In the southern tip of Madhya Pradesh, bordering Maharashtra, perched on the Satpura plateau, is Betul, a reserved (ST) parliamentary seat, one of the 29 in MP. Betul does not have the political heft of a Varanasi or Amethi, and so it is unlikely that it would figure on the Congress’ agenda when leaders get down to assess the party’s poll performance.
Betul, however, could provide an answer as to why rural India seems to be disenchanted with the Congress, the party that made rights-based, rural-focused schemes like the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) the core of its politics in the last 10 years.
I was in south MP, a tribal-dominated area, in April, when a contact called to talk about the FRA. “The inconsistent implementation of the FRA will hurt the Congress,” he said candidly, and asked me to head towards Markadanga village in the Sarni range of Betul’s North Forest Division to see for myself how disenchanted the people were with the Congress.
The next day I met 50-odd villagers (forest-dependent Korku tribals). Darshana, 40, a daily wage labourer, told me: “For 30 years, my family and community members have been demanding land so that we can live a life of dignity. But despite the FRA, officials have been stonewalling our claims”. Others alleged that they were booked under the stringent Indian Forest Act and the Wildlife Act when they tried to plant fruit tree saplings on degraded forest land.
In India, millions of people like Darshana lived in and near forest lands but had no legal right to their homes, lands or livelihoods. Instead, they were treated like criminals. The FRA, which was passed in 2006, gave legal recognition to the rights of those who reside in forests or forest lands and are dependent on forests and forest land for their livelihood.
The law recognised three types of rights: Land rights (with riders), user rights (grazing, water bodies, using nomadic routes, etc) and, for the first time, gave tribal communities the right to protect and conserve forests.
Yet when Darshana’s community members wanted to plant fruit trees on degraded forest lands to tackle hunger, improve their nutritional intake and supplement their daily wage income, they faced opposition from the stubborn forest bureaucracy.
Stories like these abound India’s tribal landscape. At a public hearing in February in Delhi, which was attended by Congress MP Madhushudan Mistry and Virginius Xaxa, chairman of high-level committee on tribal issues, tribal representatives spoke of how let down they felt by the Centre’s inability to implement the FRA.
A representative from Andhra Pradesh spoke about how land titles issued to 42 claimants in 2009 were taken back to clear the road for the proposed Polavaram dam project. Another activist from Maharashtra said the problems regarding the implementation of the FRA were shared with the Congress-led state and central governments but there was no response.
One of the main grouses, unsurprisingly, was against the forest department and its unwillingness to relinquish its control over forests. In that meeting, Mistry likened the forest bureaucracy to “capitalists who want to keep land under control”.
Even though he blamed the Congress for the non-implementation of the FRA, Mistry added a caveat: The Centre can at best prod the states but implementation is in their hands. This argument does not wash with many like B Jena of ActionAid. She feels that the Centre cannot wash its hands of this because finally it is a central Act and the Centre can, if it wants to, ensure implementation.
While the tribal affairs ministry is the nodal agency for policy issues around the FRA, the final authority over claims lies with the district-level committees under the Act. Others felt the FRA could not be implemented in letter and spirit unless and until the Indian Forest Act, 1972 and other laws that were in conflict with the FRA were also amended. Tribal representatives also spoke of repeated violations by the environment ministry, which indulged in illegal forest diversion and tried to exempt some development projects from FRA requirements.
If you want to gauge the depth of anger over the FRA violations among tribals, log in to http://www.cgnetswara.org/, a voice portal that enables citizens to report issues of local importance. There are usually three sets of complaints: Tribals have got less land than what they requested for, illegal diversion of forest land to corporate groups (without recognising rights or asking for community consent, both legal requirements) and lack of verification on the ground.
On May 7, Dongria Kondhs of Odisha (remember Rahul Gandhi’s ‘I am your soldier in Delhi’ comment?), who are fighting against Vedanta’s mining project, which violates the FRA (and other laws), boycotted the general election, saying that they didn’t believe in electoral politics since the State had only harassed them.
The truth is that key government power centres in the UPA never wanted to implement the FRA and also did not want to undermine the forest department. The UPA came to power in 2004 in a surprise election and then hunted for measures that would allow it to respond to popular anger.
At the same time it did not look at or tackle the related aspects: The power of corporate groups or the bureaucracy.
So while it did come up with progressive legislation — like the FRA and MGNREGA — it was caught in its own trap. Thus the ‘electoral’ side of the Congress sought to claim ownership of these laws and the more ‘reformist’ pro-corporate side tried to destroy them. And probably what the party did not (astonishingly) realise is that passing legislation was not the end of its duty — in fact, it’s just the beginning. This oversight — intended or otherwise — could cost the party dear.