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The Hindu on : At loggerheads over resources

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Sunday, May 27, 2001

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At loggerheads over resources

Cases where adivasis are at the receiving end when in conflict with the State are becoming uncomfortably common. Always about control over natural resources, these occurrences highlight the basic problems tribals face everyday. In one such happening in April, C. RAMMANOHAR REDDY details the sequence of events at Mehndikheda, Madhya Pradesh, where four persons were killed after a move to recover timber went out of control. It was no one-off incident, he says.

Kashipur, Orissa (Three killed in police firing in December 2000), Koel-Karo, Jharkhand (Ten shot dead in February 2001) and now Mehndikheda, Madhya Pradesh (Four killed in April).

THE list of events where adivasis are being killed when in conflict with the State is becoming uncomfortably long. The conflicts are always about control over resources - minerals (Kashipur), water (Koel-Karo) and forests (Mehndikheda). It is perhaps Mehndikheda that encapsulates in most detail the tussles and tensions of adivasi livelihoods today.

The sequence of events at Mehndikheda was clear enough. Beginning on March 28 the district administration organised a drive to recover timber that it said the tribals had collected from reserved forests. The adivasi-inhabited villages in Bagli Tehsil of Dewas district are located in the dry decidious forests of the Narmada valley. The "task force", as it was called, moved through villages that had been deserted by its inhabitants who had fled into the forests. "We recovered new wood worth Rs. 56 lakhs," says Mr. Ashok Varnwal, District Collector of Dewas. But the task force also appears to have selectively destroyed homes, engaged in looting and most horrifying, allegedly mixed some chemicals in the grain and flour in homes. While Government officials deny such allegations, on a visit to the area a fortnight later the signs of destruction can still be seen. "They took away the wood that held up my home for more than two years because I had collected it from the forests," said Jaam Singh as he stood in a pile of rubble that used to be his house in Katukiya village.

On April 2 the Government team of a few hundred was met by equally numerous adivasis protestors at Mehndikheda. The district administration says the adivasis were armed. Some of them perhaps were - with gophans (stone slings) and tir kamti (bows and arrows). But in the event it was the local people who died in the face-off. Three adivasis and a non-tribal living in the area were killed by police bullets.

Mehnikheda was not a one-off incident. It was part of a larger story that has been building up over the years and is perhaps taking place all over the country. The Bhils, Bhilalas and Barelas in the area are not the stereotypical tribals whose livelihoods are derived from collections from the forest. They are mainly settled agriculturists who, over the past century or so, have cleared land to grow jowar, cotton and some wheat. Farm incomes are low because crop yields in these dry tracts are themselves very low. And from the clothes that people wear and the houses they live in, more than half of the population seems to live below the poverty line. There are poorer areas in the country but the material deprivation here is acute. The nearest hospital for the 90-odd adivasi villages in this tribal pocket is some 50 km away, the villages that do have schools have "single classes" and the occasional hamlet does not even have electricity.

The material deprivation is not the only thing that the adivasis have to suffer as they are looked down upon by the non-tribals in the area. Besides, "the law here is an instrument of expropriation", says an activist in the area. The forest officials are the biggest symbols of oppression. "The forest guards demand bribes for everything - Rs. 1,500 for every span of a home we want to build, Rs. 50 for every head of cattle that we want to graze and even to collect firewood," said Jaam Singh. It is no wonder then that when the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan began mobilising the tribals in Bagli tehsil in 1998 it quickly received support in many, though not all, villages. An offshoot of an organisation which had acquired considerable influence in the mid-1990s in the neighbouring Khandwa and Badwani districts, the AMS, in one of its first charter of demands, appeared to initially raise "social" demands like no to alcohol and equality for men and women. But top of the agenda was exclusive adivasi control of forest resources. Since the ground conditions favoured the campaigns of the AMS the tribals in a number of villages were able to successfully resist the depredations of the forest officials.

Outside Katukiya village is a samadhi erected by the villagers in rememberance to Roop Singh, who was shot dead by forest officials in August 1999. The district administration claims that Roop Singh was killed when he and other members of the AMS tried to prevent the confiscation of "stolen" wood. The villagers insist that it was an unprovoked killing meant to instil fear in this "Sangathan" village. The result was the opposite. No forest guard or ranger was able to visit Katukiya and others like it after late 1999. "A complete defiance of the law", is how the Collector of Dewas describes the villages becoming off-limits to the forest department. The Government tried to counter the AMS with the State-sponsored van samitis (forest committees), but this only had partial success in a few villages. Confiscation of wood in March was the only explicit reason for the Government's action. The motive was more to recover control over the tribal tracts of Bagli Tehsil. The divisional forest officer was reported in the media to have said somewhat too candidly: "The demolitions (of homes) were symbolic and meant to create fear among people". (Free Press Journal, April 18, 2001).

