Following reports of attacks on tribals, institution of numerous cases and arrests of those associated with the Shramik Adivasi Sangathan in Harda district, People's Union for Democratic Rights, Delhi (PUDR) sent a four-member team to conduct a fact-finding.
The team met various people in Harda town, the Collector, DFO and the Police SDO, forest officials, watchers as well as many residents of Dhega and Unchabarari forest villages. Following are the main findings of the team.
1. Flawed Implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006
The 2006 Act had clearly stipulated that tribals cultivating lands prior to 13 December 2005 were to be granted title deeds and the forest department was forbidden from evicting them till the process of verification was completed. The M.P. government detailed the process and the deadlines. The Gram Sabhas and their subsidiary Van Adhikar Samiti were to examine the claims and send their recommendation to the sub-divisional level, after examination the same were to be sent to the district-level committee, and if found proper, the title deeds were to be issued.
In both Dhega and Unchabarari villages, the team found that no Gram Sabha meeting was held for the purpose. Yet in January 2009, land titles were issued to some of the village residents. In the cases examined by us, the residents complained that the plots mentioned in the deed are neither of the shape or equal in number to those cultivated by them. For instance, Ram Das of Dhega had never filled a form, nor were his land plots verified, yet he received a title deed No. 1561/Harda/Timarni/Bori/Dhega/39. He cultivates 5 plots, the deed mentions two. The shape of the plots does not correspond to any of the ones he tills.
During this agricultural season, a number of residents are being prevented from cultivating plots that they have been operating for a number of years. Either sowing is being prevented, or the growing plants are being destroyed, and pits are dug in the land. In some cases we were told that babool and jatropha seeds are being scattered on these plots. Such actions by the forest department are aimed at establishing that the plots have not been under cultivation by the villagers and thus to deny them title deeds. It was specifically to prevent such an outcome that the forest department was excluded by the 2006 Act from interfering with the allotment of land titles. It may be noted that the Chief Minister had, on 4 July 2007, asked tribals and other forest dwellers cultivating forest land for years not to give up their land, since they would be allotted land rights.
It is really shocking that the Harda Collector has issued notices dated 6.8.09 to individual families asking them to provide proof of residence and of cultivating their plots. Most families have still not received these notices, and the last date for submission has already passed on 22.8.09. Now some forms are being circulated to individual families, once again to circumvent the laid down procedure so that a maximum number of villagers can be prevented from obtaining ownership to their lands. And this conspiracy is being enacted against households who are registered as BPL or even lower.
2. Attacks on Villagers by Forest Department: beating and arrests
This year in the last two months there have been repeated attacks, detention and arrests in both the villages of Dhega and Unchabarari. Both these villages have been strongly opposing the arbitrary practices of the forest administration. On 13 July 2009, Sunita, a resident of Dhega, aged 15 was intimidated and badly beaten and dragged into a vehicle by forest guards while she was working in her field. Her uncle Subedar, who objected, was arrested and is till in jail. Even after one a half months, Sunita is still mentally traumatised and physically very weak to return back to school or lead a normal life. Her mother Phulwati and father Rambharos both activists with the SAS have also been targeted by forest officials.
Similar cases of harassment have been reported by women and men of Unchabarari as well. Intimidation, registeration of false cases and arrests have been frequent in the last two months. On 20th July 2009, Subedar, an activist from Unchebarari was surrounded by forest guards, when he was proceeding to a meeting, beaten and arrested. He is still in jail. In both the cases, their family members are unaware of the charges made against them. Such denial of basic information makes it impossible for any accused to defend themselves.
In earlier cases too tribals who are charged under bailable sections are denied bail. In some instances IPC sections, that the forest department is not permitted to use, have been added to make the charge non-bailable.
3. Pitting Tribals Against Each Other : the JFM plan at work
During the destruction of fields as well as in the beating and arrests a number of residents of the village and also from neighbouring villages have been involved in the violence. This has been made possible by the JFM, of which Harda district was an early test case. Forest Protection Committees formed under the JFM are mostly non-functional and the revenues available with the Committee are being used at the behest of the Forest guard and their superiors. Through these funds 'watchers' have been employed who belong to some of the families of the village and are used to browbeat others. In some of the villages where tribals are organising and protesting a very large number of watchers have been created (60 in Dhega and 40 in Unchabarari). Using one section of the village to destroy fields and indulge in violence upon others can lead to serious tensions between different tribal and non-tribal communities.
