For several weeks now, adivasi groups across Maharashtra have been protesting against the eviction drive against encroachers launched by the state government’s forest officials. The eviction follows a Central government directive issued under the aegis of the November 23, 2001 Supreme Court order, that sets September 30 as a deadline for state forest departments to evict encroachers from forest lands.
Following the Supreme Court’s order, the Union ministry of environment and forests set up the Jaykrishnan committee that projected a loss of Rs 4.6 crore over 50 years due to tribals in forests. The committee had no tribal representation but its report stands to affect 1.5 million adivasis across the country, 48,000 in Maharashtra alone. The committee recommended banning further regularization of encroachments unless they are pre-1980, the year forests came under the purview of the Centre. In Maharashtra, the forest department has estimated that nearly 73,000 hectares of land are threatened by encroachments — these form 1.2 per cent of 60 lakh hectares, the total forest area in the state. Major encroachments occur in Thane, Nashik, Dhulia and Chandrapur districts.
For weeks now, tribals from Thane have been agitating against the forest department’s attempt to clear all encroachments on forestland in Maharashtra. The drive has triggered protest rallies in Thane district and unrest in Amravati and Melghat. In Gadchiroli, the forest department evicted 21 Bengali families, following which Naxalites attacked the local forest office, burnt the department records and beat up the forester. The chaos prompted the chief minister to issue a temporary stay order. The stay however will not ease the protests that began on a massive scale from September 2 onwards when tribal groups in Thane district held a rally in front of the forest ranger’s office.
Activist groups like the Kashtakari Sanghatana feel the eviction order is arbitrary and is oblivious to the traditional, symbiotic relationship between tribals and forests. According to forest officials, only adivasis who occupied land before 1980 are eligible to be made legal. But activists claim that since the process of regularization was never completed, many are being wrongly evicted. The forest department requires documents as proof and most people do not have such documents. The government has also been accused of ignoring commercial encroachers and powerful politicians who have built huge bungalows in the forests of Yeoor in Vidarbha. Poor individual families are easy game while big forest destroyers like the timber industry get away.
A lot of land has been declared forestland arbitrarily because it once had forests or seasonal forests. Korkhus were evicted from Melghat after the forests were declared a tiger reserve area. The Korkhus were food-gatherers and since they were displaced, they still scour for food from the vanishing jungles. The rich teak forest, once their home, has been depleted. Their numbers are depleting, compelling a bureaucrat to summarize the Korkhu question in one sentence, “This tribe is congenitally unfit to survive.” Also many people who moved onto forestland or into cities are those displaced by other processes like dam construction. For them to be considered encroachers is unfair. And while forest officials may have been empowered to carry out the eviction procedure only after properly identifying the encroachers and serving legal notices, there have been cases of forcible eviction. Moreover, the land that will be “recovered” is to be leased out to private agencies for reforestation. But this, activists say, could mean only exotic species will be planted, not that the actual forest will be restored.
To help distinguish actual encroachers from long established settlers who claim traditional rights to forests, the Amravati model has been put forward as a viable solution. The model developed envisaged the participation of locals and coordination between officials of various departments in a three-tier administrative model that could orally confirm a claim, could work in distinguishing the encroacher from a tiller. Activists have also suggested that long-term leases on land be granted to adivasis who undertake to protect forests and plant trees on their plots because alternative land or livelihood does not, as seen in several cases, actually assist rehabilitation. Groups like the Kashtakari Sanghatana and others believe that adivasi livelihoods must be sustained, so that they do not join the teeming ranks of the displaced.
Forest officials claim that villagers are unwilling to cooperate in the government’s joint forest management programmes. However, there are also counter-claims that these programmes divide villages politically, set different classes against each other. But the joint forest management programmes that were introduced in Maharashtra under a World Bank initiative late during 1996-97 and implemented in 602 villages did contribute significantly by mobilizing Van Suraksha Samitis’ support to protect about 200,000 hectares of forest and raising plantation over an area of 25,671 hectares. There were examples of a conducive working relationship developing between the local people and the forest department and degraded forestlands being regenerated successfully in some villages. Also, local communities that start their own protection initiatives may be more successful.
While the Amravati model might provide a much needed solution to the issue of encroachments, the “rights” of adivasis to land and its resources still remain unsettled. Even the “settlement” of rights of original inhabitants, after the notification of an area as “protected” required by the Wildlife Act, 1972 is yet to be settled. Where rights are extinguished, appropriate compensation or alternatives have to be provided. But as studies show, settlement has not been completed in several cases, in some cases for over 25 years. Options should seek to reconcile conservation and basic livelihood interests. There is the possibility, as has been suggested, to create appropriate no-use and multiple use zones, within each protected area.
But the alacrity with which state forest departments have set themselves to the task of evicting encroachers is a mere façade to make up for long years of inaction. It is ironical that they are seeking to follow a Supreme Court directive, when in effect the apex court sought to restrain the regularization of tribals in forest areas, a process that had seen much arbitrariness.
Twelve years ago, on September 18, 1990, the apex court had first issued a circular seeking to evolve a comprehensive plan that would regularize land entitlement before October 25, 1980 in a manner that would enrich the adivasis, the forests and their surrounding areas. In other circulars issued the same day, the court also dealt with forests and deemed forests, pattas and leases, and forest villages — a concept that celebrated the symbiotic relationship of trust between adivasis and forests. Earlier, there were also proposals on June 1, 1990, to involve village communities in restoring tribal lands.
As evident in its dispensations on several occasions, the Supreme Court has not hesitated to defend the interests of the adivasis. In its ruling in the Banwasi Sewa Ashram cases (1985-1994), special courts and legal aid were made available to ensure that adivasis were restored lands to which they were entitled and that were threatened by acquisition for afforestation purposes. In 1995, the court remanded matters back to Maharashtra to determine the rights of landless adivasis who had land entitlements under the government’s own plans. In the Samata case (1997), a majority decision recognized the entitlement of tribals to the land and its rich resources to direct that benefits from those areas must secure the uplift and socio-economic empowerment of the adivasis.
While little has been done since 1990 to implement these circulars in respect of the rights to which the tribals are entitled to, what in effect is being done at present is a complete reversal of these circulars. The Supreme Court must be urged to direct the preparation of detailed guidelines for the settlement process that could help establish customary bona fide rights of local people within a reasonable time frame. The programme outlined in 1990 should be expanded on rather than diluted. In any case, a policy that benefits people and forests is preferable to summary eviction of voiceless millions.