Madhya Pradesh Tribals pay Price for Defending Forest Rights
Tribals protest illegal deforestation in Madhya Pradesh’s Burhanpur district.
Bhopal: The Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS), a tribal rights organisation working in Madhya Pradesh’s(MP) southern districts for over a decade to create awareness for forest and tribal rights, is on the radar of agencies after protesting the illegal deforestation of an estimated 15,000 acres of pristine forests in the Burhanpur district.
On August 29, JADS activist Nitin Varghese (28) was arrested, a month after the Burhanpur administration banished key JADS leader Madhuri Krishnaswamy from the district for allegedly provoking tribals to encroach forest and instrumented the recent deforestation.
Varghese, a Tata Institute of Social Sciences [TISS] graduate, has worked with tribals for the past five years and recently developed lupus. After his only sister succumbed to this rare disease, he has been taking immunomodulatory drugs to remain healthy.
Varghese was accused of inciting tribals under Section 120B of the IPC to attack the forest ranger office on March 2after forest personnel detained four tribals, including two women, for encroaching forest land.
In a crackdown on JADS, the forest department lodged 21 preliminary offence reports and the police registered two FIRs against its members for protesting the illegal felling of trees and opposing eviction from disputed lands wherein the claims on pattas are subjudice. Besides, a dozen tribals associated with JADS were arrested. The organisation alleged that they were implicated infalse cases.
“Since he was a co-accused in one FIR in which forest officials were attacked in March, the police arrested him,”Burhanpur superintendent of police Devendra Patidar, who recently took charge from Rahul Lodha, told Newsclick.When asked about Varghese’s health complications, he said, “We are taking precautions.”
Varghese’s arrest and Krishnaswamy’sbanishment camethree to four months before the Assembly election, in which JADS plays an important role in mobilising tribal voters of the region.
JADS activist Ashabai Solanki alleged that the organisation has been subject to “malicious prosecution by the forest department and the government” for creating awareness about the Forest Rights Act (FRA),2006, “which helped tribals to improve their political understanding”.
Varghese’s arrest has irked senior Congress leaderand themember of Parliament from the region, Arun Yadav, and tribal leader and Congress national secretary Umang Singhar.
“Is it the government reward for opposing the illegal deforestation of teakwood in Nepanagar region? Even though he studied at the reputed TISS and can live a lavish lifestyle, he has worked with tribals for five years. He is not a criminal but an activist; he should be released immediately,” Yadav, a former Union minister of state, tweeted.
निमाड़ क्षेत्र के आदिवासी समाज को जागरुक करने वाले नितिन को बुरहानपुर पुलिस ने 29 अगस्त 2023 को गिरफ्तार कर लिया, उसका कसूर यह है कि वो देश के प्रतिष्ठित टाटा इंस्टीट्यूट ऑफ सोशल साइंस [TISS] से पढ़ाई कर आदिवासी विरोधी सरकार के खिलाफ आदिवासियों के बीच रह कर उनके जंगल और ज़मीन की… pic.twitter.com/cyiE95loSR
— Arun Subhash Yadav (@MPArunYadav) September 5, 2023
While Singhar, a former state Cabinet minister, termed the arrest unconstitutional and demanded a fresh probe. “He was implicated in a false case because he has been fighting for tribal rights for the last five years,” he tweeted.
- आदिवासी सामाजिक कार्यकर्ता #नितिन की गिरफ्तारी पूरी तरह असंवैधानिक है। मैं सरकार की इस मनमानी का कड़ा विरोध करता हूँ और बुरहानपुर के हर आदिवासी के अधिकार में खड़ा हूँ।
- नितिन की गलती यह है की वो पिछले 5 वर्षों से ठंडे बस्ते में पड़े वन अधिकार कानून के बारे में आदिवासियों को… pic.twitter.com/pjsXjX2jNQ
— Umang Singhar (@UmangSinghar) September 5, 2023
According to a party source who alleged “a political conspiracy” behind the “suppression of JADS leaders”, “The BJP had been ruling Nepanagar [ST] Assembly seat—one of two seats in Burhanpur district—since 2003.But it lost to first-timer Congress candidate Sumitra Kasdekar in 2018.”
“Since JADS imparts rights education to the tribals of the region and helps increase their political acumen, the BJP lost in the 2018 Assembly polls. But things changed after the Congress MLA switched to the BJP in 2020 with many Jyotiraditya Scindia loyalist MLAs and won the by-poll in November 2020. Since then,the suppression of tribals associated with JADS has surged,” he alleged.
FELLING OF TREES
Burhanpur has a long history of atrocities against Adivasis.Tribals have accused the forestdepartmentof routinely picking them up, illegal detention and physical abuse over the years.
Relations between the police and JADS began to turn bitter after they started protesting against the large-scale deforestation of sagon trees in Nepanagar region between December 2022 and April 2023.
JADS workers protested18 times, submitted a memorandum and repeatedly informed the district government and the forest department. According to JADS, the area has “lost more than 15,000 acres of forest since October 2022. “These are sagon trees, which sell for crores. As some people from nearby villages indulged in the criminal act of destroying the forest cover, we wrote to the officials. No action was taken against those involved,” alleged Antaram Awase, a third-generation resident of Siwal village, Nepanagar.