Tribals in general have been traditionally dependent on forests for their needs and sustenance. By depriving them of land, the administration is directly contributing to reduced economic and livelihood opportunities for these people. The prevalence of high levels of malnourishment and the lack of primary health facilities in the region makes alienation of tribals from their traditional source of sustenance a worrying development.
4. Repression against the Shramik Adivasi Sangathan (SAS)
We were informed by many villagers close to the SAS , that they are regularly denied employment in NREGA schemes. Also they are being targeted in attacks conducted to remove encroachments. Forest offences registered against SAS activists are never withdrawn or compounded as is done for others.
Mass meetings , dharnas and demonstrations to highlight the demands by the SAS have been attacked in variety of ways. These range from launching of petty cases to patently false charges. These include filing of cases for the use of a loud speaker, conducting a public meeting beyond permitted time and even to alleging that one of the leaders, Shamim Modi, abducted an activist of the same organisation. The police and the district administration could not recall a single incident of nay other political organisation being treated in this manner. These numerous FIRs have been used as the basis for the initiation of externment proceedings against Shamim Modi and Anurag Modi. The District Collector and the SDOP when questioned could not provide even one instance of these two leaders indulging in any crime against the body or property.
The activities of the SAS in Harda, particularly, of supporting wage struggles by the loaders in the grain mandi, railway malgodam & warehouses and of the workers in the saw mills has led to the opposition by the industrialists. The industrialists threatened a strike unless Ms. Shamin Modi was arrested. In a most shocking revelation of the bias of the police and district administration, Ms. Modi was arrested the next day on 10.02.2009 under old and false cases in which the police could not even consider arrest earlier. Such dishonest acts by the police administration only embolden the industrialists angered and whose profits are adversely affected by workers assertion.
The genuineness of the workers' demands is established today, through the SAS intervention in the Jabalpur High Court (2083/09). The labour department has filed over a hundred cases covering non-payment of minimum wages, not maintaining records and non-payment of compensation to workers injured on work.
In the light of the above, PUDR concludes that the actions of the district, police and forest departments has in many instances been illegal, unfair and arbitrary. The main conclusions are as follows:
a) The district administration is attempting to reverse the gains provided to the tribals and other forest dwellers by the 2006 Act.
b) The forest department is transgressing the rights of tribals by evicting people from their cultivated plots and by destroying their cultivation.
c) The much-hyped JFM has degenerated into a power structure dominated by the forest officials, flush with funds and with little accountability.
d) The policy of using residents of the same villages to attack other residents is leading to a volatile situation.
e) The policy of alienating tribals from forest land will contribute to further malnourishment and deprivation of these communities.
f) The attack, beating and arrests in villages is targeted against those who sympathise with the SAS.
g) There is sufficient reason to suspect that the murderous attack on Ms. Shamim Modi at Mumbai is related to the developments in Harda district.
PUDR demands that:
1. Raids on villages, beating and arrests by forest department and terrorizing villagers should be stopped immediately.
2. The 2006 Act should be implemented in letter and spirit. Van Adhikhar Samities should be informed of the provisions of the 2006 Act and the process necessary for its implementation. They should be equipped and trained and provided skilled professionals to verify, survey and prepare land records.
3. The Forest Department must stop interfering with the implementation process of the 2006 Act and in particular must desist from preventing sowing, destroying planted fields, amenities such as wells and field boundaries.
4. The role of the forest department in the misuse of JFM funds must be stopped. All decisions on the use of such funds should be in the hands of the village residents and the accounts should be open for public scrutiny.
5. District administration of Harda should take active cognisance of all labour law violations happening within its jurisdiction.
6. The murderous attack on Ms. Shamim Modi needs to be investigated by a central agency in the backdrop of the Harda situation.