Behold, my friends, the spring has come; the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love! Every seed is awakened, and all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being, and we therefore yield to our neighbours, even to our animal neighbours, the same right as ourselves to inhabit this vast land.

— Sioux Indian Chief, Sitting Bull, at the Powder River Council of 1877

Chief Sitting Bull was talking of the natives of America but he may as well have been speaking of India’s tribes whose primitive but harmonious existence in forests is endangered by the relentless expansion of modern civilisation. These tribes’ seamless coexistence with the trees and tigers of the forests may have a fighting chance as a nearly decade-old law makes its presence felt, albeit with great difficulty. Last week, the Baiga tribe in Madhya Pradesh became among the earliest to receive habitat rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, commonly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA).

“We have recognised Baiga Chak as the tribe’s habitat. The right has been given to seven villages,” Chavi Bharadwaj, the district collector of Dindori in Madhya Pradesh, told ET. Although many local activists argue that the actual number of villages in Baiga Chak (loosely Baiga region) should be 52, Bharadwaj says it is difficult to determine the extent of a tribe’s habitat, especially the Baigas who have limited contact with others.

Though the FRA was passed about 10 years ago, even now its implementation is patchy and dependent on the initiative of individual district administrators. The FRA recognises that forest dwellers have rights over land that they have been occupying and their communities have rights over use and management of jungles and minor produce from them. Under Section 3 (1) of the Act, it also recognises habitat and habitation rights for those the government calls particularly vulnerable tribal groups. According to the tribal affairs ministry, there are 75 such groups spread across the country, including the Jarawas and Onges in far-flung Andaman and Nicobar islands.

“Even we are not sure what a Baiga habitat is. But like a tiger’s habitat, we consider it as all the areas the tribe routinely wanders into, including distant forest shrines,” says Bharadwaj. The district administration has also given 6,650 individual rights for 1,250 hectares and is reviewing another 2,400 title claims that were earlier rejected.

“There is no one to tell these people (Baigas) what to do. And wherever organisations like ours are not hand-holding, they are completely at a loss,” says Shobha Tiwari of Ekta Parishad, a voluntary organisation that fi ghts for land rights.

“Our country is very big, knowledge of people living in interior forested areas is limited and the state bureaucracy, which is responsible for raising awareness, is very slow. These are the main problems why it (FRA) is not implemented,” tribal affairs minister Jual Oram admitted recently. According to a July study by the Washington-based Rights and Resources Initiative, Bhubaneswar-based Vasundhara and Delhibased Natural Resources Management Consultants, rights have been distributed in just 1.2% of the total area that should be recorded and recognised. The study says at least 40 million hectares of forest land is eligible for CFR rights and about 90 million tribal people should benefit from it.

One reason for the slow progress is the unwillingness of the forest department to give up its lands and the inability of tribes to prove occupancy. “The FRA has made our life very difficult. In Madhya Pradesh even more so because the government says even degraded forests have to be handed over,” says KS Alawa, forest conservator of Dindori district.

Slow Progress

Even the degraded forests could be handed over to companies, says Shankar Gopalakrishnan, president of Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a platform of those fighting for tribal rights across 10 states. Central guidelines issued to states recently allow companies commercial plantations in degraded forest land. “That is about 40% of India’s forests,” says Gopalakrishnan. Most parts of the Dindori district are covered by forested hills and all villages are inhabited by tribal populations. In many places, the Baigas remain in constant conflict with the forest department, which continues to see them as encroachers.

A group of Baigas gathered when ET visited Tikaria village in the Samnapur forest range about 50 km from the district headquarters in the third week of September. They were preparing to celebrate ‘nava dhan’ (new grain) festival. The women, typically tattooed from head to toe, are dressed in fi nery. They do not touch the newly harvested grain until they offer it to their deity. But some of them like Katku Singh Kusariya Baiga do not have new grain to offer. The forest department grazed his field of standing crop a few days ago. “They take away even our (agricultural) implements,” Singh says.

To claim land titles and community forest rights, tribal people have to prove that they have been occupying the land before December 13, 2005. Gram sabhas or village councils have the final authority over these areas but they rarely have the capacity to deal with administrative requirements.

Sometimes the forest department prevents them from sowing but if they do manage to sow, it waits until the crop is ready to harvest. Then forest officials get cattle from other villages and graze the fields. Conservator Alawa says the department only grazes those fields that have been encroached after the cut-off date. But it is difficult to prove whether a person is an encroacher or not. He says in many places multiple claims are being filed for the same land. Ironically, those who were considered encroachers before December 2005 are now eligible for rights if they can produce any document such as an eviction notice, receipt of fines or prosecution documents. But more often than not, the Baigas would not have hung on to such documents.

Unusual Farming

Traditionally, they practised bevar, or shifting agriculture. A Baiga (it means knowledgeable) would typically farm a patch of land and then leave it for three years. They believe that the earth takes that much time to rejuvenate. They also did not use ploughs (some do now) because they believed ploughing was akin to driving a knife through mother earth.

The government banned bevar in the late 1970s, says Balwant Rahangdale, who lived among the tribe for three years studying their ways and habits. Rahangdale, who works at the Samnapur branch of the Nagpur-headquartered national Institute of Women, Child and Youth Development, says between 1975 and 1980, Mahul Bel, a creeper that covered sal trees, were destroyed to harvest timber. The forests in this area are bordered with monoculture sal plantations. The siyar fruit of the creeper was a major source of food and nutrition for the Baigas for nearly three to four lean months of the year. In 1995, the plantations endured a sal borer attack that destroyed a large number of trees. Unable to stop the infestation, the department cut down all the trees and the Baigas started farming the cleared land. Forest officials first grazed their fields in 1997. “The conflict began then,” says Balwant.

Chief Sitting Bull had ended his speech with words that may find an echo in every forest dweller. “We have now to deal with another race — small and feeble when our fathers first met them, but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of possessions is a disease with them… They claim this mother of ours, the earth, for their own, and fence their neighbours away; they deface her with their buildings and their refuse. They threaten to take [the land] away from us.”


As seen on The Economic Times, by Dinesh Narayanan