Case studies

Fighting for land rights

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Residents of the isolated village of Aonri Bedma were labelled ‘trespassers’ by Forest Department officials, who bullied and harassed them. They also suffered water shortage and a lack of access to electricity, education and healthcare. However, with the support of PACS and partner Prayog Samaj Sewi Sansthan, village members have been working together to take on the authorities, asserting their rights under government acts and achieving some success.

Threatened livelihoods

The village of Aonri Bedma, Keshkal block, in the Kondagaon district of Chhattisgarh in central India, sits atop a small hill, and cannot be accessed via transport, other than motorcycles and exceptionally hardy SUVs. On foot, it’s a 2km uphill trek through forests and across streams, past paddy and cornfields, as the narrow dirt track cuts through the forest. The final steep slope has to be negotiated before the track levels out to reveal a small hamlet with a few huts on both sides. Almost cut off from the outside world, families belonging to the Gond tribe live in this remote and isolated village.  

Collaboration is required to protect these vulnerable people’s interests and, to help achieve this, the Ekta Yuva Sangathan (solidarity youth organisation), has been formed with the support of Prayog Samaj Sewi Sansthan, the local PACS partner. It comprises 128 people, since each of the 64 families puts forward two members.

Villager Kahru Ram Potai of Ekta Yuva Sangathan says: ‘We are a forest-dependent community which has been living in this village for generations, earning our livelihood from paddy and corn cultivation and selling forest produce, firewood and so on in nearby markets. However, our community had, until recently, been subjected to unspeakable harassment and intimidation by forest department officials and powerful individuals.’

His neighbour Savatram Salam explains that villagers were branded ‘trespassers’ and ‘encroachers’ by the Forest Department. ‘The department claims this forest is theirs and threatened us with dire consequences if we didn't stop going to the forest for our survival.’

This led to officials routinely destroying villagers’ standing crops and blocking their road on several occasions, according to fellow villager Dasram Korram: ‘We were threatened with being charged with cutting down the forest “illegally”,' he says. ‘They are hand-in-glove with a dominant section of villagers who have always wanted to grab our forest land. In fact, we gheraoed the conservator of forests, divisional forest officer, ranger and forest guard (preventing them from leaving work until certain demands were met) on 4 October 2015, to demand why they had forced cattle into our fields to graze our crops.’

‘For many years, we lived under constant fear and intimidation,’ says Mukiya (block head) of Prayog, Bir Singh Korram. ‘It's only recently this has stopped after we got our land entitlements.’

Regular meetings and information sharing

Supported and encouraged by Prayog, the community began holding regular meetings to give voice to each others’ concerns and develop an informed opinion on issues crucial to their survival, including the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which guarantees rural households 100 days of paid work every year doing unskilled manual labour.

Prayog Block Coordinator Jai Shankar says: ‘The community’s struggle picked up momentum after Prayog began working here with PACS support. The community was, by-and-large, ignorant about the FRA that guaranteed their right over forests and its resources.’ 

 Jugrooram Potai is a member of Ekta Yuva Manch. He explains: ‘Empowered by Prayog, we began to understand the various provisions of FRA and we began the gradual process of demanding land entitlements for our people under FRA. Some families have now begun to not only receive their patta (title deed), but are also using these patta to cultivate their plots and earn a living.’

Individual and community rights

The FRA Act – the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers’ (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, to give it its full title – recognises and secures rights over community forest resources (CFR), in addition to community members’ individual rights. Recognition of community rights empowers communities to assert their joint rights under CFR, which is critical to their livelihoods. However, according to Jai, while individual forest rights have been secured for the villagers, the group’s demand for community forest rights is yet to be achieved.

‘Community rights, such as right of ownership over minor forest produce, fishing and grazing rights and rights of traditional seasonal resource access for nomadic or pastoralist communities are conferred under the FRA. However, people are still not able to access community resource rights even though individual rights have been given to some extent.’

The process has, at least, been started in Aonri Bedma. People have begun to submit applications to the village panchayat about community forest rights, and on other issues such as road building or improvements and access to electricity and water supplies, which will be referred to the janpad for action. 

