Forest rights violations under cover of Covid

forest rights act

>> The young one had gone to the city to earn his livelihood and food for his poor family. The pandemic and lockdown stopped all work and all earnings. Thereby he had no option but to walk for 20 days under the scorching sun with little food and no shelter. After he reached, the villagers, fearing the spread of the deadly disease, refused to let him enter the village. Without food, the boy slept outside in the open, away from the village. His family despaired, but were helpless. In the morning, the doctor did a check-up and found that he did not have Covid. However, the family and the boy suffered much humiliation, and suffering, for no fault of theirs.

>> We have lived for decades in this land. Now, the forest department does not want us to either build a modest home, nor do they allow us to make minor repairs, even as it rains, or there are dust storms, etc. They keep threatening us, telling us to leave our homes, our community and our village. They threaten to evict us with high court orders.

>> In lieu of ration from the public distribution service, they made vaccination compulsory. We had no choice:  it was compulsory vaccination or no food!

This and similar revelations were shared by the Dalits, Adivasis and extremely backward caste communities at a national convention held by the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) in Delhi in August last year, almost two years after the forced social isolation. This was the first time that the forest rights workers and leaders could gather physically in one place to share their grievances and demands, and thereby chart out a future course of political and collective action.

It was found in the discussions that caste still remained one of the key instruments of oppression in the remote interiors of India, especially in the feudal domain of the Hindi heartland. People are being compelled to leave their livelihoods and forsake their fundamental rights due to the sinister use of the pandemic. Day after day, the exploitative and brutish forest department kept threatening the indigenous communities to leave their homes and communities in the forest. The strategy is to evict them, and take money from outsiders to settle them in the land in which the indigenous communities have been living for decades.

COVID Response Watch LogoAnd, yet, people think that this protracted struggle, especially in the post-pandemic era, will yield results; that they will finally get justice. However, many people seem to have lost, or, are fast losing their right to vote, or choose to live in their own little space on earth in the forests, their ancient habitat.

Amaresh, 55, from village Brahnal in Tehsil Naugarh of district Chandauli in UP, lives along with 100-odd Dalit and tribal families. Their mainstay of livelihood is agriculture. Most Dalits belong to the Chamar and Kol castes, two of the most oppressed and marginalized communities in the caste landscape of feudal and Brahmanical India. According to Amaresh, since 2010, they have been seeking official documents and rights to their land, but to no avail. Indeed, since the time they have been seeking legality to their existence, the attacks on them have been sharpened.

In this poor area, almost 80 children are deprived of basic education. The nearest school is two kilometers away. The way to school is through dense forests and hills, and, hence, it is difficult for the children to walk to school every day. There is no anganwari centre in the village, nor does any anganwari worker come to the village. The village has no electricity, and not an iota of development work has reached the village. All forms of sustainable development are deliberately blocked by the notorious forest department. None of the families have participated in the electoral process. They don’t even have their names in the voting list!

According to testimonies in the forest rights convention, the Covid pandemic was diabolically used to inflict atrocities of multiple kinds, even while the lower and higher courts were shut, and activists were compelled to live in social isolation. In many cases, the police, the forest department, the ration shops, the land mafia and local goons started flexing their muscles once again. There were reports of crops being burnt, forest homes being set on fire, people being locked up in prisons with fake cases, among other such atrocities.

In a heart-breaking narrative, Rajkumari from village Naya Basti, Ghoom Nagar in District Sonbhadra in UP, said that her traditionally inherited land in the forest comprising 60 bigha was used for  cultivation. During the lockdown, the local goons arrived and set on fire the crops of arhar dal and wheat in about 15 bighas of land.

“Instead of listening to our desperate plea, the police put us in custody declaring that we will spread Covid. To add to these unimaginable atrocities, the cops and armed muscle-men destroyed our crops, vegetable plants and fruits in around 20 bigha of land. In a mafia-like operation, the forest department and policemen were hiding their faces behind masks. Now, they were using other people to capture and take out our fruits from out fertile orchards, including Mahua flowers. This happened in April-May 2020’, she said.

There are other heart-breaking stories. In a three bigha ancestral land owned by a widow, the goons captured and cut her crops. “When we stopped them, fake cases were filed on us,” said Rajkumari. “My little child was handcuffed, beaten up and dragged by the police. He fell badly sick after this. They just want to destroy our fertile, traditionally inherited land and capture it at any cost. These atrocities happened in the winter of 2021. That is, from the summer of 2020, when the disease was peaking, till the end of the next year, and, thereafter, the atrocities continued”.

“Schools were shut. The children had no education. When the schools reopened, the teachers sent the children back saying that they don’t have notebooks and pencils. The children forgot whatever they had learnt earlier due to this long gap and disruption in their studies. They seem to have lost interest in their studies,” said Rajkumari.

She said that those who were working in Delhi, Satna and Bangalore, they remained for many hours without food and water due to the lockdown. Young boys were not given their daily wages. When they found that they were emaciated and too weary to walk, they called up on the phone. We somehow managed to borrow and send some money – that is how they were finally able to return to their distant villages, even while there was no public transport available. We got into a debt trap. When they reached their villages, they were forced to stay far away, though they were not suffering from the disease.

Dharmjit, an adivasi from village Sayal in District Sonbhadra narrated his tragic story. Using the pandemic and lockdown as an excuse, the forests were being destroyed for illegal trade and the land was being distributed to outsiders. I had filed a petition for 10 bighas of land but it was depleted to mere two bighas. In 2019, at Umbha, Ghorawal, in a land dispute, 10 adivasis were murdered by outsiders with vested interests.

In May-June 2021, the forest department gave land to outsiders to build houses and do cultivation. Earlier, they had themselves given official requests to give the outsiders land from 50 to 100 bigha. The forest department continued to harass us, hell-bent on ravaging our fertile land, crops and fruits.

For the last three generations we have been living on this land. Adjacent to our house are the Mahua trees and the forest. The outsiders captured all the adjacent land and forest and restricted our movements forcibly. We were forced to go to distant lands to clear land for cultivation so as to survive. But we were not allowed to do that saying that the land is now under the forest department. Protests would inevitably lead to physical assaults.

Amit Sengupta is Executive Editor, Hardnews and a columnist, currently based in Kolkata

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