In Jharkhand polls, focus on forest rights worked for Hemant Soren, but time will tell if JMM-led alliance can deliver

  • The moves made by the previous BJP government of Raghubar Das did not sit well with Jharkhand voters

  • Will the Soren-led alliance deliver on issues of forest rights and displacement?

  • The road to implement FRA is neither easy nor quick. Even with the new government, concerns remain

Hours after being sworn in, Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren declared that all cases registered during the Pathalgadi movement and protests against the amendments to Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT Act) and Santhal Paragana Tenancy Act, 1949 (SPT Act) would be withdrawn. The news came as a major relief to thousands of Adivasis. However, the question remains: Will the Soren-led alliance deliver on issues of forest rights and displacement?

But first, let's look at how Soren and the JMM mounted a comeback.  Just a few months ago, during the Lok Sabha polls, when the BJP won three of five reserved seats in Jharkhand, analysts wrote off regional parties like the JMM, saying "regional parties that used to voice tribal concerns are no longer being looked at as alternatives".

So what changed in the six months between May and November?

 In Jharkhand polls, focus on forest rights worked for Hemant Soren, but time will tell if JMM-led alliance can deliver

File image of Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren. PTI

Saying voters focussed on national issues during Lok Sabha polls and local issues during Assembly elections may be a rather simplistic way of looking at things. In Soren's own words, the "ground work" for the elections started immediately after the Lok Sabha polls. In an interview with Outlook, Soren said, "We did our homework...I understood the aspiration of the tribals and started working with them."

From thousands of Adivasis being booked to amending the CNT and SPT acts, to tribals allegedly being allegedly illegally evicted, the moves made by the previous BJP government of Raghubar Das did not sit well with voters.

Sudhir Pal, coordinator of Jharkhand Van Adhikar Manch, an organisation working on forest rights, said, "I feel that at a strategic level BJP could not have imagined that the issues of land and forest rather than emotive issues would be on the minds of voters. Soren's entire campaign was built around issues of land and forest. There was also anger against the BJP, which the saffron party failed to recognise."

Before the first phase of the election, Modi addressed rallies in Daltonganj and Gumla. While Alok Kumar Chaurasia, the BJP candidate from the general constituency of Daltonganj, won, in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) constituency of Gumla, JMM's Bhushan Tirkey defeated BJP candidate Mishir Kujur. Both constituencies are crucial in terms of the potential for recognition of Community Forest Rights (CFRs) granted under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), which seeks to restore rights of tribes living in forests for generations.

While individual rights legally enable landholders to own, cultivate and invest resources on their land, community forest titles enable all the villagers, including landless people, to access, use and sell minor forest produce and use other forest resources within the traditional boundaries of the land under their cultivation.

In the second phase, Modi addressed rallies in Khunti (an ST Constituency) and Jamshedpur. Though BJP won in Khunti, it lost both Jamshedpur East and West and former chief minister Raghubar Das, who had held the Jamshedpur East seat since 1995, also lost. Home minister Amit Shah addressed campaign rallies in Manika and Latehar, both ST constituencies, but BJP could not pull off a win.

Again, both constituencies have huge potential for realisation of rights granted under FRA with more than 300 villages in each constituency being eligible for CFRs. BJP candidates in both the constituencies lost to Congress and JMM candidates respectively. Even in Lohardaga (an ST constituency), where Shah campaigned, Congress state president Rameshwar Oraon defeated BJP's Sukhdeo Bhagat. In the Chakradharpur region (an ST constituency), where Shah addressed rallies, BJP lost in all the neighbouring constituencies of Chakradharpur, Majhgaon, Chaibasa and Manoharpur. All constituencies in this region were sensitive to FRA. JMM emerged as the biggest winner in this region.

Even in the last phase of campaigning, BJP was focused on issues of Ram Mandir, Article 370 and CAA. Jamtara, at a distance of about two hundred kilometres from the state's capital Ranchi, saw Yogi Adityanath making statements such as, "If the likes of Irfan Ansari win, how will a Ram temple be constructed?" Around two hundred kilometres from the state capital Ranchi, Jamtara which has a Muslim population of 10.52 percent (as per the 2011 Census), was named as one of the 250 most backward districts in 2006.

It is one of the 21 Jharkhand  districts receiving funds from the Backward Regions Grant Fund Programme (BRGF). Ansari, the Congress candidate, defeated BJP's Birendra Mandal by a huge margin of 38,000 votes. Compare this with the 2014 polls, when Ansari defeated Mandal by only 4,000 votes.