Weeks later, Mr. Digvijay Singh, Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, visited the area and saw for himself what had happened. Compensation for the families of those killed was announced. Reconstruction of old houses that were destroyed would be financed. And a new enquiry into the Government action was initiated. In addition, the Government-sponsored forest committees were abolished in the State and plans were announced to constitute new groups which would be directly under the control of the villages. And to counter corruption, all forest officials of M.P. who were in their position for more than five years were to be transferred.

But there is the larger issue of forest protection and adivasi livelihoods. All - the adivasis included - agree that in recent years the forests in this stretch of the Narmada valley have been substantially thinned out. The forest department is supposed to be scientific in its periodic coupe (commercial) felling of the forest. The villagers, however, say that the felling is indiscriminate. And there is the work of the timber contractor- forest official mafia. On more than one occasion the AMS and the villagers have been able to surround trucks moving out with stolen timber. But it is also a fact that the villagers in Bagli have not conformed to romantic notions of adivasis as natural guardians of forests. Their contribution to deforestation may be smaller but homes have been repaired with wood from felled trees, new ones have been built and a considerable amount of reserved forests has been cleared for cultivation. Even the sacred Mahua tree has not been spared the axe. There is occasionally an element of cynicism too behind the support for the AMS. "We joined the Sangathan because we could get wood easily," said Nooraaditya in Katukiya.

The leaders of the AMS say that they never encouraged the adivasis to fell trees. Indeed one of their current campaigns is forest protection. But they do also admit that there was a time - after the forest guards were in effect driven out - when they could not and did not say no to felling because, they said, the adivasis had a basic need for wood and land. There are local tribal practices going back decades that keep pushing back the forest border. The notion of Nevad, which can be loosely translated as "new agricultural land", militates against everything that conservationists believe in. It means in essence that the forest is there to be brought under the plough and the adivasis have a right to do so. But there is a context to the present-day urge to clear the forest for agriculture. With crop productivity so low and few livelihood opportunities other than agriculture available, an expansion of cultivable land offers the only hope of fighting deprivation. Likewise, when the State makes no provision to provide wood for homes or to make agricultural implements, the tribals become criminals when they fell trees to meet these needs.

In Bagli as in many other parts of the country the struggle for survival always generates pressures to draw down the natural resources. Relieving such pressure requires constructive efforts on several fronts. First and foremost, without alternative livelihood opportunities or higher incomes from agriculture, conservation will be a doomed effort. Water harvesting, soil conservation and land development are some options that could raise farm incomes so that nevad can recede. A local NGO, the Samaj Pragati Sahayog, has suggested a programme of many such components for Bagli. Second, democratic structures, which unlike the forest department's forest committees make the tribals the centre of resource management, are crucial for conservation to work alongside the exercise of natural rights by the adivasis. Armed with sufficient powers, these local committees should be able to check corruption and the smuggling out of wood. Third, alternative building materials could lessen the demand for wood for homes and alternative fuels (bio-gas for instance) reduce the need for firewood. Fourth, there will still be a demand for wood for homes, fuel and agricultural implements. Local committees and the forest department have to be able to provide this wood without criminalising the adivasis.

The adivasis of Bagli are not controlled by "extremists", as the district administration would like to argue. But corruption in the forest department and deprivation on the ground will keep creating the conditions for organised resistance by the adivasis. They will succeed briefly, as they did in Bagli under the AMS, but the State will always be able to strike back. And when it does, in the manner that it did at Mehndikheda, the people are indeed pushed one step closer to "extremism".

Postscript: The State never provides much hope that it can listen to the people. On May 2, exactly a month after the killings at Mehndikheda, the district administration did everything it could to sabotage an AMS rally in Dewas town. Buses were not allowed to ply from the tribal tracts to Dewas, periodic checks were made of vehicles on the roads and in the summer sun hundreds of the adivasis walked part of the 110 km distance to the district headquarters. They finally made it to the rally late in the night. But the State it appears will never learn from its mistakes. And a month after the police firing, the destroyed homes still wait for Government support for reconstruction.

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