Closest to forests but denied rights

Closest to forests but denied rights

From Himalaya to central India and in south India, the ethnic and cultural diversity of indigenous people is unique.

The World Indigenous Peoples Day is observed to raise awareness about their rights. The United Nations recognises their contribution in solving the crisis of environment by adopting low carbon lifestyles and equity in sharing resources as an alternative to the present day consumer society driven by individual greed.

The 2018 theme will focus on the current situation of indigenous territories, the root causes of migration, trans-border movement and displacement, with a specific focus on indigenous peoples (IP) living in urban areas and across international borders. The observance will explore the challenges and ways forward to revitalise indigenous peoples’ identities and encourage the protection of their rights in or outside their traditional territories.

India is home to the largest population of IP, also known as Adivasis, in the world. Almost a quarter of the country’s population is IPs living across different parts of the country.

From Himalaya to central India and in south India, their ethnic and cultural diversity is unique. There are also uncontacted IP communities like Sentinelese in the Andamans to some of the largest, such as the Gonds and Santhals of central India.

India is still struggling to evolve a policy to protect their rights and territories. In Arunachal Pradesh, there are Apa Tani tribes that have benefited from pro-active policies. With an elevated social, cultural and economic status, some have become doctors and pilots. In contrast to this, the tribal’s in central and south India are living in acute cases of deprivation and destitution. Some of them are facing existential threats due to the spread of Left-wing violence.

Forest Rights Act

The Constitution provides rights safeguarding the interests of tribals and makes special provision for their economic, social and cultural empowerment. The Forest Rights Act (FRA) and Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act provides special powers to the village council in tribal territories, making it mandatory to seek approval of Gram Sabhas to get mining lease in the land belonging to scheduled tribal areas.

The historic Niyamagiri Bauxite Mining project of Vendata Group in Orissa was stalled due to the strict adherence to the above Act. The Supreme Court said “Forest Rights Act confers powers on the Gram Sabha constituted under the Act to protect the community resources, individual rights, cultural and religious rights.” Emphasising on the right to freedom of religion under the Constitution, the apex court said the right of the tribals to worship the deity Niyam-Raja has to be protected and preserved.

Similarly in Biligiri Rangana Hill range in Karnataka, the vesting of Community Forest Rights over huge tracts of forest land to Soliga tribes under FRA is a success story of empowering the IPs.

Unfortunately, these success stories are few and far between the many violations. The current model of development to chase a high GDP has resulted in appropriation of the land belonging to IPs for development like mining and power projects.

Over the years, political parties have deliberately diluted the constitutional provisions, including the FRA. The drafting of a new forest policy, implementation of Compensatory Afforestation Act has provisions that contradict the implementation of FRA.

Even though some states have implemented the FRA, the land allotted is very little, and in many cases the colonial mindset of the forest department is the biggest hurdle in allowing the IPs to own and collect minor forest produce like bamboo, honey or tendu leaf that provides monetary benefit to the tribal communities.

Large scale mining, dam construction and infrastructure projects have displaced the tribals form their natural surroundings.

In Bastar region in Chhattisgarh, they are ecological refugees forced to flee their ancestral land due to the escalating conflict between armed groups of Left-wing extremists and paramilitary personnel. The civil war-like situation has had adverse impact on their right to life and livelihood.

Kerala is a model state in India with development indicators on a par with developed countries. It has also passed the Land Restoration Act under which land purchased by a non-tribal belonging to the tribals is illegal. The Act provides powers to restore the land to its original owner. This law is operational since three decades, but not a single case of land restoration has happened till this date!

In the same state, Madhu, a 27-year-old mentally challenged tribal youth was beaten to death for allegedly stealing food at Kadukumanna hamlet in Attappady region of Palakkad district. This inhuman act was filmed and uploaded on social media.

Most people have a prejudiced view of indigenous people. Failure to implement constitutional provisions and rights is unpardonable. But lynching is indicator of our criminal mindset that needs to be changed.

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