Maharashtra polls: Yavatmal's Adivasi farmers 'prepared to fight' as govt's promise to fix land rights issue falls flat
Around 30,000 farmers from various parts of the state, including Yavatmal in Vidarbha, covered a distance of 180 kilometres from Nashik to Mumbai on foot, with the aim to gherao the Legislative Assembly building and press their demand for the full implementation of FRA, and also of the loan waiver the government had promised in 2017
Under the FRA, the ownership of the forest land does not change, but the locals are granted the right to occupy land up to four hectares 'to cultivate, fish or graze their animals, to collect and use minor forest produce, and to collectively manage a forest as a community'.
Nationwide, at least 20 lakh Adivasi farmers are tilling forest land without ownership and awaiting a verdict from the Supreme Court on petitions against the law
Maharashtra farmers who are stuck in a limbo without rights over the land they have been in possession of since before the existence of the forest department, could play a decisive role in polls in their respective Assembly constituencies
Days ahead of the Maharashtra Assembly election, people in the Kodori village of the Yavatmal district gather in the village square after hearing that an outsider is enquiring about those who haven’t received ‘pattas’ or title deeds for their land under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006.
Despite several clarifications in Marathi and the local language that it’s not an official survey of how many claims of individual forest rights (IFR) are pending, they insist on adding their names to ‘the list’ — grasping at a sliver of hope that their applications, either pending for decades or falsely rejected, will find their way to the right desk in some government office.
This is the situation that most tribes — including Gond, Pardhan, and Kolam — in Yavatmal’s Wani, Zari Jamani, and Kelapur talukas are reeling under, more than a year since Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’ assurance of clearing claims in favour of Adivasi farmers in response to the massive ‘Kisan Long March’ protest in March 2018.
Around 30,000 farmers from various parts of the state, including Yavatmal in Vidarbha, covered a distance of 180 kilometres from Nashik to Mumbai on foot, with the aim to gherao the Vidhan Sabha (Legislative Assembly) building and press their demand for the full implementation of FRA, and also of the loan waiver the government had promised in 2017. The protest, organised by the CPM-backed All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), was seen as a milestone in the effort to address the agrarian distress that has plagued Maharashtra for at least three decades.
The farmers called off the “successful” protest on 12 March, after the Maharashtra government agreed to meet all their demands. Fadnavis assured a delegation of farmer leaders “that the issue of ownership rights of forest patches would be resolved within six months”.
However, the situation on-ground indicates that the government has fallen several steps short of delivering on the promise. “In reality, even though some farmers in Nashik and its neighbouring districts have received the title deeds, most farmers in Vidarbha are still in conflict with the forest department for the right over their primary livelihood,” Shankar Danao, Wani-based state joint secretary of the AIKS, says.
Under the FRA, the ownership of the forest land does not change, but the locals are granted the right to occupy land up to four hectares “to cultivate, fish or graze their animals, to collect and use minor forest produce, and to collectively manage a forest as a community.”
So now, a few days ahead of what can be viewed as a referendum on the BJP-Shiv Sena state government, Maharashtra farmers who are stuck in a limbo without rights over the land they have been in possession of since before the existence of the forest department, could play a decisive role in the outcome in the respective Assembly constituencies.
Why the delay?
The process of verification of an IFR claim is multi-tiered; an application is evaluated by a stipulated village-level ‘van haq samiti’ or FRA committee and the gram sabha by way of a public meeting, before it is passed on to the taluka- and district-level FRA committees, the latter having the district collector as its president.
According to Danao, it is higher up in the bureaucratic chain that the applications are getting stuck or “wrongfully” rejected. “The pattern we are observing is that even though the gram sabha may approve claims after taking the opinions of all the members of that village, if the sub-divisional officer (SDO) in the taluka office rejects them, the district committee is not investigating that decision at all,” he says.
However, activists say that the issue of rejected claims goes beyond just bureaucratic mismanagement. Chandrasekhar Sidam, a member of the AIKS in the Kelapur taluka, points out that notwithstanding the pendency, most of the decisive rejections of claims have been in violation of the 2012 amendment to the Forest Rights Act.
The 2012 FRA Amendment read down the stringent proofs required from the Adivasi community to be able to stake claim to a piece of forest land.
Under the new rules notified by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, an Adivasi farmer is eligible for a title deed if she is able to prove her occupancy of the land before 13 December 2005, based on any two of the following documents: Testimonies from two elders in the village, her ration card or a caste certificate, or proof of residence that is certified by the sarpanch.
There is “no pressure” to provide additional documents that the applicants may or may not possess.
Instead of easing the process of earning land rights, however, activists say that officials are still insisting on a preliminary offence report (POR) from the police, court, or the forest department itself, or even satellite evidence showing encroachment before 2005, as proof of occupancy.
