Dispossession and deforestation in the name of conservation and development: Illegal evictions of adivasi communities from Kanha and Achanakmar National Parks
50 million people are estimated to have been displaced by Modi’s development projects in India, of which about 60% are adivasis. As adivasis account for only 8% of the population of India, this figure is shocking. 50 million people is, as Arundhati Roy points out, ‘almost three times the population of Australia. More than three times the number of refugees that Partition created in India. Ten times the number of Palestinian refugees’. So why does nobody know about the horrors I witnessed in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, whilst travelling from village to village and witnessing the illegal evictions of Baiga and Gond adivasis from Kanha and Achanakmar National Parks? Before heading out there, I had what I thought was a pretty good understanding of the situation: eviction was limited to these particular adivasi communities in this specific region. Very quickly I came to realize that eviction and dispossession is a reality for most agricultural communities in this part of India. Whether this is to make way for mining and industrial projects, or in the name of ‘conservation’, lakhs of families are constantly being uprooted from the land which sustains them and their families.
In this region eviction and the effects of it are widespread over a large geographic area where communication and transport between places is poor and unreliable; the result of this is that there is very little that local, grassroots NGOs are able to do simply because the battle they are fighting is so much bigger than their reach. Displacement is a traumatic and disastrous experience for any community, and here the boundary between adivasi and non-adivasi villagers is blurred because everybody is suffering the same problems and competing for the same limited resources. However, for adivasis the repercussions of displacement are greater, more severe; the process disrupts and destroys every aspect of their lifestyle and livelihood. Historically, adivasis have been dependant on the jungle and their surrounding environment, existing in a symbiotic relationship whereby one supports the other. From the forest they take food, ‘jhari-bhooti’ (jungle medicine) and wood to build houses and cook food but, thanks to hundreds of years of rules and restrictions placed on their access to forest resources, this way of life had already but become difficult. But when adivasis are forced out of their homes, where they have lived their lives deep in the forest, they are forced into a lifestyle that they have had no experience of: money, and the modern world. Previously they gathered everything they needed from the forest, took water and fish from the clean river; they now find themselves starving to death or earning measly wages for hard, exploitative labour to feed their families. Previously they were self-sufficient, now they are on the bottom rungs of a society where everything, from where to find food to understanding money, is unfamiliar.
In the absence of state-provided Resettlement and Rehabilition, once they leave their village these communities disperse across the region, going to places where they might know somebody, a distant relative. Some cross into the neighbouring states of Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh; once this happens the state government views them as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and holds no responsibility to provide them with any assistance. Nobody goes far – Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala – these are all foreign places to these people who wouldn’t ever have the money to get there if they ever wanted to. They scatter in the search for land, they tell me there isn’t enough land available to support an entire displaced community. I instinctively think, ‘What?! I am surrounded by land, open space! I can see enough resources to support countless agricultural communities!’ I am told it is government land and I realize, of course, they’d be moved on before their crops even yielded a single harvest. This, while all around the national park tourist lodges spring up, catering for the luxury needs of western and domestic, urban-based tourists, who swan around in their open top jeeps with camera lenses and packaged bottle water.
Dependency on forest resources means that adivasis are often held responsible for deforestation and ‘conservation’ is often a reason given to justify their eviction. But deforestation began increasing exponentially when adivasis started being forced out of the forest. This is what does not make sense about the ‘conservation’ narrative. Conservation of the natural world is central to the adivasi world view and lifestyle: to them the natural world is so sacred that they refuse to till the land and hurt their ‘Mother Goddess’, to them the forest is the source of all life and to cause it harm would be like harming a family member. Rather, deforestation began on a large scale when the British colonial government gradually appropriated much of India’s forest land to further their own, economic purposes. The forests were cut down and the timber trade became one of the many lucrative industries for the extractive colonial state.
After 1947 the Independent government continued much in the same vein and adivasis continued to be thrown off their resource rich forest land to make room for mining, dams and other industrial projects. Much legislation was brought in to ease state appropriation of forest land and restrictions on foreign industrial projects were eased. Today, as national parks spring up across the nation, adivasis are turfed off their land to make way for western and domestic tourists. Their luxury needs must be catered for, the 5* tourist lodges, the jeeps, the piles of packaged drinking water.
And yet, conservationists like WWF view adivasis, and not the forces of imperialism, modern-day capitalism and tourism, as the enemy of conservation.It is worth noting that WWF have a vested interest in Kanha; although they claim not to be involved in tourism there, their website displays a 12 day tour around Kanha and other national parks for no less than $8,995. The infamous panda logo is found in all parts of the region, from the gates of the national park to small forest villages on the edge of the buffer zone.
Today, the situation is very much the same; according to the Forest Survey of India, between 1999 and 2013 India lost 9.4 million hectares of forest cover. This does not make sense about the ‘conservation’ narrative. How can the guardians of the forest be the ones held responsible for its destruction, when they hold this environment so sacred that they refuse to even till the land as it would hurt their ‘Mother Goddess’? The adivasi relationship with the environment means that they carefully maintain the delicate balance of biodiversity, and yet they get turfed out, giving the state free rein to what it views as a resource to be exploited for financial gain. If organizations like WWF are actually interested in conservation, they must speak out against these illegal evictions.
