We have successfully completed a march with close to 10,000 people including children, men, women and even senior citizens of tribal communities from 20 districts of Jharkhand for their right to the Forests and Land. The march, also called ‘Paidal march’ (Marching on foot) began on 20th February from Columbus ground at Hazaribagh and concluded at Ranchi on 27th February covering 110 kilometers.
The demands are simple – full rights of the tribal communities on the land, water and other resources of the forests from which they are being systematically alienated. Earlier it was the British who exploited the forest dwellers and after Independence, the Indian Forest Act ignored their rights depriving them of the usage of the forest and its resources which they always had access to and which always belonged to them since time immemorial. However, later the Government of India recognised the injustice done to the forest dwellers and brought the “Schedule Tribe and Other Traditional Forest Dweller Forest Rights Act, 2006." This act provides for the strengthening of the local government/Gram Sabha for the management and governance of forests within the traditional boundaries of a village and for the protection of forests, forest life, and biodiversity. Similarly, schedule V of the Indian constitution recognized the need for protection and special administration of areas predominantly inhabited by tribal/ Adivasi people due to their cultural uniqueness, vulnerability to external exploitation. The most important right provided under this schedule is the prevention of land alienation through land transfer regulation where no land or immovable property in these areas can be transferred by way of sale or lease to persons other than the tribals. But no serious efforts were made to empower the forest dwellers and instead they were displaced and exploited. By selling major chunks of the land to corporates, the state government violated the provisions of the Constitution. In Jharkhand, over the years, thousands of people have been displaced and denied their right to the forest. The government has sold forest lands to the rich corporates who razed agricultural fields to start projects of coal mining, stone quarry, dams, factories and other projects in the name of development. The Government’s initiatives like Tiger Project, Wildlife corridor have also displaced many people and the others who have not been displaced are living in constant fear. Various tactics are used time and again to drive the tribals away from their land and displace them. In Jharkhand, there are demands for both granting of both IFR (Individual Forest Rights) and CFR (Community Forest Rights). One of the tribal woman from Hazaribagh says, ”Our forefathers have struggled to preserve the land and the forest resources. But now the government refuses to give us that very land instead they have added that land to the land bank. Our demand is that we are given rights to the land.” In Jharkhand, there are 16,452 villages with 19,94,387 hectares of their land covered by forests. So the villagers can be granted forest rights as a community and 14 lakh individuals are eligible for individual forest rights. We at the National Alliance for peace and justice (NAPJ) organised an 8 days March to help Adivasis in Jharkhand state reclaim the forests, the rivers, the creeks, the trees, the sand, and the farms. A day after the March began, the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of the forest dwellers so in the charter of demands, we promptly added a demand to the state to file a petition against the order. The other demands are as follows:
• Withdrawal of minor civil and criminal cases against the forest dwellers,
• A dedicated Scheduled Tribe Department to be formed to focus on welfare and rights of the tribal population;
• Land Acquisition Act, 2006 should be enforced and Land Acquisition Act, 2013 should be repealed;
• A state-level Joint committee should be formed for execution of Forest Right Act, 2006. • The Chotanagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act, and Santal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) Act should be strictly implemented.
• The common land, the grazing land, the forests, the rivers, rivulets, streams, the trees, farming land and everything that has been added in the Land Bank should be freed and not given to capitalists.
We want our rights to the forest and the forest produce back such as the fruits, medicines, wood and other produce. It is 12 years since the Forest Rights Act has been passed but it is still not being implemented properly. There are more than 32,000 villages in Jharkhand and everyone has their land and their names recorded. But still what happens is the bullying of the police and the Government. In one of our villages, the NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation) has forcefully taken over 25,000 acres of land. And in another village in Santhal Pargana, where the people were agitating, the police has put them behind bars under false allegations. It appears like the state and the law are in favour of the rich and our voices are not heard. The Government is not concerned about the forests and the forest dwellers.
And now the Supreme Court has said that those whose claims have been rejected should be evicted from the forests. Where will they go? There must be lakhs of people in the entire country whose claims have been rejected.” Now that the Supreme Court has stayed the order of eviction of forest dwellers, the tribals can heave a sigh of relief. But the Supreme Court order for eviction came in the wake of some corporate NGOs and other NGOs funded by corporate, filing a petition. The corporate sector is anti-ecology and anti-forest dwellers. The state wants to institutionalise the forests – construct parks and reserves. But we want the forests to be left as it is – wild and free. The Government does not even have any record of the people who have been displaced since the last 20 years. And this is one of our concerns. Ideally, each state government should prepare a status report on tribals once a year and submit to the central government but this is not in practice. There is no data with any of the States. On 28th February, a group of 4 Adivasis leaders accompanied by Ex-MLA Gautam Sagar Rana and Birendra Kumar met the Governor Draupadi Murmu and submitted their memorandum of demands. The governor who is a tribal herself assured that she will take up the matter with the Central Government and at the state level also she said she will talk to the Forest Minister. She has assured for appropriate action, she also said that government officials are acting on their own behest as government do care about the rights of people living in jungle.