NTUI calls out targeting of forest dwellers to ‘benefit big capital’

March 12, In a forceful statement in response to the recent Supreme Court judgment regarding the eviction of forest dwellers (that the Court subsequently stayed), the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) declared that forest people in India are “under attack to benefit Big Capital, not tigers”. The statement succinctly describes how the Forest Rights Act has been under attack, along with forest dwelling communities themselves, often targeted by forest officials and police. 

The statement explains how the Supreme Court’s initial order, dated February 13, 2019, directed “21 state governments to evict all claimants whose claims have been rejected.” NTUI said that the order came in a case “filed by some retired forest officials, along with four ‘wild life conservation organisations – the Wildlife Trust of India, the Nature Conservation Society, the Tiger Research and Conservation Trust and the Bombay Natural History Society”. The organisation alleged that the “BJP government at the centre…absented itself from the proceedings,” affirming “its opposition to the land rights of forest dwellers.” Two weeks later, on February 28, the Supreme Court stayed its own order, and sought reports from state governments about how land claims were processed. The NTUI stated, per state government affidavits, 20.5 lakh land claims have been rejected, adding, “The numbers are disputed, not indicative of compliance with appellate procedures and have been criticised by numerous organisations including the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.” 

The NTUI’s statement outlines efforts by the BJP government aimed at diluting the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA). It highlights the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Ordinance of 2014, and the National Forest Policy, 2018, saying that both attempted to “subvert the role of the Gram Sabha under the FRA”. It adds that amendments to the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, as well as amendments to the Rules to FRA “all undermine” the Forest Rights Act. Moreover, it notes that state governments have “resorted to undermining the FRA by invoking the Indian Forest Act, 1927,” a colonial-era law, and have also formulated legislation and measures attacking the FRA; these include the Maharashtra Village Forest Rules, 2014, and amendments to the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Acts and Chotanagpur Tenancy Acts in Jharkhand. 

The NTUI notes that the Forest Department “has used the claim recognition requirements and procedure required under the FRA to deny or delay claims while not allowing the process of appeals to proceed,” adding that “forest department officials and police have continued to harass claimants; burn down forest villages, foist false cases on people living traditionally in the forests and resorting to violence against them.” 

The NTUI’s statement details the conflict between Forest Department and forest dwellers to explain why land claims are rejected, stating that the reject “is rooted in the issue of control over the natural resources”. It explains that the Forest Rights Act, 2006 was an effort to “ensure collective ownership of the forest dwellers over the forests and its minor produce,” but that the Forest Department, “created under colonial rule, was never willing to give up their control over the forests.” The NTUI notes that this involves “financial interest,” and is also “seen as a necessity to establish control over people” in order to ensure that natural resources are are “at the disposal of capital,” later adding that placing the Forest Department as “the implementing agency” involves “an inherent conflict of interest.” 

According to the statement, 45% of forest rights claims are rejected across India. It cites information from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs indicating that “most state governments have attributed the high rate of rejection of forest rights claims largely to duplication of claims — either by one forest dweller making multiple claims or persons from the same family making separate claims,” adding, “This duplication obviously occurs due to the huge delays in processing these claims.” The NTUI declares that since the reasons for claims being rejected are not revealed, it “becomes impossible to appeal” against them, adding that expecting vulnerable Adivasi communities “to have the resources to pursue the appeal process where the forest department challenging the claim is on the body of the appeal is extreme.” 

The statement notes that the stay on the Supreme Court’s earlier oder is just “temporary relief,” reiterating that “he entire parallel policy effort of the BJP government both at the centre and in the states to dismantle the rights under the FRA continues undeterred. This dilution is necessary to ensure access of big corporations to the natural resources, especially mines in these forest areas,” it declares. It acknowledges the struggle by forest dwelling people against the “commercial exploitation of forests,” having earlier noted that the FRA “recognizes the role of forest dwellers in ‘…conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance and thereby strengthening the conservation regime of the forests while ensuring livelihood and food security of the forest dwelling'”. Notably, NTUI highlights that the current “policy thrust is to pitch them against the cause of wildlife protection.”

The NTUI expresses solidarity with the forest working people, and calls for an immediate end to all evictions in forest areas as well as an immediate end to government efforts to dilute the FRA. It also seeks a review of all rejected forest rights claims within three months, the time-bound processing of such claims, and the “removal of the Forest Department from the Appellate body for review of claims,” saying that only Gram Sabhas and the Ministry of Tribal affairs should represent the government. 