In 2006 a piece of legislation came out that looked like it might actually work in favour of adivasis and for once uphold their claims to ownership of their ancestral land. The Forest Rights Act recognizes the ‘any traditional right customarily enjoyed’ by any ‘forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes’ or ‘Traditional Forest Dwellers’. These include not only rights to forest habitation, but also ‘the right to cultivate for their livelihood, the right to collect minor forest produce, the right to graze cattle, the right to convert leases or grants (pattas) to titles, the right to manage the community forest resources, and the right to enjoy any customary/ traditional practice, however excluding hunting’. According to the legislation set out in the Indian Constitution (FRA, 2006), when adivasis are threatened with eviction their Forest Rights must be processed and submitted.However, the implementation of the FRA has been scattered at best. According to PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas) legislation, a Gram Sabha must be involved in every stage of the decision-making process and give full consent to the displacement. But this is more often than not ignored completely, and the registers at public meetings filled with forged signatures. Resettlement and rehabilitation, a legal obligation of the government, is a joke. In the majority of cases, not a single part of the legal process had been adhered to, and the displaced adivasis are simply wandering around in search of land, wages, life.
Adivasis experience the law as a mechanism of control and exploitation, rather than a system of justice. They are not informed of the rights they hold as citizens of India and the legislation which protects them. So any legal processes they encounter take place within unbalanced power structures, and the law can be manipulated, or even just ignored, by corporations and the state. The FRA, part of the legal process which must be adhered to at every stage of the eviction of an adivasi village is not an option, as the adivasis are not allowed to invoke it when threatened with eviction.The fact that not a single one of the adivasis I spoke with, from several villages in various stages of eviction, knew of the FRA or how to get their forest rights recognized means that, put very simply, these evictions have been illegal from start to finish.Rather, forest department officials turn up in the villages and tell them they will have to go.
In every village I went to I asked if an official notice (a legal requirement) had been given and time after time was met with a resounding ‘no’, or looks of confusion. Over a period of a few years, forest officials constantly harass and threaten the adivasi villagers. “They say ‘if you don’t leave we will come back with elephants’”. In the 1970s the Forest Department chased villagers off their land with elephants, and the fear of this is still very present in the adivasi imagination. Today, officials need only mention this threat and a whole community flees their land in terror. It is not consent or voluntary relocation if a community of people flee their land in fear of stampeding elephants after years of harassment, although this is how the government and WWF seem to have interpreted it.
The compensation given is supposedly 10 lakh per adult male. This means that women and anyone under the age of 18 receive absolutely nothing; a family of 8 members, with only one male over the age of 18, would receive only one payment of 10 lakh for the loss of land which supported the whole family. As my friend Kalawati said, who visited villages evicted from the core zone of Achanakmar tiger reserve, ‘I don’t think the government is giving them enough. 10 lakh is not a lot. They should be giving them 50 lakh, or they should just not evict them – that would be best’. On top of this they are supposed to be given the 10 lakh in a ‘hand holding’ process designed to assist them in the process of buying land which just doesn’t happen. Even if they do get the money they’re just left completely to their own devices to buy land, leaving them wide open to exploitation. Middle men and landlords give them inflated rates far beyond their means. I heard cases of the same land being sold to two people; rather, the money being taken from both people but the land being given to neither.
Eviction really does mean the end for these communities. The majority of these families end up wandering, lost, squatting on village land in places where resources are already so scarce the villagers aren’t willing to share with these social outcasts whom they ‘treat like dogs’. They face constant discrimination; villagers view them as ‘backward’ and ‘primitive’ outsiders. I visited one make shift village on squatted land formed by 12 of 150 families evicted from a forest village. Between these 12 families they couldn’t afford to buy land, nor could they get government ration coupons as they’re not registered in the panchayat. They have no identity, neither the state nor mainstream society views them as citizens of ‘the world’s largest democracy’. When I asked to be shown around the village they proudly displayed bows and arrows and other tools that they used to use to hunt and collect food, back when they were free. Now they live off supplies bought from the local weekly market, their limited finances slowly dwindling away.
It is time that the systemic exploitation of these human beings comes to an end. However the future does not look promising. While Modi’s government is currently bypassing countless provisions of the Forest Rights Act and the Land Acquisition Act, they are also engaged in dismantling these acts and removing any legislation which requires consent of the gram sabha. This is routinely violated, but as long as it remains enshrined in the Constitution the possibility to legally challenge these evictions exists. Once these provisions are gone there will be nothing standing in the way of these communities and utter destitution.
5 villages are due to be evicted from the core zone of Achanakmar. They know the resettlement package the government is promising is a lie and they don’t want to leave their village. The government has said that the villagers have consented to the relocation in a Gram Sabha meeting, but this is a lie. The villagers say the Gram Sabha never happened, the consent is forged. These people must not be forced to leave their village. However Modi’s government is rapidly dismantling the legislation which already provides them with little protection, and they don’t have long.
As Arundhati Roy puts it, the voices of the 50 million people displaced by development projects in India have not been unheard, they have been deliberately silenced. It is time that the reality of what is happening to these people becomes common knowledge, because only then can it come to an end. The lies and the promises, and the warped perceptions of these ‘backward people’ in need of development must come to an end.