As they sit on the forest floor, fifty of them, from 17 villages and seven gram panchayats, Tikam Nagvanshi gently puts his hand on one of the sal trees that tower above them. And whispers: “They ask us for forms, signatures, maps and documents, and come in their cars to judge us. Often, we may not have what they ask for. But we have lived here before they could write on paper, or the first car was seen here, or people knew what a map or a pen even was. This forest is our home.”
On February 13, the Supreme Court of India directed the eviction of families whose claims had been rejected under the Forest Rights Act, an order touching over 10 lakh tribals and other forest dwellers across the country. As the Centre came under fire, the Opposition took up the matter as a political issue, with Congress president Rahul Gandhi asking Congress-run states to file a review petition.
Within a day of this, however, even as the BJP did the same, the Centre filed a review petition in the court and the Supreme Court stayed the order till July 10. But deep within the forests of Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh’s Gariaband district, there is still worry. And anger that “their struggle for documents and the whims of government officials” have brought them to the brink of eviction.
Nagvanshi is the sarpanch of Kurrubhata village, one of the 17 villages in a committee the villagers have created called Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve Forest Jansamiti. “At least 80 per cent of the total 12,000-odd people in these villages are tribals. Almost every family here has applied for individual rights under the Forest Rights Act, and we have all lived here for generations. But if you look at people who have got ‘van patta (land deed)’, they will be less than 20 per cent. That’s because we are at the complete mercy of government officials who do not want to give us land, because if they do, we get the right to decide what to do with it,” he said.
Like many others of his village, Nagvanshi first applied for individual claims under the Forest Rights Act in 2009, he says. The Act allows people to get land rights if they have lived on the land for at least three generations before December 2005. “Every single year I have applied for my rights. We would fill up the form with great difficulty, but when the revenue officials and forest officials came for their ground check, they would say they do not have our land in their records. The revenue official said my land was not earmarked in revenue maps. The forest officials said it was not recorded in their maps. And so, I never got my forest rights,” he says.
For the last five years, these villages have also been applying for community rights under the Forest Rights Act. “The officials say this falls in the core area of the sanctuary, and they are processing our claims. But we have lived here for generations,before this was declared a sanctuary,” he says.
The Udanti Wildlife Sanctuary came into being in 1983, while the neighbouring Sitanadi Wildlife Sanctuary was created in 1974, both then merging into one tiger reserve in 2009. “Before all these dates, I was born here, my parents were born here, and their grandparents before them,” said the 65-year-old Nagvanshi.
Benipuri Goswami, a social activist who works on FRA rights in the area, says most rejections come at the stage of “ground checks”, but usually on flimsy grounds.
“One issue is that with the application form, villagers need some certifications such as the ‘jaati praman patra (certificate to declare tribal status)’, and there are many who don’t have it. But let’s say they do and the stage for ground checks arrive. Most people who live in the forest are not lettered. So if an official comes and you tell him that this is your five acres, he might enter that as one acre in his records, and you have no way of telling. Often they write ‘nirast (rejected)’, but tell tribals that their claims have been approved. It’s only years later that they realise their names are not on records. They can then appeal, but there is no hearing,” he says.
Often though, there are rejections, simply because there’s little understanding of the tribal ways of life. Most of the 17 villages in the committee, for instance, have tribals from the Gond community, but Chindaula is home to the Kamars. The tribe is categorised as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG).
Says Goswami, “There are 62 claims in Chindaula, but most have been rejected because when the team came and looked for proof that the Kamars either lived on the land or tilled it, they looked for farm equipment – a bullock cart, or a spade. But the Kamars do shifting cultivation and plant with their hands. They grow indigenous plants like kodo or kutki, not paddy. But the officials didn’t understand that and rejected all the claims.”
The rejections of claims have real-world consequences for these villages, reflected in the lack of amenities. The lack of individual or community land rights allows the government to use land, or change records without the consent of the villagers. Very few have motorable approach roads, and at least 10,000 people — all except one gram panchayat of Koyba – still live in darkness. The villagers thus bristle at the argument that their presence has led to a depletion of forests.
Nagvanshi’s voice rises in anger, the suggestion almost an insult. “They reject our claims because they say there are tigers in the reserve. We have not seen one in 30 years. Do you think that is our fault? The people from the cities call us superstitious, but they do not understand our relationship with the forest. My name in Nagvanshi, and I worship snakes. We are the ones who protect the forest and the life in it. Have we, like the government, cut sal and saugaun trees and taken them away to sell?” he asks.
Another elderly adivasi in the group rises and speaks, “They say we kill the animals. Yes, we used to hunt. But we did it for food, like every other animal in the jungle does, not for sport like those from the city. Twenty of us would go with bows and arrows to hunt one animal. But now, modern society made guns where one man can kill one creature. We keep the balance. It is the outside world that has broken it.”
The Jansamiti has said that between March 2 and 10, in all 17 villages, residents would mark out areas for “grazing”, “crops”, and “protected forests” themselves, to show the government that they have taken the lead in forest conservation.
For now though, villagers admit that the new government in the state has invited everyone whose claims have been rejected to re-apply. But if the day does come when they face an existential threat, there is only one option left to exercise, the villagers say.
“Road pe utarba (We will come down to the roads). We will fight and raise our voices. In Delhi, they are so far away. Maybe they haven’t heard us,” says Nagvanshi.