Autumn Number 2019

Forest Policies Threatening Adiavasis

Evicting a more than Million People

P Bandhu & T G Jacob

[The current governmental approach to wildlife and forest protection is that local inhabitants are a hindrance to conservation. In February this year the Supreme Court issued an order, temporarily stayed, which would result in the eviction of more than a million forest-dwelling people whose claims filed under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) had been rejected. An amendment to the FRA that was proposed in March would convert certain offences from bailable to non-bailable and also grant the forest bureaucracy the right to enter and search the premises of forest dwellers on suspicion, arrest without warrant, and use firearms in the name of conservation. What follows is an extract from the authors' forthcoming book, "Encountering the Adivasi Question—South Indian Narratives"]

The division into reserved, protected and village forests was a colonial one under the 1878 Forest Act. Mixed forests suited the forest dwellers for serving their myriad needs. However, monoculture of commercially and industrially valuable species like eucalyptus, pine, and teak was preferred in the forests managed 'scientifically' by the government rather than maintaining vast areas under mixed species with trees such as wild mango, tamarind and sal useful to the people for their basic needs of consumption, house building and fuel. As elephants do not eat teak leaves their depredations in areas under crops increase. Forest policies have hardly had the goal of supporting the Adivasi subsistence economies. Rather they look upon the forests as sources of industrial raw materials and Adivasis as wage labour. The Forest Policy is one of internal colonisation based on the assumption that all land vests with the State.

Post-1947 forests have been felled for commercial and industrial purposes, for the settlement of refugee populations from Pakistan, Tibet and Sri Lanka, and for the expansion of agriculture. In order to protect the rest of the forest cover from further degradation the remaining forests have been brought under the intensive control of the government. This, however, is only the ostensible purpose; the real purpose is to establish control over the precious resources of the forests in the interests of the dominant classes nationally and internationally, for mining, for plantations of tea, coffee, cashew, cardamom, and other horticultural cash crop cultivation. For this purpose all-weather connecting roads to market centres are important and so are dams for irrigation and energy.

International organisations have been influencing forest policy in the post-independence period. FAO, OEECD and USAID experts counselled production forestry for rapid industrialisation which was followed through large-scale monocultural plantations of quick-growing, high-yielding tree species. To channel the flow of adequate institutional finance to the forestry sector Forest Development Corporations (FDCs) were set up in various States by 1979-80. These corporations-accused of being Forest Destruction Corporations and agents of the Tatas and Birlas-were formed for developing commercially/industrially valuable species. Their indiscriminate clear-felling of large areas of virgin forests, auctioning off the timber at a huge profit, and then replanting the cleared areas with commercial species such as teak triggered a movement among the forest dwellers against the Forest departments that act as landlords, traders cum police with full state support, and their policies. Even sacred groves were not spared; important non-timber forest products were nationalised. Thus from the 1970s were witnessed the Chipko Andolan in Uttarakhand, the Jharkhand movement in the Adivasi areas of Bihar, Bengal and Odisha where the Adivasis had started uprooting all teak plants from government plantations and nurseries, and similar attacks against tropical pine trees by Oraons and Gonds in Bastar district at that time in Madhya Pradesh, Jungle Bachao Andolan in Maharashtra and the Upico struggle in Karnataka.

World Bank (and in some cases SIDA, USAID, JBIC and JICA) funded Social Forestry programmes in various parts of the country have displaced thousands of village poor. Instead of being social forests in the true sense of the term and catering to the fuel, food, medicine, fodder, building construction and cultural needs of villagers and supporting the Adivasi economy and way of life they have been converted into captive plantations of paper mills and synthetic fibre manufacturers and have benefited some rich farmers. They have promoted the cultivation of fast growing species like eucalyptus and casuarinas, and large pine or teak tree plantations in reserved forest areas. The Tropical Forestry Action Programme sponsored by the World Bank in the 1980s, for example, ended up destroying natural forests and replacing them with commercial tree plantations. While the Bank is putting some money into "biodiversity enhancement" the amount it allocates for destructive schemes is far higher.

