Today (Wednesday, June 6th), Maharashtra police arrested Mahesh Raut, an activist in Gadchiroli, along with Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling (a senior lawyer) and Shoma Sen. All of these people are prominent, well-known faces in the struggle for social justice in Maharashtra. Mahesh Raut, in particular, has been affiliated to the Gram Swaraj Parishad and CSD and has spent years organising movements and struggles for forest rights in Gadchiroli, including village ownership and sale of tendu patta and bamboo. He has also been involved in working for people’s rights in the face of illegal land takeovers for mining in the area. This is not the first time Mahesh has been targeted – for years the police have been trying to claim he and his co-workers are Maoists, even though the charge is absurd.
Indeed, the charges against those arrested are even more absurd this time than earlier. In press reports, police officials are quoted claiming that the Maoists paid these activists money to incite violence at the Bhima Koregaon rally. This is the same police force that has exonerated Sambhaji Bhide and done precious little to tackle the Sangh Parivar groups that openly attacked people at Bhima Koregaon. This is clearly a politically motivated case intended to target those who have been working for democratic rights and basic freedoms in a BJP-ruled state.
We condemn this naked exercise of state repression and demand the immediate release of those arrested.
On the morning of May 8th, at 4 am, Vijay Bhaskar Reddy suffered a heart attack after internal bleeding and passed away in Hyderabad.
For many of us Vijay Bhaskar was both a friend and a comrade. For decades he worked on adivasi issues in undivided Andhra Pradesh, and then in both Telengana and AP after the division of the state. He was in touch with communities in remote areas and closely involved in their struggles, ranging from the movement against the Polavaram dam to the illegal descheduling of Scheduled Areas during the division of the state. He traveled up and down the state for his work and fought tirelessly for the rights of the people he loved and the communities he believed in. He was involved with us in the Campaign from our founding in 2003 and during the most intense years of the struggle for the Forest Rights Act, he was wherever the movement needed him to be, in the forests, on the streets, in Delhi and in the halls of Parliament.
On top of all this he had an enormous amount of information at his fingertips, able to recall details of historical documents and policy issues across the board. His accomplishments were all the more amazing because he did them despite suffering from debilitating problems in his vision, which made it very difficult for him to read or to see clearly. In the face of those difficulties many would have chosen an easier life. But not Vijay Bhaskar.
Over the years many of us got used to the fact that, once every few months, we would get a call from Vijay Bhaskar late at night, in order to discuss some detailed technical point or some new development in the struggle. In the face of everything he never gave up.
Now it is difficult to believe that those calls will never come again. One more extraordinary person has left us. We will miss you, Vijay Bhaskar, and hope that one day we will see the dawn of the just world you fought for.
Today, October 2nd, the Environment Minister – Dr. Harsh Vardhan – is hosting the Global Wildlife Programme, while claiming that his government “is playing a leadership role in management of wildlife through involvement of local communities.”
But Dr. Vardhan’s statement is completely false. In reality, the government has been systematically and criminally violating the rights of millions of people, putting them at risk of harassment, eviction and being killed in the name of “wildlife conservation.” This began under the UPA government and has been converted into wholesale, systematic sabotage by the BJP at the Centre.
- On March 28th, the National Tiger Conservation Authority issued a completely illegal direction that barred recognition of any of the legal rights of forest dwellers in tiger reserves under the Forest Rights Act. This deprived lakhs of people of the protection of law.
- This government passed a law in the name of “compensatory afforestation” that completely ignored the legal rights of forest dwellers and threatens them with wholesale loss of their common and individual lands. Till date it has not fulfilled any of its promises to ensure this fund respects people’s rights, even after hundreds of villages wrote to the government in protest
- In BJP-ruled State after State, State governments have framed “village forest rules” that directly violate the FRA. The Centre tried to do the same with a draft “National Forest Policy” that ignored the forest rights issue entirely.