Jai says: ‘The people even intervene at janpad level if work is delayed to enquire why the delay has occurred. This is an encouraging start to claiming their rights. People from the community have even met the sub-divisional magistrate, head of the Janpad, district collector and others in their offices and during jan samvad (public meetings) held every Monday at the district headquarters.’ 

Balti Bai adds: ‘In 2014, we told the Forest Department that we would gherao them if they refused to budge on the issue of our pattas and community forest rights. Because the department did not take notice of our appeal, 80 people walked 70km over three days to Kondagaon district headquarters to meet the collector. He gave 12 of us an appointment to see him. The collector listened to us and told us he was immediately sending Forest Department officials to survey our plots. The Forest Department came and carried out the survey on 11 November, but nothing happened.’

The community submitted applications for pattas in 2012, and some individuals received their land titles the following year; however, 32 claimants did not. Most who did gain land also received much smaller pattas than they had demanded in their claims. Because of this the Forest Department continued to harass the tribes by forcibly ploughing their crops or leaving cattle to graze on standing crops. 

To protest against this ongoing harassment, on October 2, 2015, 150 women drove to the police station in Keshkal on tractors to lodge a complaint against the Forest Department forcibly leaving cattle in their fields. The women left at 11am and stayed there till 4pm. It was a holiday but they continued to wait in the tehsil office till the officials came to take their memorandum. 

‘When all is said and done, people are still not able to access community forest resource rights, even though individual rights have been given to some,’ says Jai Shanker, who reports that the Forest Department continues to drag its heels. However, the fact that they are standing up for their entitlement marks significant progress.

As part of the battle, Jai Shanker has filed five ‘Right to Information’ (RTI) applications with the janpad panchayat in Kondagaon, demanding information on issues like how many beneficiaries have received van adhikar patta and the number of claims for pattas that have been accepted by the Forest Department/janpad between 2008-15.

Water and electricity 

Forest rights are just one part of the process of empowering the Gond community in Aonri Bedma. Because the village suffers from water shortages, residents petitioned the Public Health Engineering (PHE) office in Keshkal. But the department did not respond to their application. So people from Aonri Bedma gheraoed the PHE office in May/June 2013, at tehsil level in Keshkal. As a result of this action, two hand pumps for the village were sanctioned on 19 June. 

Bir says: ‘It is as if we have to protest and gherao the government for every little thing we need: water, roads, health facilities, schools, anganwadi centres, electricity.’

Meanwhile, in 2013 the women, men and children of Aonri Bedma undertook an eight-day padyatra (journey) to Keshkal, to address the issue of the electricity supply to the village. 

Lacchanti, who took part in the mission, outlines its aims and the background to it: ‘We all walked to the Bijli Abhiyanta Karyalaya (Electricity Board Office), the Public Health Engineering department’s office, the SDM’s office and the district secretariat in Kondagaon and even met the collector. We took rice with us to survive the padyatra and travelled through 40 villages; ultimately 2,000 people joined our protest there. 

‘When the electricity board personnel came to the village, they told us they would electrify the village. But all the work  – putting up electricity poles, stringing the wires and so on, was done by villagers; the department sent only two people to supervise the work. And even these two persons from the electricity board got all the work done by us but did not pay us our wages for the labour; they also did not complete the work. This was why we were forced to complain to the department. Even now, three houses in the village are without electric supply - though the poles have been put up, there are no wires.’

Health and nutrition

Other problems addressed by the Aonri Bedma villagers relate to health and nutrition. For example, the anganwadi centre is run from rented premises, and the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Department refuses to pay the rent. Children have problems going to school during the Monsoons;  the teachers don’t attend due to poor links to the village and if they do, they come irregularly at best. Often, tribal children are told they are ‘dirty’ and ‘smelly’ and are asked to come to school ‘well dressed’.

Jai comments: ‘The community is simple, and there is no reason why they should be put through humiliation like this. But we are also determined, and the fact that the government is now paying heed to our various demands is encouraging and motivating for the community.’ 

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