Birlas have long been given reserved forest land in Andhra Pradesh for commercial plantation. The Kerala government provided them bamboo at the rate of Re one per tonne and leased out reserved forest areas for their use. The Government of Karnataka leased prime Adivasi forest land at a pittance to Karnataka Pulp Woods Ltd. Forest dwellers had to pay much higher prices for the same bamboo used in basketry and other purposes. Adilabad district in Telangana that was once full of bamboo stands got denuded of them when these forests were leased to paper mills. The daylight robbery of the people involved in this stands out. Moreover, as bamboo got exhausted because of over exploitation, paper and other industries changed over to soft wood species like mango from which the Adivasis had got much of their food.

World Bank funded top-down projects transfer power and authority to the Forest Departments and local elites away from the local people with their historical cultural and economic ties with the land. Farm forestry has benefited the big rich farmers; community forestry to serve villagers' needs does not receive the support it deserves and they (rather the women) have to spend many more hours traversing great distances to gather fuel wood. Building all-weather roads in the forests connecting them to markets is an activity funded by the World Bank and other international and regional multilateral banks to comply with the International Monetary Fund's policies to increase exports allowing global imperialist corporations to access natural resources for their global supply and production chains.

It seems that West European countries that want to save their own forests from further depletion would like to assure themselves of timber from the Third World by promoting social forestry programmes there. Impelled by the growing pressures from within the Western societies against depletion of forests and against newsprint and plywood industries, the World Bank, in an act of 'green imperialism', encourages the growing of raw materials for these 'dirty' industries in the hills and forests of Andhra, for example, in the name of afforestation. The government used a World Bank loan to replace 40,000 hectares of mixed forests in tribal Bastar with tropical pine for the pulpwood and paper industry. The Adivasis who cultivate food crops or any other commercial crop of their choice in the so-called forest lands even today face severe repression from the Forest department. They are treated as poachers, trespassers, thieves and vandals and charge-sheeted, jailed, and can even be shot dead with impunity for their 'offences.' Adivasis are the first people to be picked up in cases of illegal timber extraction, whereas the real criminals may be thugs with political and other connections with corrupt forest officials.

Due to its own policies of providing cheap timber, pulp and other raw materials for the paper, the artificial fibre and plywood industries for domestic use and for export, the government depleted the forests to such a dangerous degree that it decided that the help of Adivasis is required to regenerate the forests for continued commercial benefit. This was the raison d'être of the Joint Forest Management Policy of 1990. The Adivasis were to help regrow and conserve the forests while the maximum benefit was to go to industry. International funding-from the World Bank, for example-was utilized for this and natural forest gave way to commercially grown species such as acacia and eucalyptus in neat plantation style. However, there are serious ecological repercussions of growing such commercial species as they are instrumental in decreasing soil fertility, biodiversity and in destroying the habitat of wildlife. There were other serious deficiencies in the programme of JFM, which expanded rapidly in the country, such as it being restricted only to degraded forests, with less importance given to NTFP, and to communities involved. Cases of misappropriation of funds are there as well as poor record keeping.

The Adivasis continued to have no rights over the forests and its timber; they had the right only to the minor forest produce and that too at the pleasure of the government. Some State governments have commercialised the sale of MFP to maximise their own revenue at the cost of the needs of collecting Adivasis creating friction between the two. In multi-caste villages women and SCs/STs were supposed to be included in the Joint Forest Management committee (which did not include all adult members), but in practice it often gets dominated by men and forward caste members with a resultant conflict of interests. JFM tends to have a compartmen-talised and standardised rather than a local specific and holistic approach to forest management; therefore inter-community and inter-village reciprocity in resource exchanges tend to go down as now exchange is mediated through the market.