- Illegal grabbing of forest dwellers’ lands, both for corporate projects like mining and in the name of wildlife conservation, has continued across India.
- In the budget this year (2017), the government effectively shut down the program of providing minimum support price for non-timber forest produce – one of the most crucial sources of livelihood for forest dwellers.
- Despite the FRA permitting relocation from critical wildlife habitats only where coexistence can lead to irreversible damage and only with the informed consent of communities, under Central urging, many states have initiated wholesale relocation in total violation of the law, often using CAMPA funds.
- The situation had become so dire in India that, in October last year, some of India’s top conservation scientists and forty of the world’s leading conservation groups warned that the government “may be acting in ways that are not in consonance with [the] law” and that “disregarding the Forest Rights Act or undermining it will greatly damage environmental protection in the country.”
And these are just a few examples.
If this is the government showing “leadership”, then we can only hope that it shows less of this kind of “leadership” and starts showing more respect for the law and for the basic rights of the tribals and forest dwellers of this country.
On behalf of the Convening Collective
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
In violation of every form of justice, rights and humanity, the Central and Madhya Pradesh governments are attacking the families affected by the Sardar Sarovar dam yet again. Everyone involved is aware that those being displaced by this dam are not even receiving shelter fit for animals – and yet the BJP governments at the Centre and the State are pushing ahead with forcing them out. It is a telling testimony on the quality of justice in our country that not a single institution is willing to stand up for those struggling for these most basic of rights. It is an even more telling comment that the leaders of that struggle, including Medha Patkar, have been on fast for more than eight days and have received no attention from the media, state institutions or the ruling party.
We in the Campaign extend our solidarity and support to the struggle of the people of the Narmada basin, whose bravery and commitment have inspired generations of Indians to fight the brutality of the system that we live under.
On behalf of the Convening Collective,
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
On March 28th, the National Tiger Conservation Authority passed a grossly illegal order (copy here) in which they directed all states to not recognise any rights under the Forest Rights Act in so-called “critical tiger habitats.” This will is a criminal offence against the rights of over four lakh tribals and forest dwellers.
This order flies in the face of both the Wild Life Act and the Forest Rights Act, both of which explicitly require that rights must be recognised in critical tiger and wildlife habitats (see sections 38V(5) and 4(2)(a) of the Wild Life Act and the FRA respectively). The NTCA further had no jurisdiction to issue such a letter, which is a criminal offence under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act and the FRA. In a detailed letter to the Prime Minister, Com. Brinda Karat of the CPI(M) has explained these and other illegalities and said that the order constitutes “utter contempt for the law.”
From start to finish, India’s tiger reserves have been plagued by illegalities. Even prior to the passage of the FRA, in 2005 the Tiger Task Force condemned forest authorities for “selective application of the law”, which had led to what it called “truly a war within, exploding inside reserves and taking everything else in its wake.” In 2006, the law was amended to require scientific evidence and a public process before deciding which areas are truly critical for tigers. But in 2007, in a mockery of the law, the Centre simply notified all of India’s tiger reserves as “critical tiger habitats” without bothering with any scientific process at all (see this note for more information).
Now this order comes as a further attack on people’s rights. On the ground, forest officials have already begun to use this order to threaten and harass forest dwellers. In tiger reserves where rights were already recognised – such as in Simlipal in Odisha – forest officials have even demanded that recognised rights should be canceled. This would be a double crime and a further atrocity.
To oppose this criminal order, the Campaign will be mobilising protests and village level meetings, where whole villages will send protest statements to the government. These will take place across the country in the next month. We also understand that other opposition parties are likely to take the issue up, and that many other democratic groups will be mobilising against it.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
Ph: 9873657844, www.forestrightsact.com
Hearing a petition today filed by a small group of wildlife NGOs, the Supreme Court today declined to hold that the historic Forest Rights Act of 2006 was “beyond the legislative competence” of Parliament to pass. The petitioners had claimed before the court that this law is “essentially a land distribution scheme” and hence fell within the jurisdiction of the State governments and not the Central Parliament. After hearing all parties at length on this claim, the Court did not endorse this notion and asked the petitioners to continue with their other arguments.
