Forests thrive in tribal areas. And that isn't just coincidence.

Adivasi communities may be unlettered but they have ancient wisdom and traditional knowledge that can put development pundits to shame. But, on these rich lands — with finite wealth of coal, sponge iron, bauxite, aluminium, and several other minerals – live some of the poorest people. Laws such as the FRA, 2006, and the PESA Act, 1996 need effective implementation.

Nidhi JamwalNidhi Jamwal   7 Oct 2022 6:15 AM GMT

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Forests thrive in tribal areas. And that isnt just coincidence.

The adivasis have not taken in greed and on the contrary have been the guardians of our natural wealth. Photo: Abhishek Verma

You don't need Google Maps to tell you that you have arrived in a tribal 'oasis'. The landscape miraculously turns green with trees lined up to welcome you to Nature's lap.

The air, which was little more than petroleum hydrocarbon fumes, now smells of fresh leaves, wild flowers, and bacteria-rich mud. Your sense of smell has been shaken awake along with other senses you had forgotten existed.

In all likelihood you will come across streams where water actually flows, and, if you stop and look closely, you might witness aquatic life (if mining hasn't killed it all). At that point it is important to remind oneself how crucial this chemical substance composed of hydrogen and oxygen is, as water (seawater) is where life first originated on our planet.

And it is in the water bodies in tribal areas – the rivers, rivulets, ponds, and wells – where life still thrives and multiplies, whereas we know only too well how elsewhere such water bodies have been reduced to sewage and toxic foam.

Also Read: The Memory Pillars

It is no exaggeration to say that the regions in the country where natural forests still thrive are invariably adivasi areas. And that is no means a mere coincidence.

Tribal people collecting forest produce, mahua. Photo: Arun Singh

For centuries, the tribal communities have only taken what they need for survival from Nature. The adivasis have not taken in greed and on the contrary have been the guardians of our natural wealth.

For hundreds of years, they have lived in the forests, fully dependent on natural resources. Yet, they have kept the forest safe and respected its resources. They are not like the foolish man who sawed off the branch of the tree on which he sat.

Adivasi communities may be unlettered but they have ancient wisdom and traditional knowledge that can put development pundits to shame.

But, these communities that inhabit these rich lands — with finite wealth of coal, sponge iron, bauxite, aluminium and several other minerals – are some of the poorest people in the country.

Also Read: Tribal women in the buffer of Panna Tiger Reserve brave wild animals and dangerous slopes to fetch water

Here's a simple exercise. Take the forest map, the minerals map, and the poor health and development indicators map of India. Place them on top of each other. In all likelihood, you will find how all three maps that show the forests, high minerals, and high poverty – are also adivasi-inhabited areas.

For centuries the adivasis have remained the watchdog of our flora and fauna, but they have also remained the most marginalised and impoverished lot in the country. Our 'development' model has exploited them for their natural wealth.

Jal, jungle, jameen – in the coming years conflict around these issues is expected to magnify manifold. Photo: Yash Sachdev

So much so that some tribal communities have been elbowed off from their forests and are now called 'particularly vulnerable tribal groups', commonly known as PVTGs.

Common sense tells us that these custodians of our forests and natural wealth should be revered. Instead, they pay a heavy price for living close to Nature. They are viewed as 'encroachers'. And with a stroke of a pen thousands of hectares of virgin forest land is allocated to private companies for mining, 'in the interest of the nation and its development'.

Gaon Connection, India's biggest rural media platform, has regularly documented stories on tribal communities – their foods, culture, festivals, way of living, and their struggles.

Recently, Gaon Connection travelled to two tribal villages – Katahari and Bilahta – in the buffer zone of Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. These two villages with a population of over 500 people do not have electricity connection. Neither do they have any health facilities, nor a metalled road. And worse, they have no water resources whatsoever.

