Recently, Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai wrote a letter to the Madhya Pradesh forest department, expressing concern over atrocities committed by the department on tribals.

While top forest officials in the State have discarded the “allegations” as baseless and ill-informed, a recent case in the Barwani district of the State lends credence to the Home Secretary’s concerns.

When Valsingh Sastia, an adivasi, decided to repair the roof of his house before the monsoon, he had little idea that it would land him in jail on non-bailable charges. Mr. Valsingh, and two other adivasis, were arrested by the district police on complaints from the forest department for allegedly “stealing” wood from protected forest land.

In May, villagers of Karanpura and other villages of Pansemal forest range had got together to donate some wood (which they had grown and protected on their own land) to Mr. Valsingh since the roof beams of his house had begun to rot. However, when Mr. Valsingh was transporting this wood to his home, he was stopped by Pansemal forest range officials.

When word started spreading in the area about the matter and local people started gathering at the spot, the forest officials let him go.

However, two days later, a case of robbery and obstructing and harming government officials was registered against Mr. Valsingh and two others — Bhaisingh Davar and his son Shera Davar — under sections 392, 353 and 332 of the IPC.

Subsequently, Mr. Bhasingh and Mr. Shera were arrested on July 20 while Mr. Valsingh voluntarily surrendered on Friday.

The arrests have caused anger and discontent among the adivasis of the area who claim that the trio has been wrongfully arrested. They claim that the forest department is troubling Mr. Valsingh for his efforts to

spread awareness about the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act in the region.

“The adivasis don’t live in cement houses and so naturally have been using wood to construct their houses for generations and if this is illegal, all the adivasis of the region should be arrested,” says

Madhuri of the Jagrat Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, an organisation working with tribals of the region.

In fact, adivasis of the region are planning to court mass arrests to this end in at least six police stations of the district in the next couple of days.

However, the district police maintain that it is a law and order problem and so they had to act.

“We received a complaint by the forest department and so the arrests were made,” Barwani SP R.S. Meena told The Hindu. “Each side claims that their version is correct, but that is for the courts to decide.

We can't do anything about it,” he said.