The petitioners in this case do not represent the views of most wildlife conservationists, who support the recognition of the rights of forest dwellers and ensuring that they can protect and manage their forests. Indeed, just six months ago, more than twenty Indian wildlife experts and forty international organisations had written to the Environment Ministry asking it to stop violating this law and stating that “disregarding the Forest Rights Act or undermining it will greatly damage environmental protection in the country.”
The petitioners in this case instead want to restore the rule of the Forest Department, with all its colonial powers, by using a technical Constitutional argument. The court has not endorsed this backdoor attempt to attack people’s rights. The case will now proceed on the other claims of the petitioners, but we are confident that these too will be defeated.
Case Details: Wildlife First and Ors. vs. Union of India and Ors. (WP 109 / 2008), tagged with several related writ petitions and being heard by Justices Chelameswar, Sapre and Roy. Counsel for petitioners is Senior Advocate Shyam Diwan; for the Union of India is Additional Solicitor General and Senior Advocate PS Narasimha; and for several impleaded tribals and forest dwellers’ groups, Senior Advocate Chander Uday Singh appeared. See here for more details on these cases.
Since it came to power the BJP government at the Centre has consistently tried to attack the livelihoods and rights of forest dwellers and tribals. Recently, it has intensified its assault:
- Destroying the MSP for MFP scheme, which could have boosted the income of millions of people: In 2013, the UPA introduced a scheme to provide a minimum support price for minor forest produce. This produce constitutes more than half of the income of many forest dwelling communities, especially the desperately oppressed adivasis of central India. But whereas funds for this purpose were released to six States in 2013-2014, in 2014 – 2015 practically all the money in the fund was given to Chhattisgarh alone (excepting a miniscule allocation to Jharkhand). In 2014-2015, 317 crores was allocated for this scheme; 307 crores in 2015-2016; 158 crores in 2016 – 2017; and only 100 crores in 2017 – 2018 (see here). Even more striking, only three crores was actually spent in 2016 – 2017 – effectively finishing off this scheme.
- Making community forest management impossible: Documents obtained through RTI show that the Ministry of Environment and Forests is now working on a “guideline for management of community forest resources”, along with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. This might seem like a good thing, since for the first time, the Ministry is actually acknowledging that people have statutory rights over their forests. But the actual guideline belies any such hope. Despite being fully 23 pages long (a scanned copy is here), it has no mechanism by which people can hold state agencies accountable to enforce and implement their decisions regarding management of their forests. Meanwhile, chapter 4 of the guideline requires communities to first undertake a survey exercise so extensive that it would make a university department struggle for staff. Villagers are expected to list the species of plants and trees present, provide georeferenced maps, record tree cover and the legal status of forest lands, the texture and depth of soil, the status of stream flow during different months – and this is just the start (see Chapter 4 and Appendix 1 of the draft guideline). Since no gram sabha can conceivably complete such a survey, the Forest Department will cite this guideline to act as if no “appropriate” plan exists; and we will be back to square one. While there has been correspondence between the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Environment Ministry on this guideline, these fundamental issues appear to be very much on the cards.
Both of these steps are very much in line with the way this government has constantly tried to extend Bureaucrat Raj in India’s forests. Since the BJP does not have the political courage – or the strength – to state that this is its actual goal, it has been undercutting people’s legal rights by two strategies. The first is gross, continouous violation of the law in order to illegally favour corporates. The second is the creation of new, parallel structures of forest management that ignore the existence of the Forest Rights Act. These include giving private companies control over forests; the introduction of “village forest rules” in BJP ruled states that impose Forest Department control on people’s forests; and, most glaringly, the passage of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, which threatens to expropriate millions of people and which does not have a single word about forest rights.