Every day, girls and women, including pregnant ones, walk two kilometres through the thick jungle, which is home to wild animals, to fetch water. Forget functional tap water, which is being promised under the central government's Jal Jeevan Mission, these tribal hamlets do not even have a functioning handpump.

The condition of adivasi women of Govindpura village in Panna district of Madhya Pradesh is worse. At four in the morning, these women sally forth with bundles of firewood (weighing 25-40 kgs) on their head and trudge the 13 kilometres to sell it to hotel owners. They earn about Rs 150 a bundle and walk back to their village the same day. This is their daily routine and the only source of livelihood.

In 2006, India enacted the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (popularly known as Forest Rights Act, or FRA), which legally recognised forest rights and occupation in forestlands with scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers.

Various research studies show that there are around 300 million forest dwellers in the country, whose livelihoods and survival depend on the forests.

But 15 years on, millions of tribals and forest dwellers have not formally received their claims on the forest lands. And forest related conflicts are rising. On August 9 this year, an adivasi was shot and killed for 'smuggling' wood from the forest.

As part of a detailed report, Gaon Connection found that ever since the inception of this law in 2006, a total of 4,429,008 claims (4,260,190 individual and 168,818 community claims) by the tribal inhabitants have been raised across the country till February 28 this year, as documented by the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

Out of these, 2,234,247 claims (2,132,172 individual and 102,075 community rights) have been distributed.

This means 50.44 per cent of the claims have either been rejected or are still in the process of being verified.

Implementation of the FRA remains poor in most of the states. Uttarakhand has the highest percentage of claims that are yet to be settled. A total of 6,665 claims have been filed in the Himalayan state, of which only 172 have been settled. This means 97.52 per cent claims remain pending.

Karnataka is the second worst performer in settling these claims with 94.56 per cent claims still pending.

Other states where the claim settlement rates are abysmal and a large number of claims remain pending include Uttar Pradesh (79.83 per cent pending), Tamil Nadu (75.34 per cent), West Bengal (68.24 per cent), Assam (62.07 per cent), Telangana (52.97 per cent), Gujarat (49.34 per cent), Rajasthan (47.87 per cent), Madhya Pradesh (46.94 per cent), Chhattisgarh (46.52 per cent), Jharkhand (44.05 per cent), Kerala (39.59 per cent), Tripura (36.32 per cent), Odisha (28.53 per cent), and Andhra Pradesh (23.34 per cent).

Also Read: A 13-km trek carrying 30-40 kgs of firewood on their heads to earn Rs 150 – the daily life of adivasi women in Panna

Who owns forests and forest resources is a burning issue and reams of paper have been written detailing the rising conflict around this issue. Meanwhile, the implementation of the 2006 act is far from satisfactory.

Tribal communities have launched campaigns, and walked hundreds of kilometres to press for their rights and demand protection of their forests.

The protesting villagers demand that the stipulations of the PESA should be respected. Photo: Alok Shukla/Twitter

Last October, over 350 villagers from the districts of Sarguja and Korba marched 300 kilometres for ten days to reach the Chhattisgarh capital of Raipur in order to protest against the 'illegal' acquisition of coal mines in the Hasdeo Aranya forest area, and press for the implementation of the Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, commonly known as PESA Act.

This act was passed in 1996 to extend the Panchayati Raj system to the tribal areas in the country and recognise the rights of indigenous communities over natural resources.

In January 2021, over 15,000 farmers from across Maharashtra, including adivasi farmers, walked to Mumbai demanding settlement of their 7/12 land titles.

Jal, jungle, jameen (water, forest, land) – in the coming years conflict around these issues is expected to magnify manifold as the remaining parcels of forests come under the axe of 'development'. Rather than further alienating the tribal and forest dwelling communities, it is imperative that they have the decision-making powers over the forests their forefathers (and foremothers) have guarded for centuries. A beginning can be made with an honest implementation of the pathbreaking laws – FRA 2006, and the PESA Act, 1996.

Views are personal.

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