Peering over an expanse of jagged landscape, Antram Awase points to shards of charred clay tiles, strewn across in the shadow of an Indian gooseberry tree. “That’s where my house stood,” he says, with moist eyes.
As 15 jeeps rolled into the clearing of the Badnapur forest in Burhanpur district in 2002, Forest Department officials brought down the entire Dhabawadi hamlet — torched huts, lashed women, took away cattle and jewellery and pilfered several sacks of grain.
On not being able to find his parents after returning from school that afternoon, he squatted atop a dune, watching aghast villagers and cattle run pell-mell as gigantic flames rose furiously in the sky. “With the marks sheet lost, I couldn’t continue my education,” he says.
Though he found his parents the same evening and the hamlet was resettled elsewhere, an Indian gooseberry plantation came up in the area some years later but was abandoned by officials.
The episode exemplifies an enduring conflict thousands of Barela, Bhil and Korku tribals in Burhanpur and Khandwa districts have found themselves locked in with officials for decades. The tribals depend on nawads , fields in forests, for subsistence.
“Our grandfathers came here from Khargone district in the 1970s. Earlier we practised temporary cultivation, but during the British rule, we switched to farming on permanent land clearing forests,” says Remla Barela, panch of Siwal village in Burhanpur district. Called encroachers by officials and denied land titles, tribals, routinely arrested, beaten up and threatened, were often extorted of money to manage fields.
However, fear of eviction looms large over the hamlets now, after the July 9 faceoff in the nawads . During an eviction drive, 300 officials brought in 11 earthmovers, dug up sown fields and left behind gashes. Facing a swarm of advancing villagers, they reportedly fired pellets at them, injuring four. The Forest Department has maintained villagers had pelted stones at them and fired sling shots during the “planting drive”.
“ Aamu akkha ek chee [We are one] and Aamro gao ma aamro raj [Our village, our rule],” the villagers had shouted. The State government has initiated a magisterial inquiry into the incident.
“The Barelas are the latest to settle here, and Korkus the earliest. As for Bhils, some have been here since Aurangzeb’s time and others moved in by the British to clear forests for cultivation of cash crops. Foresters, officially or unofficially, have settled them and every year would demand fine to not evict them,” says Madhuri Krishnaswamy of the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan.
“While guarding fields at night now, we fear even going out for nature calls lest we be waylaid. We can’t even fetch firewood despite living in forest,” says Mr. Barela.An entire farming season was lost in summers. We had been preparing our fields for at least a month when they destroyed them,” says Mr. Barela.
Faced with an imminent food crisis, each day’s wage labour, on fields or construction sites, is indispensable for villagers, as is ration procured from the public distribution system. “The big owners of revenue lands side with foresters each time, branding us outsiders. But we are forced to work on their fields to earn a wage as there is no alternative,” he says.
In the absence of land titles, the tribals are a source of cheap and vulnerable labour.
While non-revenue land is precluded from benefits of welfare schemes, including subsidies for pesticides and fertilizers and electricity supply at fields, tribals rely on big landowners for loans.
“We mostly work on their fields to repay them. The lending rate is as high as 20%,” says Mr. Barela.
“Why should we be evicted when our fathers have tilled land here for years?” asks Rakesh Rama, 20, showing a pellet scar on his arm from the July 9 incident.
On February 28, the Supreme Court stayed eviction of forest dwellers without land titles, acknowledging the need to delve into whether due process was followed by States under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. On May 1, the State government directed district Collectors to not evict anyone until claims were reviewed.
“The tribals are claimants under the FRA. According to Section 4(5) of the Act, nobody in possession of land can be evicted until the verification process is complete,” says Ms. Krishnaswamy.