Meanwhile, till date, less than 3% of the land over which communities have rights has been recognised. This is the real conflict: between democratic control and protection of forests and other natural resources, on the one hand, and a rapacious bureaucracy backed by a vicious corporate assault on the other. In this context, the NDA government’s intentions are clear as day.
After raping two adivasi women last week, police in Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra, have engaged in a spiral of atrocities. They have now abducted five people yesterday, including the victims, and are holding them at an undisclosed location. Phone numbers for details and for officials are at the end of this message.
Yesterday evening (January 28th, 2017) at 4:30 pm, two adivasi women who had been raped by the police and their supporters Shila Gota and Sainu Gota were abducted from the office of Nagpur High Court lawyer Nihalsingh Rathod. The police claimed to come from Bardi police station. They did not explain why they were detaining these people and refused to answer questions from the lawyers about what they were charged with (hence, this was an abduction, not an arrest as per law). At 7:40 pm the police returned again and detained activist Mangesh Holi. Till date it is not clear where any of these people are being held or why.
On January 20th, 2017, two women from Gonawara village of Bande block in Chhattisgarh were traveling to Nayatala village (Etapalli, Maharashtra) to see relatives. They were blocked by the Maharashtra Police near Todgatta village and held overnight. In the morning of the 21st they were taken to Naytala, where they were released after the villagers confirmed their identity. But the badly frightened women then told their relatives that they had been sexually assaulted by the police. When the villagers demanded to know what had happened the police battalion beat them up and again seized the two women. When the villagers followed and demanded to know where they were being held the police initially denied that they had ever detained them. After protests the police finally issued a statement saying they had detained the women “for security reasons.” The women were then taken to the district hospital for a medical checkup on the 22nd, but their relatives were barred from meeting them. After repeated protests, the women were finally released on the evening of January 26th after being subjected to further atrocities. They were then again abducted yesterday from the office of the lawyer who was assisting them.
The people of over 70 villages in this region have passed resolutions against iron ore mining and have been struggling for their rights under the Forest Rights Act and against illegal mining. For this reason the police repression in the area has massively increased recently.
Please call the concerned officials and ask to know what has happened to those abducted:
District Collector, Gadchiroli: 07132222001, 07798977831
Superintendent of Police, Gadchiroli: 08652573333, 07132222151
Reporters interested in details of yesterday’s incidents and the atrocities inflicted on these women can contact Adv. Nihalsingh Rathod at 09702136264, 09403253160.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
NB: This statement has now been endorsed by 40 international conservation organisations and experts. See here for their statement.
On October 6th, 2016, a group of wildlife scientists and conservationists wrote to the Minister of Environment and Forests, calling upon him to ensure that the Forest Rights Act is respected by the Ministry. They pointed out that “disregarding the Forest Rights Act or undermining it will greatly damage environmental protection in the country.”
