cannot be sold or transferred to anyone except by inheritance.

The law secondly provides for rights to use and/or collect the following:

  1. Minor forest produce things like tendu patta, herbs, medicinal plants etc “that has been traditionally collected (see section 3(1) (c)). This does not include timber.
  2. Grazing grounds and water bodies (sections 3
  3. Traditional areas of use by nomadic or pastoralist communities i.e. communities that move with their herds, as opposed to practicing settled agriculture.

Right to Protect and Conserve

Though the forest is supposed to belong to all of us, till date no one except the Forest Department had a right to protect it. If the Forest Department should decide to destroy it, or to hand it over to someone who would, stopping them was a criminal offence.

For the first time, this law also gives the community the right to protect and manage the forest. It provides a right and a power to conserve community forest resources, while it also gives the community a general power to protect wildlife, forests, etc.

This is vital for the thousands of village communities who are protecting their forests and wildlife against threats from forest mafias, industries and land grabbers, most of whom operate in connivance with the Forest Department.

Section 6 of the Act provides a transparent three step procedure for deciding on who gets rights. First, the gram sabha (full village assembly, NOT the gram panchayat) makes a recommendation – i.e who has been cultivating land for how long, which minor forest produce is collected, etc. The gram sabha plays this role because it is a public body where all people participate, and hence is fully democratic and transparent.

The gram sabha’s recommendation goes through two stages of screening committees at the taluka and district levels. The district level committee makes the final decision (see section 6(6)). The Committees have six members – three government officers and three elected persons. At both the taluka and the district levels, any person who believes a claim is false can appeal to the Committees, and if they prove their case the right is denied. Finally, land recognised under this Act cannot be sold or transferred.

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