The 'forest' lands have become so sacrosanct that the forest dwellers, who are estimated to number around 250-350 million,1 are sought to be kept out of them. The only way they can continue to live in their own traditional areas and work on the lands which traditionally fostered their communities is by accepting the framework of Joint Forest Councils wherein they have no right to raise the crops they need or prefer but are forced to raise monoculture exotics. For accepting a meagre initial sum they will have to forgo their rights not just over their lands but also on the World Bank-specified crops they have raised. They don't have an independent say on when they can cut the trees, to whom they are going to be sold, and at what price. Worse still, they are not provided clear tenure or ownership rights over these lands which are supposed to be jointly 'managed' by them, though it is well established that security of tenure can motivate biodiversity conservation. Plants and animals among the endangered species today had survived without problems as long as the forest dwellers had full control over the forest domains and produce.

In 2002 the MoEF (now called MoEF & CC) launched a National Afforestation Programme which was to be implemented through the formation of Forest Development Agencies (FDA) with the funds transfer taking place through JFM committees. A new leadership came up in the FDAs that alienated the traditional leaders and the general public (Wani: 88). The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) was established under a policy of creating Protected Areas as compensation for the loss of forests through industrial use or infrastructure development by charging the project proponents. If followed, it could lead to further land alienation and loss of livelihoods. Though the stated aim is to regenerate forests and create infrastructure for wildlife management and employment opportunities, a key concern remains to increase timber production for industry. Forest land continues to be leased to private companies throughout the country without respecting forest rights. The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill/Act seeks to release crores of rupees for afforestation without ensuring that these funds are not misused and are actually used for the enhancement of the land rights and livelihood of the Adivasis. This has often led to a situation where pristine natural forest is destroyed for some project or the other and on the nearby grassland, which should have been left alone, exotic species are planted; the net result is the destruction of two natural habitats2. Incidentally, activists point out that the survival rate of trees planted under various afforestation programmes (National Afforestation Programme, the Green India Mission etc.) in the country is only 10-20%.[3]

The National Forest Commission (NFC) set up in 2003 also actually had the purpose of efficient management of forests to cater to commercial industrial demand which can be met through agro-forestry and plantations and aimed to increase the forest cover to 33%. Since liberalisation of the economy in 1991 the government of India is more than ever willing to cater to the growth imperatives of global corporations and Indian big industry. While so doing it is allowing the World Bank, IMF and the UN organizations to help it in designing forest and mining laws and policies relating to the environment and natural resources including water to make them freely available without environmental constraints. In line with the World Bank approach the NFC spoke of the forests having a direct role in poverty eradication and sustainable development.[4]

The primary goal of the World Bank and the IMF, however, is to maximize the bottom-line for Western investors. IMF loans at the time of the balance of payments crisis in 1991 had stipulated 160 conditions, one of which was the devaluation of the rupee. This allows the richer countries like the US to buy more of India's outputs and primary mineral resources at cheaper prices and leads to intensified extraction of precious non renewable resources with no gain to forest dwelling and local communities. Allowing the private companies into sectors such as mining coal and iron adds to increased deforestation with the ensuing misery for forest-dependent peoples. Mining in general continues with impunity in several tiger inhabited forests, while deforestation has led to regular floods in Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam bringing into it leached pesticides from surrounding tea estates.

India's dependent capitalist development has relied on a continuous subsidy to capital by the state ensuring the provision of free or cheap minerals, water, timber and land from the forest areas. Simultaneously, the population displaced or partially proletarianised thereby has also acted as a source of cheap super exploited reserve labour for the various 'development' projects and as consumers of industrially produced basic commodities. In other words, wealth is transferred from them to the corporate industrial sector. The cost of reproduction of labour is reduced due to the partial dependency of the migrant Adivasi workers on forest resources for survival and their continued communitarian utilisation through community forest management, collective grazing systems and in the collection of minor forest produce. By adding to the huge reserve army of workers the strength of the organized working class as a whole is diminished. In the forest areas the state and its machinery along with other exploitative class/caste elements of traders cum moneylenders and corporates are seen as the enemy. Because of this Fourth World dimension, that is, of internal colonization and expropriation of the original dwellers some of these areas are subject to acute contradictions and therefore become the arenas of radical political formations and struggles.

