July 21, 2019

Modi Govt’s Second Surgical Strike on Adivasis

Sanjay Dabhade

WHILE the tsunami waves that hit the coasts of India in 2004 took some lives on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the adivasi population of Jarava, Onges adivasis that have inhabited the islands for thousands of years managed to walk safe out of the disaster. These adivasis have always been living a primitive life, with almost no contact with the outside world. While the whole world was astonished at their survival in face of the disaster, researchers have theorised that just like animals and birds, tribals too might have sensed the danger of tsunami beforehand. The bond that the adivasis share with the nature is extraordinary. Adivasis have been instrumental in protecting the biodiversity through their traditional knowledge, and the thought behind it is in consonance with the essence of modern science. For instance, whenever the adivasi inhabitants of Torres Strait Islands sense that the number of a particular kind of fish in their waters has begun to decrease, they stop fishing for that particular type. Renowned environmentalist Madhav Gadgil has presented many similar examples.

Several environmentalists have underlined the fact that the relationship between the adivasis and the nature is symbiotic and complementary to each other. But this has always been denied by those in power in pursuit of their own vested interests. The realisation that the forests are treasures and full of abundant resources led to their relentless exploitation at the hands of imperialist rulers, for industrialisation, construction of railways and ships, world wars and the so-called development projects. Once the loot of the forests began, the rights of the adivasis became a hurdle for the ruling classes. The British government conveniently declared that the adivasis were invaders and merely the beneficiaries of the forests, which were then brought under the ownership of the government. An independent forest department was formed in 1864, and the first Indian Forests Act of 1865 was brought into existence. The same act was amended in 1927. The main objective of the 1927 Act was to finally endorse officially the ownership of the government over the forests, thus denying any rights to their traditional inhabitants. Modi government now seeks to make an amendment to that Act, the draft of which has been sent to state governments for their response. The states have been asked to respond by June 7, 2019.

A study of the draft has pointed out that the Modi government is strengthening the hold of the government over the forests even further. Even after independence, the ruling class continued to see the government as the owners of the forests, in fact they have intensified their hold, and continue to renounce the adivasis. And what were the consequences? In 1950, 70 million hectares of land in the country was covered by forests. In 1990, this area was reduced to 35 million hectares. The point here is that forests cannot be protected by denying the rights of the adivasis, in fact, that leads to the destruction of forest areas. The new draft shows that the Modi government is aggressively pushing the same agenda that the British government had imposed, in the name of forest conservation. The protection of adivasi rights and conservation of forests go hand-in-hand, and ignoring this fact seems to be a special characteristic of all the ruling class.

Adivasis got the ‘Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006’, simply called as Forest Rights Act, after a fierce struggle and because of the support of the Left parties. This legislation is first such, which has officially recognised the traditional rights of adivasis on the forests. However, the new draft clearly aims to weaken that Act, and give more powers to the forest department. By ignoring the relationship between forests and tribals, the government is attempting to impose stringent control over the forests and is pushing ahead the agenda for their commercialisation.

While the 1927 Act had already bestowed police and semi-judicial rights to the forest department, the new draft will be strengthening these powers even more. The Act will provide the forest officers with the discretion to make use of more weapons with full immunity.

The management of the forests will once again be shifted to the forest department, and the rights that the Forest Rights Act has given to the adivasis would be snatched away. According to the Forest Rights Act and PESA (Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, the gram sabhas in the scheduled areas have been empowered to conserve, protect, manage and utilise the forests and forest produce. However, the newly proposed 'gram-vane' (village forests) are threatening to create a parallel forest-department-dominated system of forest management. The control over these gram-vanes might as well be given to private players. The forests will directly be brought under forest officers, surpassing the authority of gram sabhas, and the management will lie in the hands of private individuals.

According to the draft, if the government decides to declare forest patches as 'protected forests', the rights over those lands given to the adivasi individuals and communities, if not found in adherence, will be taken away from them. This means that the government will be entitled to strip the adivasis of the lands given to them. If someone causes forest fire, whether due to carelessness or purposefully, or steal forest products, or provide fodder to their cattle in the forests, their rights to yield forest lands and use forest products will be suspended. This implies that the imperialistic provision of punishing the whole clan for the crime of an individual has been retained in the new draft.

The Forest Act, 1927 gives the forest officers power to arrest those violating the terms of the Act without warrant. The new amendment will expand the scope of these powers, and even those obstructing the forest officers in their duty would be arrested without warrant. The draft also has a shocking provision that states that those raising voice against the Act could also be punished harshly. This might lead to harassment of adivasis and social activists. The original Act formed by the imperialist Britishers seems nothing in front of these horrifying and draconian proposed amendments.

The draft also has a provision that no state government official will have the right to nullify the crimes registered under the Forest Act. The provision is said to have been designed to avoid so called political influence that might pressurise the officers to take the complaints back. The draft mentions that such a political influence has led to the destruction of forests. However, this statement is baseless. Forests are depleting because of the so-called development projects, market forces and urban needs and greeds.

Further, the government plans to develop infrastructure for building jails and armouries in the forest areas. Thus, this act is clearly moving towards creating a brutal oppressive government system in forest areas. The government is trying to create 'war zones' in the forest areas similar to Kashmir, Nagaland, etc without any concrete reason. This is highly alarming for the adivasis and other forest dwellers.

While the traditional rights of the adivasis are being taken away in the name of protecting and conserving the forests, the government is simultaneously planning a new programme called 'productive forests'. Ironically, the clause in the draft that nullifies the 'protected forests', is followed by the one that proposes the idea of 'production forests'. These production forests aim towards catering to the market need for the forest products like timber, pulp, medicinal plants, etc. In short, forests will be commercialised and these production forests will be handed over to capitalists and businessmen. While on one hand, the control of forests will be in the hands of the government which will deprive the adivasis of their ancestral rights, on the other hand, these forests will be handed over to private players to meet market needs and make profits.

Since the British time, forests have been exploited to fulfill the needs of the ruling classes, and it has continued even after independence, till date. The adivasis, however, have always been disinherited and dispossessed of their traditional rights.  Modi government's draft for amendment to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 takes this to a whole new level. This will further intensify the exploitation of forests and the adivasis living in coherence with its resources. Modi government had recently conducted a surgical strike on adivasis of evicting more than 11 lakh adivasi and other forest dweller families from their rightful lands and homes. The Supreme Court delivered such an order because of gross neglect by the Modi government during the hearings in the case. Supreme Court has stayed its own order but still the adivasis are under the threat of massive eviction.

Now, through this draft amendment, the Modi government seems to have planned a second surgical strike on India's tribal population.