The BJP hoped to consolidating votes by pushing its line of 'hard Hindutva' and relying on the CAA and Ram temple, but failed to touch upon several crucial factors that impacted the voters like the FRA — which was notified in January 2008 — which has not been implemented effectively. Though the state has an Adivasi population of 86.45 lakh, authorities received merely 1,10,756 claims till March 2019, as per the Union tribal affair ministry's annual report. Of these, only 61,970 were accepted and 28,107 were rejected.

In the run-up to the elections, studies showed that forest rights issues could be a decisive factor in influencing election outcomes in more than 62 of the 81 Assembly Constituencies. The analysis, conducted by a group of independent researchers working on forest rights issues, of which this reporter is a part, was drawn on the basis of the number of ST and SC voters eligible for receiving forest rights under FRA, voting pattern and margin of votes in the last Assembly election.

The analysis concluded that there was a "clear shift" in how BJP performed in the ST Assembly Constituencies. The analysis earlier categorised constituencies into critical value, high value and good value based on the potential of realising rights under the FRA as the core issue in the constituency, significantly influencing winning margins in the constituency.

The analysis indicated that the 12 seats BJP lost in the elections — it won only 25 seats in 2019 compared to 37 in 2014 — were sensitive to FRA issues. Pal highlights how Soren had already "prepared the pitch" and "set the agenda" for what the elections will be fought on — forest and land rights being the most important issue —  much before BJP realised what was happening on the ground. During his campaigns, Soren made impassioned appeals to the public to ask themselves if voting on 'communal lines' will provide them with livelihood.

Regarding the FRA, Pal said, "In the dialogues with us before the elections, he [Soren] very sincerely discussed the potential of FRA, its implications for livelihood, land reforms and included these in a systematic manner in his agenda." He adds, "Gram sabhas should have CFR powers. We have linked the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Social Impact Assessment (SIA) with the gram sabhas. If all three are combined, then implementing the FRA in letter and spirit could be crucial for land reforms."

The BJP government, activists claimed, had done away with the mandatory environment and social impact assessments associated with projects in order to make way for development and mining projects. However, the road to implement FRA is neither easy nor quick. Even with the new government, concerns remain.

Father George Monippally of Jharkhand Van Adhikar Manch, Bharat Jan Andolan, also associated with Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD) said, "In FRA, till today, barring 2014 and 2015, when the prime minister ordered the implementation of FRA "in campaign mode", there hasn't been much activity. Of late, there have been many evictions."

Monippally explained that evictions are occurring even as claims remain pending with District Level Committees (DLCs) or Sub-Divisional Level Committees (SDLCs). Monippally also pointed to other alleged irregularities in the process: "The forest department is asking for pattas (land titles) from the people, though their papers [of claims] are pending with the DLCs or SDLCs. If they don't have titles, they are told that the department will plant trees. Ditches to plant trees are dug on the lands where people are staying or farming. If they object, they are implicated in cases pertaining to sections such as obstructing a government official from performing duties."

So how does can the FRA be properly implemented?  As per Monippally, "The implementing agencies, which aren't aware or deliberately choose to ignore the provisions of the FRA, should first familiarise themselves with both the Act and the amended rules." The amended rules, clarifying the powers of the gram sabhas say that the gram sabhas would be the main authority to ensure field verification is done but the authority of gram sabhas in having a say over the field verification process is not accepted. Instead, the DLCs or SDLCs act in line with what the Forest Department (FD) tells them, he claimed.

Monippally added, "We want some guidelines on how FRA will be implemented, how capacity building, training will be conducted. Ninety percent of the FRA claims were either rejected or illegally modified without informing the gram sabhas... in Jharkhand, the attitude towards FRA is that of "charity" he claimed. "..It's not as if rights are being recognised. It's as if they are doing some welfare. The whole mindset is that they are giving something to the people."

Pal said forest rights groups have demanded that the state — which has a 28 percent tribal population — have its own tribal affairs ministry, which will also be crucial in the implementation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, which deals with administration of scheduled areas where tribal communities are a majority. Tribal Advisory Councils (TACs) are constitutional bodies formed under the Fifth Schedule to deal with welfare and advancement of scheduled tribes in states.

It is clear from the Jharkhand Assembly election results and also from the experiences of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections in 2018, that the issues of land and forest rights are slowly taking centre stage in state elections and that the public is voting on issues of land and forest rights. It remains to be seen if the Soren government will be able to deliver.

The author is a researcher and writer working on forest and agrarian rights, gender-based violence and human rights issues.

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Updated Date: Jan 05, 2020 17:57:53 IST