Open letter to:
Shri Anil Madhav Dave
Minister of State, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change
Indira Paryavaran Bhavan, Jor Bagh Road
Aliganj, New Delhi- 110 003
Date: 6th October, 2016
Sub: Request to ensure that the FRA is implemented and its integrity upheld – as a vital measure for conservation
We are conservation organisations and ecological scientists working across India. We are disturbed by recent reports that the Environment Ministry is not prioritising the Forest Rights Act in its policy making and may be acting in ways that are not in consonance with that law. As the mandate of the Ministry is to ensure protection of the environment, we hope you will take cognizance of the following points that clearly show that disregarding the Forest Rights Act or undermining it will greatly damage environmental protection in the country. Here are our views on the value of the FRA:
The FRA strengthens conservation through globally recognized inclusive approaches:
The Forest Rights Act stands proudly along with a few other conservation legislations in the country as the only line of defense from wanton destruction of natural treasures of the country. The FRA is a significant step forward for conservation and environmental protection in India. For decades now, international conservation best practice has recognised that sustainable and effective protection of sensitive ecosystems requires the democratic involvement of those who live in and depend on those ecosystems (both terrestrial and marine) – as legally empowered rights holders. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have formally recognised this in their policy documents on protection of ecosystems. The international community as a whole has recognised this in the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), including in its Programme of Work on Protected Areas (PoWPA). Old models built around removing and excluding local communities have been shown to result in impoverishment of people while failing to protect the environment effectively (instead encouraging corruption and abuse of power). The Global Environment Outlook Report 5, mentions clearly, that world over while the number of protected areas has gone up the actual biodiversity has only decreased. One of the important reasons identified for this decrease in biodiversity has been lack of involvement of local people in governance and management of protected areas. Both academic literature and international policy documents demonstrate this in numerous contexts. Indian experiences as diverse as Uttarakhand’s Van Panchayats, community forest management in Odisha; Recognition of rights and subsequent development of people’s tiger conservation plan in BR Hills Tiger Reserve in Karnataka; Collective efforts of the administration, civil society and local people to recognise rights and work towards a co-existence plan in Simlipal Tiger Reserve in Odisha, Conservation of forests and wildlife after recognition of CFR rights, including by setting aside no go zones for them in villages such as Pachgaon and Nayakheda in Maharashtra; and continuation of effective forest management by villages such as Mendha Lekha, among many others provide us with a wealth of local knowledge and examples to draw upon.
The FRA is a vital tool for community-based conservation movements:
The FRA is not only to be viewed as a social justice measure, but also as a tool to democratize environmental decision making and forest governance in India. It empowers forest communities to be a part of the decision making process, and therefore encourages a bottom up approach to natural resource governance in India. Across the world, there is growing evidence that involving local communities in environmental governance and protection plans promotes decisions that are environmentally sound. Yet government policy has focused solely on criminalising local communities and strengthening the powers of forest officials – a model that has either failed in many contexts or is increasingly being questioned as flawed, counter-productive and short-sighted. The Forest Rights Act represents for the first time, that Indian environmental policy has sought to incorporate these principles of respect for rights (including right to use, manage and conserve), transparency and accountability, in a clear legal framework. After the passage of the Act, communities across the country have also used it as an instrument of conservation, such as through stopping coupe felling in north Bengal, preventing wanton destruction of forests for private profit in Odisha, and as mentioned above sustainably using and conserving forests and biodiversity in Maharashtra, Odisha and elsewhere.
Wilful misinterpretation of the FRA legislation:
Many foresters mistakenly believe that the FRA will cause forest loss. Some have made simplistic calculations like number of Adivasis multiplied by 4 ha given equals the amount of forest area that will be lost. It must be noted that neither is 4 ha the amount to be ‘handed out’ (it is only the upper bound), nor is it is “giving land” to all Adivasis. The Act only provides for all forest-dwellers whose historical residence and dependence over a particular forest land has not been recognized. Most important, individual forest rights correspond to historically settled or cultivated land, which in reality does not contain any forest cover anyway. So effectively implementing the individual rights provisions does not really involve any loss of actual forest cover.
Critics of the Act argue that there is a potential for misuse by vested interests. We do not support any misuse of the Act. However, that is not a valid ground for calls for scrapping or failing to implement an important Act. Any law including the Wild Life (Protection) Act has the potential for misuse and flawed implementation, but that does not mean that the law itself is wrong/or at fault.
In contrast, eviction drives and harassment of legitimate rights holders have led to a situation of continuous conflict in forest areas – which is hardly conducive to conservation.
In this context we are disturbed to find the Environment Ministry continuing to make policy in a manner that does not seem to respect this law or its mandate. Some recent examples include the laws and policies such as Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act and Wildlife Action Plan 2017-31, which make no reference to the Forest Rights Act and rights of local communities; and reported moves to bypass the need for local communities’ consent before diverting forests. Such steps increase the likelihood of maladministration, abuse of power against local forest dwellers, ecologically unfriendly and destructive policies, and the use of plantations as some kind of panacea for all forms of forest destruction. We see this as a failure to fulfil the Environment Ministry’s primary mandate. We call upon you to, as a conservation measure, ensure that respect for and implementation of the Forest Rights Act becomes one of the top priorities of your Ministry and of the country’s forest bureaucracy. We hope that steps in this direction can be taken.
