Guest Post by KAMAL NAYAN CHOUBEY
The inclination of the Indian State to suppress any movement related to the just demands of marginalized sections has increased immensely in recent times. There is no question of dialogue. Coercive methods are generally employed to contain these movements. This is what has happened with the movement of tribal people are struggling against the Kanhar Dam in the Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh. In this movement, women activists play a crucial role, and in order to contain it, the UP Police arrested two key women activists Roma and Sukalo, and six other women activists from the Robertsganj office of All India Union for Forest Working People (AIUFWP) on 30th June 2015.
Roma is the General Secretary of the AIUFWP.
The UP police has registered cases of inciting rioting against the women activists and it has also reopened old cases against them, particularly against Roma. Apart from them, another tribal woman activist Rajkumari was arrested on 21st April.
All these activists are militantly and non-violently opposing Kanhar Dam in Sonbhadhra district and they have played a significant role in mobilizing the anger of the tribals of this area against this project, into a joint non-violent struggle. It should be noted that the Police has not only arrested key activists but it also tried to terrorize tribals by using brutal force. For example, it used lathi charge and firing in a peaceful protest meeting against the Kanhar Dam on 14th April 2015.
In the context of these events it is necessary to ponder over some crucial questions: first, has the state administration followed all legal procedures before starting work on the project? Had state administration no other option than the brutal suppression of the peaceful but strong resistance of local tribal communities against this dam? Is it true, as police claimed that arrested women activists are rioters and a danger to peace and security of this area? Or is it the case that since the politics of these women activists have challenged the dominant classes and repressive Forest Department (FD), the administration is using brutal force to suppress them? Is it right to say that ‘development’ is the dominant ideology of our time, about which there is a consensus in parliamentary politics, but not among the people it claims to represent?
Kanhar Dam is an old project in Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh and it is among many other projects that have created a crisis of displacement and livelihood for many local tribal groups. In 1976, the Central Water Commission approved this project and its initial budget was Rs. 27.25 crores. Its work was halted due to interstate issues, lack of funds and the resistance of local communities. The work on this project was again restarted in 2014 and Rs. 652.59 crores budget was allocated for it and it was decided that the maximum height of this dam would be 39.90 meters, which could be extended to 52.90 meters. It has been argued that this dam would be helpful to create better irrigation system in Sonbadhra and other neighboring areas; it would submerge more than 413.5 hectares of land of Sonbhadra, Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand. The activists, who are protesting against this dam, have argued that it is not only dangerous for the natural surroundings of this area but it has also created a danger of displacement for more than ten thousand tribal families. So local tribal people started protest movement against this project. It was argued that local communities were not consulted and provisions of many laws like Forest Conservation Act, 1980 or Forest Rights Act 2006 were not followed. Here, it is significant no note that in last one and a half decade the political consciousness of tribal women have increased immensely in Sonbhadra region. These women activists have challenged the dominant social groups and administrative structure of the area and also played a crucial role in mobilizing tribal women against the Kanhar Dam.
Indeed, due to political actions of these women activists, most of them are tribal women, this region becomes an area of many unique political experiments, which has not only shaken the dominant castes, oppressive administrative structure and the patriarchal mindset of the society, but also enhanced community farming by women. An organization Kaimur Khetra Mahila, Kisan, Mazdoor Sangahrsh Samiti (KKMKMSS) has played a pivotal role in creating political understanding in the minds of tribal women of the area. Many activists like Bharti Roy Choudhury, Roma, Dr, Vinayan, played a crucial role in its formation in the year 2000. The basic purpose behind the formation of this organization was to create political awareness among tribal women and men for their rights over forest land and its resources. Earlier many of these activists were part of ‘Kaimur Bacho Anolan’, an organization led by Dr. Vinayan, which played a significant role in the mobilization for the enactment of Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) in 1996. It should be remembered that many districts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are part of Kaimur region, but KKMKMSS is primarily active in Sonbhadra, Chadaoli, Mirzapur districts of UP and Bhabhua district of Bihar. However, Sonbhadra has been the centre of its most important political activities and experiments. From the time of its formation it has tried to create awareness among tribal people regarding their rights over forest resources. In Sonbhadra, as in many other forest areas of the country, the Forest Department (FD) treats the forests as its own property and forest dwelling communities as ‘encroachers’, perpetually trying to prohibit their activities on forest land. The unique feature of Sonbhadra district is that a large area of cultivable land was declared ‘forest’ without any survey or systematic study.
