Below please find a joint letter that was sent to the BJP government today by four national platforms of adivasi and forest dwellers’ organisations.
The government is trying to use two routes – a backdoor route through the Supreme Court and a front door route through proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act – to condemn crores of tribals and forest dwellers in the country to destitution and extortion, brutality and eviction by forest officials.
The government is also enabling large-scale corruption by ensuring bureaucratic and non-transparent control of tens of thousands of crores collected in the name of afforestation and “development of mining-affected areas.”
The letter condemns these actions. Both these platforms and many others have planned mass protests and struggles around these issues in July and August.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
Joint Appeal to the BJP Government: Stop Attacking The Rights of Tribals and Forest Dwellers
Shri Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India
Subject: Attack on tribals and forest dwellers by Central government
Dear Shri Modiji,
We are writing to express our deep concern at the active attempt to attack the rights of tribals and forest dwellers by your government. We wish to draw to your attention three specific examples of this wholesale assault:
Since 2008, cases against the Forest Rights Act have been running in the Supreme Court. From 2008 up to 2016 the Central government played its constitutional role and defended this crucial law before the Court. From 2017 onwards, for no reason, the Central government’s counsels in the case did not make a single statement in defense of the law. We had raised this matter as early as February 4th. As a result, the petitioners’ view prevailed and on February 13th the Court passed an order to evict lakhs of families solely on the ground that they were unable to prove their claim under the law. After a nationwide uproar, your government rushed back to Court and managed to persuade the Court to put this order “on hold.” The next hearing in this matter is on July 24th. It is a matter of extreme concern to us and to the crores of forest dwellers of this country that your government has not made a single statement in public on this matter after February 28th. We fear that your government is again planning to try to sabotage the Forest Rights Act by remaining silent and thus allow for a mass eviction once again.
On March 7th, the Ministry of Environment and Forests sent a “proposal” for amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927, to all State governments. If this proposal becomes law, forest officials will acquire extraordinary powers that no other agency – including the security forces in disturbed areas – has ever had in the history of this country. Forest officials will be able to end people’s rights merely by paying cash compensation (s. 22A(2), s.30(b)); to use fire arms against tribals and forest dwellers with impunity (s.66(2)); to take confessions from accused and have them be admissible as evidence in court (a provision that does not exist in any other law) (s.64C); to shut down people’s rights in entire forests for flimsy reasons such as “willfully causing fires” (s.26(3)); to end shifting cultivation entirely; and so on. If these proposals become law they will be the single biggest attack on this country’s tribals and forest dwellers since the first British Forest Act in 1865. Your government will have committed a historic atrocity on the crores of tribals and forest dwellers in this country.
In 2016, when the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act was passed by your government, it did not even contain a mention of forest rights. The Rules framed under the Act – contrary to assurances to Parliament – also allow forest officials to override tribals and forest dwellers and plant trees on their lands. This has already led to atrocities against tribals and violence, including most recently in Telengana and Maharashtra. Compensatory afforestation money is being wasted, siphoned off by corrupt officials, used as a pretext for evicting tribals and seizing their lands, and spent on buildings and guns when by rights it should belong to the country’s forest communities.
When the Mines and Minerals (Regulation and Development) Act was amended in 2015 and 2016, much fanfare was made of how a “mineral development fund” would be set up for the development of mining affected areas and communities. As of December 2018 more than Rs. 22,800 crore had been collected by state governments in these funds, but only Rs. 5,529 crore – less than a quarter of the total – had been spent. We call upon the Central government to investigate and reveal where the remaining 17,271 crores is. This is a further injustice on the country’s tribals.
In this context we call upon the Central government to:
Actively defend the Forest Rights Act in the Supreme Court, and place before the Court the correct legal position, under which evictions only for the inability to prove a claim are not justified in law and in any case are not related to the case before the Court;
Immediately withdraw the proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act and instead amend that law and other forest laws to bring them into accordance with the Forest Rights Act and to prosecute officials who violate forest rights;
Ensure that money collected in the name of compensatory afforestation is only spent with the consent of affected gram sabhas and subject to plans prepared by them rather than by bureaucrats.
Announce a transparent audit of expenditure under the District Mineral Funds and take action against any officials or agencies who have diverted money in these funds, and alter the rules under this fund to ensure that any expenditure is subject to the consent of gram sabhas and is decided by bodies with representation from tribals and other affected communities.
Jitendra Choudhury, National Convenor, Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch
C.R. Baxi, Working President, Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Mahasabha
Shankar Gopalakrishnan, Campaign for Survival and Dignity
Bijaybhai, Bharat Jan Andolan