Dr. Nitin Rai, Ecologist, ATREE, Bangalore
Dr. Ravi Chellam, Ph.D., Executive Director, Greenpeace India
Dr. Sharachchandra Lele, Environmental Researcher and Member, MoEF-MoTA Joint Committee on FRA
Ashish Kothari, Kalpavriksh, Pune
Neema Pathak Broome, Kalpavriksh, Pune
Dr. Aparna Watve, Assistant Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences
Janaki Lenin, Conservation Journalist and Writer, Tamil Nadu
Dr. Aparajita Datta, Scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation
Dr. T.R. Shankar Raman, Scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation
Dr. Divya Mudappa, Scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation
Dr. M.D. Madhusudan, Scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation
Dr. Charudutt Mishra, Scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation
Priya Pillai, Greenpeace India
Giri Rao, Vasundhara, Odisha
Tushar Dash, Vasundhara, Odisha
Aarthi Sridhar, Dakshin Foundation
Dr. Kartik Shankar, Dakshin Foundation
Marianne Manuel, Dakshin Foundation
Ananya Rao, Dakshin Foundation
Dr. Harini Nagendra, ecologist, Bangalore
Dr. Prashanth N S, Faculty & Tribal Health and Development Researcher, Institute of Public Health, Bangalore
Kalyan Varma, Associate and environmental photographer, Nature Conservation Foundation
Around four hundred participants from Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Himachal Pradesh joined the CSD national convention in Bhubaneshwar on September 28th. They were joined by leaders and activists of struggle groups in Odisha as well. The following key demands were raised at the Convention:
Major Demands From the Central Govt.
- Ensure the Authority and Power of the Gram Sabha recognised under Forest Rights Act, 2006 in the Rules to be framed under CAMPA Fund Act, 2016. Ensure that the gram sabha would be the decision maker in case of plantation or any activities to be carried using CAMPA fund within the Community Forest Resource Area.
- Halt the JFM Resolution, 1990 and respect the Gram Sabha as the “authority” for protecting the forest.
- Halt illegal diversion of forest land without gram sabha consent and prosecute the officials responsible.
- Respect the power of the gram sabha in all laws on land acquisition and forests. All planning, change of use and activities in forests should be subject to the powers of the gram sabha.
Major Demands From the Govt. of Odisha
- Respect the Gram Sabha as the authority of the village duly recognised under Forest Rights Act, 2006.
- Identify hundreds of forest and un-surveyed villages, form FRC recognising Gram Sabha there and convert them into Revenue Villages.
- Help gram sabhas to demarcate forest land recognised under individual Forest Rights Act in the State.
- Recognised the IFR rights of the OTFDs duly recommended and approved by Gram Sabhas.
- Produce village wise list of the IFR title to ascertain no of villages covered under Forest Rights Act, 2006 till date.
- Engage in a widespread awareness campaign on FRA specially on Community Forest rights across the State.
- Stop giving false information on the CFR rights recognised in State and validate them with ground realities.
- Stop evicting tribals and forest dwellers from their habitats and land under cultivation though Tiger Projects and plantation. Stop relocation of communities from Similipal Tiger Reserve.
- Dissolve all Vana Suraskhya Samiti(VSS)/EDC/Ama Jungle Yojana(AJY) violating Forest Rights Act.
- Recognise PTG rights over their habitat duly recognised under FRA.
- Recognise ownership rights over Minor Forest Produce and stop taking royalty on kendu leaf and bamboo.
- Make correction and consolidation of Record of Rights(RoR) of the forest land recognised under IFR and CFR in the State.
- Drop all forest cases filed against tribals and forest dwellers after the enactment of FRA, 2006.