When the forest villages were created during the colonial period no official document was issued recognising their right to the land. Since then the population of forest dwellers has increased, no new land has been allotted to them, and land has become fragmented into small uneconomic plots. They are not allowed to increase yield through 'modern' farming practices or even avail of loans from banks for the same because they do not have the official papers recognizing their ownership of the land as needed by bank officials for the granting of loans.

Small-scale forest products-based industry is also not given the kind of support that it deserves. Neither are the several sectors in which the Adivasis have expertise such as fishing, poultry and bee-keeping. In the case of the Buxa Tiger Reserve Forest in northern West Bengal, Subhendu Dasgupta (Frontier, 24 September-21 October 2006: 78-79) reports that the collection and use of non-timber forest products by the forest dwellers have been declared illegal. They are not allowed to use forest resources for food, medicine, shelter, manure, fuel, fodder and as inputs for manufactured goods. Or to sell some of this produce in the market as inputs for other manufactured products. The Forest Department meets its requirements of labour through contractors who bring in cheap migrant labour rather than hiring local forest dwellers.

The Central and State government Forest Acts are inconsistent with the Indian Constitution, especially with Articles 14, 21, 31(b) and 39(c), which uphold equality of status and opportunity, protection of life and liberty including the right to pollution free water and air and forbid concentration of wealth that is detrimental to the common good. The orders issued by both the Union and State governments are also often in conflict with the existing laws. For instance, the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, subsequently amended by Parliament in 1991 without any debate, includes all forest resources such as trees, shrubs, and grasses as wildlife, thereby violating the right to livelihood of forest dwellers and other forest-dependent communities, which is provided in Article 21 of the Constitution.5

The forests must be saved for society and preserved in a healthy condition. For that they do need humans in them who know how to do it. It would be wise to tap and utilize Adivasi knowledge in this regard. And when the Adivasis fight against the conversion of natural forest into production forest and for their traditional rights they are combating their own growing alienation from their homes and re-emerging as its guards and protectors. Wherever this is happening it needs to be encouraged because the reverse process is also fast gaining ground, where the Adivasis are so entrapped in the external rapacious and destructive forces that they become complicit in this destruction. They cease to be fully conservationist in their approach and start losing their traditional knowledge base about forest resources, not least due to their alienation from these implemented by the state forest policies. For example, through overgrasing valuable aromatic and medicinal plants can be lost as is happening in the grasslands of Garwahl and Ladakh. Forest fires, mining and quarrying and bad practices of collection are also causes for their depletion. This situation cannot change unless communities themselves are the prime beneficiaries of conservation programmes.

Policies over land tenure rights in general have resulted in the concentration of the best agricultural lands in the hands of a few powerful individuals and poor landless are allowed to encroach into the forests and clear land for cultivation by the government as a safety valve. Here the non-tribals clash in their values and relationship to the forest with the forest indigenes. Population pressure in the interior areas also leads to forest degradation through increase in shifting cultivation in smaller areas. If the terms of trade for selling MFP are not favourable for the collectors, unsustainable harvesting practices increase. Without systemic change there is no hope.

Forest Rights Act
The Scheduled Tribes and Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) is being implemented since 2008. It recognised on paper that the forest dwelling scheduled tribes are integral to the survival, revival and sustainability of the forest eco system, including wildlife. It anchored the land rights of STs and other forest dwelling communities in the forests and also their rights to use, manage and conserve forest resources for subsistence and livelihood needs and not for exclusive commercial purposes, which was long pending. The aim was to pre-empt them being labelled as encroachers and brutally evicted under the garb of development, which is what had begun to happen after the Supreme Court ruling in the Godavarman Case.6 It was also to enable them to benefit from welfare programmes of the government by giving clear-cut land titles which are heritable but not alienable or transferable.