Failing to curb illegal deforestation, the forest department sought the district administration’s support. Meanwhile, skirmishes between the department and tribals became routine and the district forest officer (DFO) was transferred after one such incident on March 2 made the headlines.
When new DFO Anupam Sharma tried to stop the illegal deforestation around Ghaghrala village, forest officials were attacked by the gangs involved in the felling, leading to injury of 14 forest personnel. The next day, as reported in the press, Sharma accused the police administration of not providing adequate support in curbing illegal deforestation. On April 5, when JADS began an indefinite protest at the collectorate demanding action against rampant deforestation and accusing the government of connivance, on April 6, the police detained Hema Meghwal, one of the gang members. But, lat night, several members of the gang barged into the police station, attacked personnel and freed Meghwal. It was only after this that police said it "swung into action".
“Hundreds of illegal hamlets that had cropped up recently were bulldozed and teakwood worth over Rs 7 crore was seized,” Sharma told Newsclick in April. “They were clearing the forest and burning the wood to claim the forestland.”
The police also booked dozens of tribals for alleged deforestation but blamed JADS for provoking the tribals to encroach forestland.
“More than two dozen tribalsinvolved in the illegal cutting of trees were arrested and the encroached land was retrieved,” Lodha told Newsclick in April.
In between, Sharma was shunted out without any explanation.
In April, new DFO Vijay Singh told Newsclick that Krishnaswami and other JADS members “instigated tribals to cut trees and capture tracts of forestland”.
“Twenty-one preliminary offence reports against JADS for provoking tribals to capture forestland were filed. They misused forest rights to capture forestlands. The cases were lodged based on the statements of the encroachers,” he had said.
Even a high-ranking forest department officer alleged that Krishnaswami, Varghese and other activists were deceiving Adivasi villages. “Under the guise of informing tribal people about their rights, these people incite them to cut trees,” the officer told Newsclick.
“To accuse the authorities of violating the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, activists like Krishnaswami allegedly coached those who cut trees to rip theirclothes when the police or officials arrive at the scene,” he further alleged.
Weeks after the crackdown on the encroachers, the district administration served an externment notice to Krishnaswami.
Based on the 21 forest offence cases involving Krishnaswami, actively involved in agitations,she was also booked in five police cases, of which two have been disposed of and others are pending investigation. Most cases accuse her of unlawful assembly.
“How are we responsible for deforestation? From Burhanpur to Bhopal, we have been consistently speaking out against this deforestation,” Krishnaswamitold Newsclick.
She claimed that despite informing the government and the administration about deforestation, “we were responsible. This confirms administrative collusion”.
Despite a strong reply to the externment notice, she was banished from Burhanpur in June.
WHY WAS VARGHESE NAMED IN THE FIR?
According to JADS activists, when forest personnel detained four tribals, including two women, from Guarkheda village (Baladi Panchayat) from their houses on March 2, villagers asked Varghese to help trace the detainees.
The four tribals were detained for allegedly encroaching forestland. However, their applications under the FRA have been pending for years. According to the FRA, no one can be evicted from their forestland if their applications are pending under the Act.
JADS members protestat Burhanpur’s Lal Bagh Police Station a day after Adivasi activist Nitin Varghese’s arrest.
Varghese immediately contacted the DFO and the district collector seeking their help in ensuring the safety of the detained villagers.
After speaking to district authorities, he informed the villagers about his conversation to assure them. But when villagers searching forthe detainees reached the Burhanpur forest range office, they heard their screams from a locked room. The villagers clashed with the forest personnel to free them. The police, inturn, arrested 35 Adivasis, including 15 women.
Subsequently, Varghese was under the police scanner.Referring to his conversation with the villagers on March 2, the police accused him of provoking the tribals to attack the ranger office and made him a co-accused in the FIR in May and arrested him.
Even in neighbouring Barwani district, the police lodged several FIRs against tribals associated with JADS and issued an externment notice to one activist Valsingh Saste.
Saste was accused of holding several rallies and protests against the non-payment of MGNREGA wages, sexual exploitation of migrant tribals and the pendency of applications filed under the FRA in the district and demanding a ban on liquor sale in tribal hamlets.
Pendency of FRA APPLICATIONS led to clash
The confrontation between the forest department and tribals IS due to the pendency of claims under FRA. While the department has alleged encroachment of its land by tribals, the latter say their applications under the FRA are pending.
The Burhanpur district also has a large backlog of FRA claims. In 2022, 8,546 claims were registered but only 4,527 (52%) were forwarded to the subdivisional committee. Of these, only 412 claims (9%) advanced to the district-level committee, the final stage before a claim seeking rights over a parcel of land is accepted or rejected.
Ultimately, only 376 claims were fully processed, a mere 4% of the total registered claims being rejected or accepted.
In Madhya Pradesh, 579,411 claims for land titles were filed in 2019, of which 354,787 (61%) were rejected.
In 2019, when the Supreme Court ordered the removal of illegal encroachers whose applications were rejected, the MP government, in an affidavit to the court, urged it to review the verification process and sought time.
On October 2, 2019, the then-chief minister Kamal Nath launched the Van Mitra App for digital verification but it got stalled in the lockdown.The BJP government kept it in cold storage.
According to data presented by the ministry of tribal affairs in Rajya Sabha on December 14, 2022, 54.55% of the total claims filed under the FRA till June 2022 in the state were also rejected.
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