The complete statement may be read here:

Forest People under attack to benefit Big Capital, not Tigers. – Statement from NTUI

On 13 February 2019, the Supreme Court of India (SC) in a case filed by some retired forest officials, along with four ‘wild life conservation’ organisations – the Wildlife Trust of India, the Nature Conservation Society, the Tiger Research and Conservation Trust and the Bombay Natural History Society – challenged the constitutional validity of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA), ordered 21 state governments to evict all claimants whose claims have been rejected. This order could be used to evict and displace over 19 lakh households of forest people. The Wildlife Trust of India has been involved in buying land used for agriculture to establish an elephant corridor with the support of the Forest Department in Karnataka thereby displacing families from lands including non-forest lands to create passage for animals. They have been involved in similar efforts in Kerala, Meghalaya and in Assam. The BJP government at the centre had absented itself from the proceedings and in so doing affirmed its support for the conservationist lobby and its opposition to the land rights of forest dwellers.

On 28 February the SC stayed this order and asked state governments to report on how claims were processed. 20.5 lakh claims have been rejected according to state government affidavits. The numbers are disputed, not indicative of compliance with appellate procedures and have been criticized by numerous organisations including the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

The FRA recognizes the role of forest dwellers in “…conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance and thereby strengthening the conservation regime of the forests while ensuring livelihood and food security of the forest dwelling” people while the present policy thrust is to pitch them against the cause of wildlife protection.

Parallel dilution of Rights
The BJP government has consistently diluted the FRA through its tenure. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Ordinance, 2014 and the National Forest Policy, 2018 both tried to subvert the role of the Gram Sabha under the FRA while amendments to the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act and a host of amendments to the Rules to FRA all undermine FRA.  State governments have also resorted to undermining the FRA by invoking the Indian Forest Act 1927. States have also framed legislation and rules such as the Maharashtra Village Forest Rules, 2014 and Protected Forest Rules in Madhya Pradesh and the amendments to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Acts and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Acts in Jharkhand. The Forest department has used the claim recognition requirements and procedure required under the FRA to deny or delay claims while not allowing the process of appeals to proceed. To worsen the situation, forest department officials and police have continue to harass claimants; burn down forest villages, foist false cases on people living traditionally in the forests and resorting to violence against them.

Why are the claims Rejected?
The rejection of the claims that has continued across the country is rooted in the issue of control over the natural resources: the FRA was a legislative attempt to ensure collective ownership of the forest dwellers over the forests and its minor produce while the Forest Department, created under colonial rule, was never willing to give up their control over the forests. There is both financial interest in this and this is also seen as a necessity to establish control over the people in order natural resources at the disposal of capital. This conflict has existed despite the law and hence its implementation by the forest department has been dismal.

In making the forest department the implementing agency, there is an inherent conflict of interest. Even according to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, most state governments have attributed the high rate of rejection of forest rights claims largely to duplication of claims — either by one forest dweller making multiple claims or persons from the same family making separate claims. This duplication obviously occurs due to the huge delays in processing these claims. Over 45% of forest rights claims countrywide are rejected. The reasons for rejection are not cited and hence it also becomes impossible to appeal against it. The people living in the forests – mostly Adivasis –  are the most vulnerable people of this country, expecting them to have the resources to pursue the appeal process where the forest department challenging the claim is on the body of appeal is extreme.

The 28 February stay order is only a temporary relief – the entire parallel policy effort of the BJP government both at the centre and in the states to dismantle the rights under the FRA continues undeterred. This dilution is necessary to ensure access of big corporations to the natural resources, especially mines in these forest areas. The forest people residing in these areas across the country have waged a continuous struggle against commercial exploitation of the forests. It is they who protect the forests as recognized by the FRA and hence the attack on them and the law that protects them.

The NTUI stands with the forest working people in our collective struggle for rights to livelihood and in protecting our natural resources and our environment. We demand:

·        An immediate stop to all evictions in forest areas
·        An immediate stop to the dilution of the clauses of the Forest Rights Act by the central government and state governments
·        Review of all rejected claims for forest rights under the FRA within three months
·        A time-bound processing of claims under the FRA
·        Removal of the Forest Department from the Appellate body for review of claims: government to be represented only by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs along with representatives of the Gram Sabha.

Gautam Mody
General Secretary

Source: Sabrang India

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