Blood in the woods

THE FOREST IS THEIR HOME:“Only the recognition and legal protection of their rights can ensure that forest dwellers get a fair deal.” Picture shows the bereaved family members of Palani, one of the 20 killed in the Seshachalam forest on April 7. —PHOTO: C. VENKATACHALAPATHY

THE FOREST IS THEIR HOME:“Only the recognition and legal protection of their rights can ensure that forest dwellers get a fair deal.” Picture shows the bereaved family members of Palani, one of the 20 killed in the Seshachalam forest on April 7. —PHOTO: C. VENKATACHALAPATHY  


What drives tribal people to risk their lives, as they did in the Seshachalam forest? It is desperation, driven by poverty, after being evicted from their traditional lands and livelihood

On April 7, 20 woodcutters, mostly tribals from Tiruvannamalai and Dharmapuri districts of Tamil Nadu, were shot dead by a special task force in the Seshachalam forests of Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh. The incident was another in a series of similar ones, symptomatic of the increasing conflict over resources, stoked by crony capitalism and the rising violence of state and non-state actors. The law is often mute, helpless to prevent the bloodletting.

Rights activists call such incidents, officially declared as ‘encounter’ killings, premeditated murder. Highly expendable, this impoverished cannon fodder seems available in plenty from forests and the fringe villages around them.

Two questions get lost in the cacophony of allegations and counter allegations: Why do forest-dwellers risk their lives? And why are forests open freely to the forest mafia?

Rich mafia, poor tribals

Forests have always been an open resource for livelihood and cultural interaction for their tribal inhabitants. When these vast areas were officially notified as ‘forests’, the traditional rights of the original inhabitants to access the forest for food, medicinal plants, fodder, fuel, water, cultural and spiritual activities were mostly not recognised. The result: everything that they traditionally did in the forests became criminal acts overnight.

Revenue maximisation was the stated goal of the government and the once open forests were now locked in the tight grip of forest officials, whose job was to fell commercially valuable timber and transport it out. However, since it was only the tribal people who knew the forest and had the skills to extract its resources, they were used as labour. Forest settlements were established within forests, initially for ‘coupe felling’ or indiscriminate clearing of forest land, later replaced by selective felling, where forest officials marked old, diseased or other trees for felling.

However, with their main source of livelihood and life taken away, the forest dwellers became vulnerable to the forest mafia, mostly powerful, armed and violent gangs from the hinterland whose eye was on the protected timber and wildlife. Working through agents such as local shopkeepers or money-lenders, the mafia preyed on the tribals’ poverty and bonded them into illegal work in the forests. Forest department officials were no match for these gangs, often succumbing to their pressure or just turning a blind eye.

Now exploited by both forest officials and the mafia, the forest-dwellers were involved in both legal and illegal activities. But there was always the fear that the tribals would expose the illegal goings-on. There was also the need to show that some degree of forest protection was underway. This led to forest dwellers being routinely arrested for forest offences. The number of cases was notched up to show efficient forest protection. The forest mafia remained well protected. The odd honest forest officer faced the brunt of mafia anger if he dared to act; it was safer not to. The forest bureaucracy was itself divided within.

In 1980, the Forest Conservation Act was enacted, privileging conservation over revenue maximisation. Afforestation moved to the fore. Non-forestry activities were permitted only after clearance by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) and the Supreme Court (due to the Godavarman Case continuing since the mid-1990s) and on the payment of Rs.5.8 lakh and Rs.9.2 lakh per hectare as Net Present Value.

As forests became hotly contested assets for ‘development’ projects and its twin other, ‘conservation’ efforts, the forest-dwellers were pushed further down the hierarchy despite laws that granted them recognition of their rights. Even the MoEF conceded that a ‘historical injustice’ had been committed on the forest-dwellers in an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court in 2004 in the Godavarman case.

While becoming increasingly closed to their original inhabitants, forests opened up instead to powerful economic interests, both legal and illegal. Illegal mining cases filed between 2010 and 2014 were a whopping 330,512, most of them forest-related. The price of Red Sanders internationally is 10 times more than the Rs. 20 lakh per tonne it is here. The Seemandhra government anticipates a few thousand crores in revenue from its export, which explains all the special operations carried out against Red Sander smugglers.

The legitimate destruction of forests for the country’s ‘development’ runs parallel with the illegal looting of forests. The forest-dwellers get no share in either but are used, abused, and evicted from their land without proper compensation or rehabilitation. The 10 crore people living on forest land and the 27.5 crore forest-dependent people have been pushed to extreme poverty. Millions have migrated to far-flung places in desperate search of work.

Outside the forests, their rights over revenue land remain largely unrecorded. Those that are recorded fail to be protected by laws that can restore alienated land to the Scheduled Tribes. Without laws in Tamil Nadu that recognise and protect their livelihood or lands, it is no wonder that tribal people were driven to desperately risk their lives for money in the Seshachalam forests.

Looking for solutions

The ill-conceived drive ordered by the MoEF in 2002 resulted in the large-scale and violent eviction of tribals. The resultant nationwide struggle forced the government to enact the Forest Rights Act of 2006. A new paradigm of forest governance began, from governance of a colonised land and people to democratic governance with the law conceding the rights of forest-dwellers. Gram Sabhas were to determine tribal rights and protect, conserve, and manage the forests.

Even sceptics now accept the Forest Rights Act as the only way forward for both forests and the forest people. The Dongria Khondh used it to protect their revered Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha from being hollowed out for mining. The Gonds of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra are now the affluent owners of forest produces rather than mere wage earners.

But a powerful lobby within the forest department continues to resist it. The Act has been challenged by a number of retired forest officials. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, it was the J.V. Sharma and Ors. vs. Union of India and Ors. case, while in Tamil Nadu, it was the V. Sambasivam vs. Union of India and Ors. case. However, the courts have not stayed the Act, and the cases are now in the Supreme Court.

Official reports too blame resistance from the Forest Department for the poor implementation of the law. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs told the Andhra Pradesh government in November 2013 that the titles issued to ‘forest protection committees’ controlled by the Forest Department contravenes the law, since they should be granted only to Gram Sabhas; but as of mid-2010, some 9.48 lakh acres were still titled to 1,669 Forest Protection Committees.

As of January this year, 29,92,853 hectares of forests have been recognised as belonging to forest-dwelling communities and 15,57,424 titles have been issued across the country. But this is still only 3.8 per cent of the total forest land. And still only about 9 per cent of what is officially recorded as forest land used by forest communities. Forest-dwellers continue to live in hope that the government will abide by its own law.

In Tamil Nadu, not a single title has been issued to tribals till date, although 3,723 titles are ready. Instead, the inhabitants of 2,968 sq. km of forest in four tiger reserves in the State are threatened with eviction, and 7,935 sq. km of forest land have been drawn up as elephant reserves. The utter desperation of the tribal people that makes them venture into forests for illegal work is a result of such moves.

Recognition and legal protection of their rights can alone ensure that forest dwellers get a fair deal. When forests become open, inclusive and come under the watchful eyes of the forest-dwellers themselves, forest protection and conservation become possible.

The Seshachalam killing comes from the delusion of gun-toting commandos that they are protecting forests. Rather than convert forests into conflict zones, conservation is best achieved by those who know the forest. Guns only do what they do best: kill. Forests, however, are about life and coexistence.

(C.R. Bijoy works with the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national coalition of forest-dweller organisations, and with People’s Union for Civil Liberties. E-mail: cr.bijoy@gmail.com )

The forest-dwellers get no share in either the legal

or the illegal exploitation

of forest reserves

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