- Thousands of farmers, tribal groups and agricultural workers from around the country joined in the protest in the national capital on September 5, seeking farm loan waivers, better minimum wages and implementation of laws like the Forest Rights Act 2006.
- Apathy towards recognising rights of tribal communities over the forests has often resulted in central government’s environment ministry and tribal affairs ministry warring with each other. The tribal affairs ministry has often accused the environment ministry of ignoring the welfare of tribal communities.
- The protestors stressed that the mobilisation at this scale was a clear political warning to the government, ahead of the next general elections, expected to be scheduled in May 2019.
On September 5, thousands of farmers, a significant portion of whom are from tribal communities, came from around the country to the national capital for a protest march. Protests are common in Delhi, usually timed around Parliament sessions to get the most attention. But with the Parliament not in session now, what brought these farmers and agricultural workers to Delhi, leaving behind their fields?
In the words of a 54-year-old tribal farmer from Palghar in Maharashtra, Shankar Kakadgowari, who camped for several days at New Delhi Railway Station before taking part in the protest on September 5, it is the systematic “injustice and apathy” of governments that forced them to come to Delhi for the protest march.
“There are no policies that are made for farmers or tribal people like us. Everyone just wants to talk about grand plans. In reality, no one bothers about us. The only concern is for those with deep pockets. If by some good fortune our crop is not giving us a headache, there is always a fear of one or other project taking away our land,” he said.
Kakadgowari was among the thousands who came to Delhi from across the country for the Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Rally, a protest by farmer organisations and trade unions against the current government’s agrarian policies. The protest was organised by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and the All-India Agricultural Workers’ Union (AIAWU), affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Their demands ranged from seeking a rightful price for farm produce to loan waivers, implementation of labour laws to the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 and a minimum wage of Rs 18,000 per month.
“Implementation of FRA is one of our major demands. It has been 10 years since the law was passed but it has not been implemented properly so far. Under this Act, tribals were to be given the rights over their land but in the majority of the cases, their claims are rejected. They are asked for all kind of documents but how is a tribal person expected to produce 75-year-old documents,” said AIKS’s General Secretary Hannan Mollah, while adding that there were about 200,000 people in the protest.
FRA 2006 was enacted by the government to India to correct the historic injustice meted out to tribal people. It provided for recognising and giving the forest rights to forest dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded. But more than 12 years later the implementation has remained far from satisfactory.
According to the data from the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), a total of 4.19 million claims (by individuals and communities) have been received (till April 30, 2018) and of that 3.8 million claims have already been disposed of. But of the total disposed cases nearly half, about 1.93 million claims were rejected and a total of 1.8 million titles were awarded claims.
In March 2018, a protest march was organised in Maharashtra in which around 40,000 farmers and tribal cultivators walked for 180 kilometres from Nashik to Mumbai.
Mollah said, following that protest in Maharashtra “reconsideration of claims made by tribals has restarted and we want a similar countrywide reconsideration of claims made by tribals”.
Environment ministry vs tribal affairs ministry
The high rate of rejection of claims made by tribal people has been an issue that has repeatedly brought MoTA and the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) at loggerheads.
Leena Nair, secretary MoTA, wrote to chief secretaries of all states in June 2018 on several issues related to the implementation of the FRA. Nair warned against withholding or rejecting forest rights claims over frivolous grounds like calling the land, over which claims have been made, as “ecologically fragile land” – a term not legally tenable under the FRA Act.
A common complaint among tribal communities is that soon after their claims are rejected, authorities move to evict them without waiting for the decision on review or appeal. The allegation found an echo in Nair’s letter as well and she asked the states to ensure “no eviction of FRA claimants takes place during the pendency of review or appeal”.
In another stern letter to the union environment secretary in June 2018, Nair had severely criticised the Draft National Forest Policy (DNFP) 2018 being prepared by the MoEFCC. She stated that it is felt that the draft polciy will largely affect the interests of the forest-dwelling communities and thus a meeting with those stakeholders is must before the policy is finalised.
“The general perception is that DNFP 2018 gives a thrust to increased privatisation, industrialisation and diversion of forest resources for commercialisation. It is also felt that the public-private partnership models for afforestation and agroforestry detailed in the policy will open up the areas over which tribals and forest dwellers have legal rights under FRA,” Nair had noted.
The MoTA secretary even recommended that “in future before framing any policy concerned with the forest-dwelling communities, the views of MoTA are taken on board in advance”.
The recently notified Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Rules, 2018 that aims to distribute Rs. 660 billion amongst states for afforestation was also called out by activists for diluting the FRA 2006.
Ignorance of rights leads to conflicts
Concerns voiced by tribal communities, the MoTA secretary Leena Nair and left leader Mollah are not without any reason. According to the data of the Land Conflict Watch (LCW), a research project that maps and analyses land conflicts in India, around 11 million hectares of land will be required in India for industrial and infrastructure projects over the next 15 years.
But it notes that over 200 million people depend on 35 million hectares of forest land for basic living needs and close to 119 million Indians practise farming on 160 million hectares of agriculture land.
And this competing demand is increasingly leading to conflicts across India. As per LCW’s analysis of 536 ongoing land conflicts across India, five million people are affected involving over 1.46 million hectares of land and an investment of Rs 14.3 trillion.
LCW’s analysis stresses that “chunks of forestland have been traditionally used by tribals and other forest dwellers but they never had official titles over such land” but “government has been handing over forests and common lands for development purpose without considering the traditional rights.” It emphasises that acts like the Provisions of the Panchayats Extension to the Scheduled Areas Act 1996 (PESA 1996) and FRA 2006 “protect people’s rights but are not respected”.
It is these conflicts between tribal communities and those seeking their land that are translated into court cases or protest marches.
A.R. Sindhu, who is the national secretary of CITU and was part of the last week’s protest march in Delhi, said that “land rights of tribals is one of our major demands during the protest”.
“Majority of our protestors are workers and a significant portion of those workers are tribal people. They are one of the most marginalised sections of the country and proper implementation of the FRA was also one of our major demands,” said Sindhu.
Will such mobilisations play a role in 2019 elections?
“We didn’t come to Delhi to give any representation. We are suffering not due to our fault but due to the government’s faulty policies. For four years we continuously raised our issues. We came to announce … that either you change your policies or people will change the government. If they continue to betray us then people have a right to reject it,” said AIKS’s Hannan Mollah.
CITU’s Sindhu said issues of land and minimum wages of the marginalised section will “become a big considerable political force” and it was one of the primary reasons behind the protest.
She stressed that the “governments are changing but the policies are not” and thus it is important to focus on policies till governments change them.
Banner image: Protest in Delhi on September 5. Photo by AIKS.