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Brazen Mockery Of The Forest-Rights Law

By Subrat Kumar Sahu

05 August, 2010

In yet another unfortunate incident in which how the FRA 2006 – which the government dubs as an instrument to correct ‘historical injustices’ meted out on forest communities – has rather been used as a tool of oppression and intimidation, a Dalit villager in Orissa was arrested on 21 July 2010 for raising issues of forest rights.

Much has already been talked about the utter ambiguity around ‘non-adivasi’ forest people having to prove 75 years of existence on the land before they can claim rights over the same under the FRA. It is also widely feared among forest-rights groups that various state agencies – especially the forest department and the revenue department – would not like to see the FRA being implemented in its given letters and spirit, lest their authority over the resources be clamped. So, in many places, these agencies along with some NGOs and feudal lords have been spreading misinformation about the Act to create confusion and conflicts.

In the given context, an intense conflict over rights has entangled two neighbouring villages in Balangir district. As a result, villagers in Kuimunda (with 7 adivasi and 3 Dalit families) now live in absolute fear of being thrown off their land and out of their homes. In Nov 2009, they were attacked by hundreds of people from the nearby Bharuamunda village (mostly inhabited by non-adivasis) and their houses destroyed. All the men fled in fear, so the women had to face the abuse and blows of the angry mob. All this happened in the presence of policemen, government officials, and members of an NGO. Since then, the men in Kuimunda go in hiding the moment they sense any trouble.

On the other hand, Bharuamunda villagers have been fed a wrong notion about the provisions of the FRA by various departments and some NGOs, such as: “FRA 2006 is a menace… It will usurp the lands of the non-adivasis and distribute them among the adivasis… The forest department will clear all the forests we have been protecting and turn them into farmlands for the adivasis…”

Indeed, the entire situation is so ambiguous and frightening that while the villagers of Bharuamunda rant and rave and the villagers of Kuimunda cower in fear, the forest is being clear-felled right under the nose of those who are accountable to implement the FRA process as per the given guidelines.

The conflict erupted no sooner after four tribal families received pattas (land titles) for some tiny pieces of land under the FRA 2006 last year; some people of Bharuamunda suddenly started alleging that people of Kuimunda have just moved in (that is, after 13 Dec 2005) only to avail these pattas. The allegation clearly comes from an understanding deliberately fed into their minds by the departments and their cronies. To add to the trauma of Kuimunda, the watershed department is now planning to have a watershed project on the lands of Kuimunda villagers, meaning the whole village will have to move out to some unknown destiny. Besides the attacks on Kuimunda village, several (false) criminal cases were filed against some villagers, especially against Rabi Bagh who is a Dalit with some knowledge about the general state of affairs and so was helping his people in filing FRA claim forms.

On the one hand, he has been alleged to be acting as an ‘agent’, hand-in-glove with the forest department, to get his fellow villagers pattas in exchange of money and, on the other, he and other villagers of Kuimunda have regularly been summoned by both the forest department and the police, and are being terrorized. On the morning of 21 July 2010, Rabi Bagh along with his wife was on his way to the weekly market in nearby Lathor when he was again summoned to the Lathor police out-post. There, his wife was forced to sign on a blank sheet of paper. Then she was told that Rabi had been arrested, and she was forced out of the office. Rabi was then taken to the Patnagarh court.

In a similar case, Trilochan Punji – a leader of the Orissa Jana Adhikar Morcha (OJAM) of Balangir district and also a state committee member of OJAM – has been subjected to harassment by state agencies. Trilochan has been creating legal awareness, along with Rabi Bagh and others, on the FRA in the district since the state agencies assigned to do so are actually spreading misinformation. He has also organized series of protests highlighting provisions in the FRA about ‘community rights’ – which even NGOs are not talking about – and has become an enemy of the administration.

Displaying a well-coordinated method to repress people’s voice, none other than the district welfare officer obtained signatures from some tribal people on blank papers saying that by doing so they would get pattas. Later, to their shock, they learned that their signatures had been used to lodge an FIR against Trilochan Punji in Tureikela police station in June 2010. Trilochan had to seek anticipatory bail from the Orissa High Court.

Cases registered against Rabi Bagh now have also been registered against Trilochan Punji. And, now Trilochan fears arrest any moment—for raising issues about people’s rights, which the state should be rather be facilitating.

The fact that individuals and organizations creating legal awareness on the FRA are considered ‘illegitimate third parties and liable to persecution’ by government agencies is blatant disregard towards the Constitution.

However, forest-rights movements are asking: how could Rabi Bagh – a poor Dalit farmer – act as an agent? Where is the room for an agent in the FRA implementation process? And, if it is so, can someone act as an agent on his own, that is, without the knowledge, consent, and direct involvement of the concerned departments? If there were such malpractices going on in the name of making pattas available to people, should not the forest and revenue officials involved be booked in charge of criminal conspiracy against the spirit of the Constitution, rather than tormenting and illegally keeping in detention an innocent Dalit man, and thereby intimidating the entire village folks?

Isn't it a classical case of terrorizing the real beneficiaries of the FRA 2006 to the extent that they leave behind their houses and lands and move into uncertain future elsewhere, so that the forest department, the revenue department, and the local feudal lords do not have to rearrange their nexus in the wake of FRA 2006?

[Subrat Kumar Sahu is an independent filmmaker and journalist based in Delhi. He was also an Infochange Media Fellow for 2009.]