At the individual level, it recognizes the right to hold a piece of forest land either for self-cultivation or for any other common occupation or habitation so as to ensure livelihood. At the community level, it recognizes the right to access minor forest products other than timber and to carry out fishing activities in water bodies; it permits traditional and seasonal access to pastoral communities and nomadic tribes for grazing; intellectual property rights over traditional knowledge can be claimed. The Gram Sabha is vested with the authority to initiate the process of implementation by constituting a Forest Rights Committee (FRC), which decides the nature and extent of individual or community forest rights, or both, that may be given to the forest dwelling communities under its jurisdiction. These procedures are examined by a subdivisional level committee which forwards the same to district level committees for final decision-making. It is also mandatory to have a State level committee to monitor the process of recognition and vesting of forest rights. All committees consist of members from the departments of revenue, forest and tribal affairs as well as members from local bodies.

In September 2012, FRA rules were amended and various guidelines and circulars issued for strengthening the provisions of Community Forest Rights (CFR) and clarifying instances of ambiguity. Nevertheless, the Act has been criticized for the way it was rushed through disregarding key recommendations of the Joint Parliamentary Committee's report and defining 'forest dwellers' in such a way as to ensure that 90% of the tribals and forest dwellers would be excluded from eligibility for rights under the law (The Hindu, 20 December 2006). A number of ground level problems in the implementation of this Act persist.

In the south Indian States of Kerala and Karnataka the number of community titles granted is very small as compared to the community rights claims submitted. Forest dwellers have to agitate in order to get the law implemented on the ground. On the whole, the reporting by the States in the matter of claims is very inaccurate and the implementing agencies often lack in understanding the implications of the Act or have no action plans for its implementation. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs is the implementing agency for this Act, but overall the Forest Department under the MoEF, which had opposed the necessity of this Act, continues to be the manager even of CFR recognized areas; and it is more interested in revenue than being a service agency for local people and communities for sustainable usage of forest resources. It is reluctant to share records and information with communities because of its feudal bureaucratic approach. Rather, in many areas such as the Sunderbans, forest-dependent Adivasis, Dalits and Muslims live in fear of a repressive Forest Department that still refuses to recognize their rights.[7]

All the above problems indicate that the Forest Rights Act has become yet another seemingly progressive Act, which is continuously being breached on the ground level and requires all the tenacious energies of the people to make the law-enforcing agencies implement its provisions in a way that ensures justice to the Adivasi communities. The very fact of considerably delaying its notification, which had to be struggled for by grass roots groups, gave forest officials time to carry out many evictions and to take illegal possession of land. Simultaneously, there is a backlash against the Act itself and there are demands in some parts of the country for its repeal as it is ostensibly being misused. The present strongly pro corporate government is trying to circumvent the implementation of the provisions of this law. ooo

Notes and References
1.      India: Unlocking Opportunities for Forest-Dependent People. Report no. 34481—IN published by World Bank,   South Asia Region, 2006.
2.      See B K Roy Burman: Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006. A Case for Constructive Engagement. Mainstream, 29 March 2008.
3.      Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon: Growing Forests in the Air. The Hindu, 26 October 2015.
4.      See Debaranjan Sarangi: Forest for People. Frontier, 30 November-6 December 2003.
5.      Anitha Cheria: Why Does Nagarhole Burn? Adivasi, the State and the World Bank. Bangalore: 1995.
6.      A public interest litigation was filed in 1995 by Godavarman Thirumulpad against illicit felling in his ancestral forest estate that had been taken over by the Forest Department after independence. In its response in 1996 the Supreme Court expanded the meaning of 'forest' in the Forest Conservation Act to all forests irrespective of ownership. Mining and saw mill operations got included in non-forestry operations, which now required Central government approval. Tree felling was allowed only according to working plans of Forest Departments, which were required to be approved by the MoEF. The survival rights of marginalized STs and other forest dwellers  were not taken into account in the judgement. [See Lele, Sharachchandra and Ajit Menon (eds.): Democratizing Forest Governance in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014.]
7.           See Lal Singh Bhujel and Lila Kumar Gurung: Forests and Forest Communities, Frontier, 19-25 April 2015, p. 13, for a critical appraisal of the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, especially in the State of West Bengal.

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Autumn Number 2019
Vol. 52, No. 13 - 16, Sep 29 - October 26, 2019