Thousands protest, demanding halt to evictions and amendments to Forest Rights Act, Scheduling of Adivasi Areas - Press Release by Campaign for Survival and Dignity, India

Thousands protest, demanding halt to evictions and amendments to Forest Rights Act, Scheduling of Adivasi Areas - Press Release by Campaign for Survival and Dignity, India

Thousands of people have come on to the streets between May 7th and 11th in response to the call to action of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a federation of tribal and forest dwellers' organisations from across the country. The protesters demanded an immediate halt to the evictions taking place across India, where adivasis and forest dwellers are being targeted in a deliberate effort to prevent them claiming their rights under the historic Forest Rights Act passed in December last year. The protesters also demanded amendments to the Act to correct the sabotage that took place at the time of its passage, as well as demanding Constitutional protection for all adivasi areas.

Yesterday, Rajasthan and Orissa witnessed large protests of 5,000 ­ 6,000 people each in Udaipur and Bhubaneshwar respectively. The protesters marched against evictions, demanding the implementation of the Act and amendments in it, while also protesting the seizure of adivasi lands for industrial, plantation and SEZ projects in those States. In Tamil Nadu, four areas ­ Gudalur, Kalakkad (Tirunelveli District) and Kanyakumari ­ witnessed large protests, with Gudalur seeing 2,000 people on the 7th and another 1,000 protesters on the 11th (today). In Andhra Pradesh, dharnas and padayatras took place across 11 Mandals from the 7th till the 10th, demanding scheduling of adivasi areas as well as protection of forest rights (organised with the 5th Schedule Sadhana Committee and Andhra Pradesh Vyavasaya Vridhidharula Committee). Meanwhile, Gujarat and Chattisgarh saw large dharnas and public conventions, each drawing more than 500 people, in Ahmedabad (on the 10th) and in Raipur (today). In Jharkhand, a two day dharna in Ranchi drew more than 300 people on both the 9th and 10th.

The protests have not yet come to an end. On the 14th, thousands will be marching in taluka headquarters across Thane, Raigad and Chandrapur districts of Maharashtra. In Madhya Pradesh, a three day public convention is expected to take place starting tomorrow with the same demands. Finally, on the 12th., more than 2,000 people are expected to march in Siliguri, West Bengal, demanding land and forest rights.

The outflow of protest across India reflects popular anger at the sabotage of the Forest Rights Act, both when it was passed in Parliament and on the ground by the systematic, brutal pattern of evictions that have occurred since then. The Forest Rights Act is a historic legislation, the first legislative measure in India's history aimed at addressing the seizure of the homes, lands and livelihoods of tribals and forest dwellers through the declaration of 'government forests.' These 'forests' are not uninhabited wildernesses, as they are often portrayed, but are the homelands of this nation's forest communities. Now labelled as 'encroachers' for no crime except their close relationship with the forest and its resources, these communities have fought for more than a century to reclaim their rights to their homes. This legislation, which promised to be a step towards that goal, was sabotaged at the last minute of its passage in Parliament, making it far more difficult to implement. In the months since then, the forest authorities across India have intensified their eviction drives, driving people off their lands and homes to prevent them claiming their rights. Meanwhile, these evictions are accompanied and amplified by the continuing process of displacement and forcible grabbing of land and resources for mining corporations, SEZs and private companies, all in the name of 'development' ­ and all in total violation of the Constitution's protections for tribal communities, as well as any notion of social, environmental or economic justice.

These protests are a cry of outrage against these developments, and a warning to the Central government ­ merely passing a legislation in name, while trampling on the rights of people in practice, is no solution to the conflagration engulfing our forest areas. The struggle for justice will continue.

Campaign for Survival and Dignity

National Convenor: Pradip Prabhu, 3, Yezdeh Behram, Kati, Malyan, Dahanu Rd. 401602Delhi Contact: Q-1 Hauz Khas Enclave, New Delhi 110 016. Ph: 26569023, 9968293978forestcampaign@gmail.com

Below are details of the amendments demanded in the Forest Rights Act

Points of Amendment in the Act

Remove the requirement that forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers should primarily reside in the forest; if this is understood to mean that their residences should be on forest land, this will exclude the vast majority of people. All those who self-cultivate forest land or depend on collection of minor forest produce or other forest resources for their survival and livelihood should be eligible. Implement the assurance of the Minister for Tribal Affairs that "all those settled in forests by government policy", like forest villages, should be covered under the Act. Otherwise, non-ST's among these groups, who are among the most vulnerable forest dwellers, will be excluded unless they have resided in the forest for 75 years.  Reinstate the recommendation of the Joint Parliamentary Committee that the gram sabha for the Act should be the assemblies of the actual hamlets or settlements, not the gram sabha of the revenue village or Gram Panchayat. The revenue gram sabhas will be too large and will result in manipulation. Replace section 13 of the Act ­ which says the legislation will be "in addition to and not in derogation of" other Acts - with a clear statement that this Act will override any legislation that contravenes it. The vague clause gives far too much space for judicial intervention and manipulation by the authorities. Reinstate the process of recognition of rights recommended by the Joint Parliamentary Committee, which stated that the primary authority should be that of the gram sabha and that higher committees should not have the power to arbitrarily overturn the decisions of the gram sabha. This is necessary if the legislation is to be transparent and democratic in implementation; otherwise there will be widespread abuse of power and corruption.