Place: Community Hall (Samudaik Bhavan), Harapat, Manora Block, Jashpur District
On August 21st in Harapat Village of Manora Block, Jashpur Adivasi Mahila Maha Sangh, Kora Rajee Sangathan, and Adivasi Jan Van Adikar Manch, Chattisgarh conducted a historic workshop on the subject of Women, Land Rights, and Forest Rights Act (2006). Although initially we had extended the program invitation only to local women of Manora Block, to our surprise, men also came out in large numbers. All were welcomed. 76 participants represented an impressive 20 villages from across the Manora Block
In order to understand the significance of this workshop and why we decided to focus on the subject of Women and Forest Rights one must have an idea of the Korwa people, who make up a significant portion of the Manora Block. The Korwas are considered a “primitive tribal group” by the Government of India, and are heavily dependent on a combination of subsistence agriculture and forest product collection for their livelihood.
Women play a significant role in forest product collection in the Korwa community, and are often the most knowledgeable about forest management and control (hence our decision to tailor the workshop towards women). When we asked participants what all they collect from the forest, they recited a long list, “lakri, putu, kukuri, kanda, patti, datum, adi”. They noted that the forest is not only a source of food, medicine and firewood, but is also essential to the culture and identity of the Korwa people. “Without the forest how can we even introduce ourselves?” one man stated.
On paper, the government has recognized the need to protect the Korwas and have even sanctioned special development funds for their benefit. But ultimately little has been done to promote the actual rights of this highly marginalized people (sixty percent of which still live under the poverty line) to manage and control their land and resouces. The state’s neglect is only made more glaring in view of the Forest Rights Act (2006). Although the FRA has granted special rights to “primitive tribal groups”, in order to protect their habitat as per Section 3 (e), five years have passed since the act was passed and little has been done to implement it in Manora Block.
According to the FRA, the first step for claiming land rights, whether it be a communal or private claim, is the formation of gram sabha (village council). The gram sabha then creates a Forest Committee comprised of 10-15 elected representatives, which is supposed to act as the body by which all individuals file claims. Ideally, these gram sabhas would be formed in each forest village or each tola so that maximum number of people can participate in claim making. However, as the act is not specific in its definition of “gram sabha”, there is nothing stopping the government from forming top down gram sabhas which are active only at the Panchayat level. Gram sabha formation at the Panchayat level deprives a large portion of the population from participating in land rights claims.
This was only our second meeting with Harapat locals (our first was in May 2011), so our information is not complete nor do we claim to speak monolithically for the people of Harapat. However over the course of 10 meetings in Manora Block and after hearing the testimonies in this workshop, we have been able to gather that two years ago there was indeed an effort made by the government to form “gram sabhas” and, subsequently, Forest Committees. Yet these committees, predictably, were active only at the panchayat level (often overseeing 10 or more villages), and therefore discluded a large portion of the Harapat people.
After the formation of the gram sabha, as per FRA, the Forest Committee can make various claims to forest land. Some of those claims might include entitlement for communal use, entitlement for communal protection, entitlement for personal cultivation, or right to habitat (applicable only to primitive tribal groups). If a claim is approved the claimant will be allowed a great deal of freedom to protect and defend the land that is being claimed. In the process of making claims, especially those which are made on behalf of the community, it is extremely important for all locals in the vicinity of the forest land to be involved so that accurate maps are submitted and important communal landmarks are not neglected. Further, members of adjacent villages should have joint meetings to reach consensus as to what constitutes the boundaries of each village. After a claim is submitted, locals have 60 days to submit objections to the Gram Sabha. Thereafter, the resolution will go to the Sub-Divisional Committee for comments and then after sixty days to the District Committee. Throughout this process, the people should remain informed about any recommended changes made by the subdivisional officer to the claim so they can submit grievances before the claim goes to the District Commitee for final approval.
Unfortunately, the above process has been left in a state of disarray in the case of Manora Block. According to workshop participant and Sindur Ghati local, after the Panchayat level gram sabhas were formed, “the Forest Committee (Van Samiti) took a 100 Rs fee from those who submitted claims (dava forms). After this, neither the committees nor the district level representatives followed up with the people regarding these claims. “Subsequently, a group of 45 villagers went to the Collector to inquire about the status [of the claims], but nobody was willing to help us…We people are unaware of our rights, and due to our ignorance we were cheated by the Van Samiti” he stated.
Upon hearing the story of Harapat locals, the organizers then informed the participants of three basic steps that need to take place for effective implementation of FRA.
- Formation of locally elected committees–in the last week of August there will be a gram sabha meeting in each of your villages. In that meeting elected committee leaders (who will be chosen at the end of this workshop) will teach the rest of you how to fill the appropriate forms. For each person filing a claim (including husband, wife and eldest male and female children of each family) there should be a separate form filled out.
- Awareness program on community forest rights–in the month of October, we will carry out a padda yatra to advocate for the autonomy of our elected gram sabhas and our right to protect our forest land.
- Effective follow up with sub-divisional and district officers–Forest Committee members should follow up with officers in charge of securing the status of the land to make sure there is no discrepancy in the final claims.
A group of 3 women from Girang Village of the Girang Panchayat then stood up and shared their own sucess story in claiming forest land. “In 2002 the men of our village were trying to claim forest land,” an elderly woman of Girang boomed. “We have been cultivating this land in Girang for many generations. Our ancestors did the hard work of clearing the forest and planting the crops. We have maintained this tradition of hard work. Our men were visiting the district and block officials and demanding their land, but the officers were asking them for bribes. Then a group of us women, with the help of Adivasi Mahila Maha Sangh, started learning our rights. We staged dharnas, sit ins and rallies. Then we went to the District court to fight for the recognition of our claims. Eventually we won the case, and in our entitlements both man and woman’s name is written along with the names of our eldest children.”
Participants were moved by the story of the women. Some expressed sentiment that forest rights act is indeed crucial to the self-determination of the Korwa community. In the context of pending land acquisition of Manora Block for mining and mineral extraction, our land rights are particularly important, noted a local farmer from Thalasila. “I went to Raigarh where there are many mining companies and the situation there is very bad. All of the trees are black!” If we claim our rights as a community under the FRA and defend those rights, than nobody can take our land away.
To wrap up the session, a Sandri song was led by Malti Tirkey. 10 women and 10 men were then elected from the villages, Kardana, Kutapani, Korwadera, Pandersilly, Lalsilly, Sindurbhati, Surgula, Thalasili, Chatori, Shaila, Devrakonna, Upper Surjula in order to constitute the new forest committee. The committee agreed that the effective implementation of the FRA must include training local people in filing claims, and respecting the decisions of the locally elected gram sabhas, which should correspond to each village, tola or forest dwelling.
For more information on FRA see the full text and the online Guide to the Forest Rights Act put together by Campaign for Survival and Dignity available at: http://www.forestrightsact.com/
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In solidarity and celebration,
Adivasi Mahila Maha Sangh