“The rejections of claims is being done in violation of the government’s own law. The administration should clarify its stand on FRA; are they for it or not? The negligence in defending the law in the Supreme Court in February has also cast a doubt on the government’s real intentions,” Danao says.
Tribal farmers in seven villages in the three talukas have filed applications with varying frequency, from once every year since 2012 in Kelapur taluka’s Khairi to not a single time after the original in 2008 in Wani’s Moharli.
None of their attempts have been successful so far.
‘Officials beat us up, uproot our crops’
Escalating conflict between the farmers and the forest department is a disaster waiting to happen, locals say as they accuse the state agency of not only hampering their sole source of livelihood but also using violence against them to drive them off the land.
One such example is when, in 2016, JCB excavators descended on the farms in a hamlet of the Kolam tribe, classified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG).
The forest department informed locals in Khairi in the Kelapur taluka of its plan to dig up their land, against which 40 people stood in resistance.
For defying a warning to withdraw, officials beat men and women with lathis, while the police stood by. “Later, the police registered the department’s cases against us, but refused to file our complaints against the officials who beat us up,” says Maruti Aiyya Atram, a local activist who suffered several fractures and was hospitalised for his injuries.
The protesters were also booked under various sections of the IPC, including Sections 144, 444, and 447. AIKS’ Sidam says that the Yavatmal district collector at the time, Sachindra Pratap Singh, had ordered a judicial probe into the incident, but there have been no updates on the investigation after August this year.
While incidents of violence are scattered, farmers in Chaudhi, Korodi, and Khairi are engaged in a game of spite with the forest department almost every year. “The officials often uproot our crops, and when we object, they blame the damage on wild animals, but we recognise that the destruction is not caused by an animal,” says Bagritabai Tekam, a farmer in Zari Jamani’s Chaudhi village.
“Since they spoil our crops even when there is potential of getting a good yield, we uproot the saplings they plant as replacements,” she adds.
Her husband, Lakshman, provides justification saying that the power equation is tipped against the locals, because “officials file cases against us, but we cannot act against them at all”. Farmers in at least three villages in the three talukas are currently fighting cases against them brought by the forest department.
This struggle of Adivasi farmers in the three talukas is not for much of a profit, but for their “sole source of livelihood,” they say. “Sheti ahe tar potala aadhar ahe (because of agriculture, we have the certainty of food on the table),” Ramaji Tekam in Rudha village says.
They cultivate on no more than five acres of forest land, and with expenses constantly rising and yield rapidly diminishing, they are almost always incurring a loss of around Rs 50,000 due to various factors, they say.
“If we are not granted the rights for the land, we will be forced into labour which there is not much availability of either,” Bhimrao Uike in Wani taluka’s Moharli village says. Uike, like most tribal farmers in the district, has been cultivating the land for more than 15 years.
Regardless of the level of struggle for the patta, which by law empowers both the wife and the husband with legitimate ownership of the land, a common refrain throughout is the determination to hold on to the land, “come what may”.
The forest department issues notices warning against cultivating before the crop season every year, but the farmers say that they cannot afford to pay heed. “Only because we haven’t listened to them, our livelihood is still on . We’ll keep fighting for our right,” says Manda Kulmithe of the Mendhuli village.
‘If this government comes back, we won’t get our land’
Asserting that the issue of land rights is the “most important” for the community in the upcoming election on 21 October, 31-year-old Praveen Kumithe seeks to hit right where it could hurts the coalition: “The lack of guidance and support from the government has angered the people affected by this issue in our village. 100 voters are not a negligible group.”
He adds, “Their term is coming to an end, and they have done nothing practical to assure us of beneficial governance for marginalized communities, but now that the election has come, they are at our doorstep again, making grand promises. But we don’t trust them anymore.”
Sixty-five-year-old Bapuji Yerkade says the Adivasi farming community has “no faith” about the issue getting resolved if the alliance comes back to power.
Tekam, in Chaudhi, finds the question of whether she’s satisfied or dissatisfied with the present government laughable. “When there’s nothing done to judge based on, how can I decide? If work had been done, wouldn’t we have got our pattas by now?” she asks.
Sakubai Shinde, a member of the OBC community in a Kolam-majority village, says it’s very unfair that the concessions given to Adivasi farmers when it comes to proof of occupancy for land ownership is not extended to everyone. “Is jaat (caste) important or are votes?”
Locals also slam the flagship Swachch Bharat Abhiyan and Awas Yojana programmes of the Centre. Often blurring the distinction between the state and Central government, they also say that the Narendra Modi government has also fallen short in providing schemes.
However, they stop short of vocally supporting the Opposition Congress-NCP alliance.
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