From the beginning, this organization gave tribal women a primary role in the many activities related to its day-to-day functioning. It worked to politically educate and mobilize them against the arbitrary behavior of the FD. Gradually, women activists took over the leadership of this organization. Men are also part of it and attend its meetings, but women activists decide the agenda and strategy of the organization. Eventually, tribal women like Suklao, Rajkumari and many others started to lead its functioning in many areas. There have been several instances where women activists participated in the meetings and demonstrations while their spouses stayed at the home to take care of the children and family.
The activists like Roma, Shanta Bhattacharya and others motivated tribal women to establish their control over those ‘forest’ lands, where there was no actual forest. Tribal women took control of many hectares of these lands and started community farming. The FD used coercion to stop their activities over these ‘forest’ lands and imposed more than ten thousand cases against most of the women tribal activists and their spouses, under many provisions of a colonial law, Forest Act of 1927. And Police also declared many of them as Maoists or their sympathizers. However, the reality is that the activities of Roma and other women activists dealt a huge blow to the increasing influence of Naxals in this area. Women activists inspired tribal people to fight for their rights through democratic and peaceful methods. Eventually, the control of tribal women over ‘forest’ land has increased and now they control around 15,000 hectares of ‘forest land’. Every family which is part of community farming takes its share for family needs and the rest of the products are managed through co-operatives, and they are used for the development of villages and to fulfill other needs of community life.
KKMKMSS also mobilized local forest dwelling communities for the enactment of FRA and focused on the inclusion of single women and non-ST forest dwelling communities in the purview of the FRA. After the enactment of FRA it tried to ensure its proper implementation in Sonbhadra and other districts of the Kaimur region. But the FD created many obstacles due to which tribals neither got private forest rights nor community forest rights. The tribal women, however, are using this law to assert their rights and oppose the arbitrary behavior of the FD. Roma had also played a key role in the formation of an active group of tribal women activists in 2011 to ensure the better co-ordination for the implementation of community rights given by the FRA. The name of the group is Women Forest Rights Action Committee and tribal women activists of Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh are members of the group. It has emphasized that the community rights of the FRA are primarily related to women because in most of the tribal communities women collect the forest produce to fulfill family needs. They demanded better implementation of these rights and prohibition of the role of FD in the collection and sale of Minor Forest Produces (MFPs).
Obviously, in last one and a half decades a group of tribal women activist emerged in the forest areas of Sonbhadra, which has continuously opposed the oppressive nature of forest administration and asserted its rights over forest resources. They have not only participated in the enactment and implementation of laws like FRA, but also strongly demanded that industrialists, who have been using the resources of this area, must provide basic health and education facilities to the adivasi communities.
One must an understand the opposition of Kanhar Dam in this political context. Tribals of this area, particularly tribal women, are opposing this project because they fear that it would displace many villages and they are not ready to accept the non-consultative and imposed development projects. Their basic demand is that administration should follow the legal procedures and work according to the provisions of the FCA, FRA and other relevant laws. The state administration has, however, tried to stifle their opposition by brutal force; it used extreme methods like firing on peaceful protest meetings of tribals and arrested tribal women activists without any proof of their complicity in the violence or any other illegal activity.
Here, it is equally necessary to consider the plight of adivasis in states like UP and Bihar, where they constitute a minuscule part of the whole population of the state, which resulted in the ignoring of their issues by the state governments, mainstream political parties and media. It is really a serious question to protect the interest of small population groups in a democratic set up. Declaring this whole area as part of Schedule V could be one solution because then PESA would be implemented in this region and tribal villages would get more rights to manage their life or use their resources in autonomous manner. Roma and other women activists, arrested by UP police, have been relentlessly working to raise the issue of declaring whole Kaimur region as part of Schedule V areas.
It is clear from the use of coercive methods by the state administration of UP that there is a consensus between almost all parliamentary political parties regarding the sacrosanct nature of ‘development’ projects. For them, those who are protesting against ‘development’ projects are anti-social or anti-national and they should be curbed ruthlessly. In this development model, the rights of forest dwelling communities have little importance and if there is any contradiction between the two, ‘development’ would get primacy. All state governments have tried to suppress resistance against ‘development’ works and Samajwadi Party government of UP is not an exception in this case. To create a vibrant democratic society, the State must listen to the voices of marginalized sections and respect their demands. The arrested women activists, most of them are tribal women, are the sane voices of reason, who argue for the livelihood and habitat concerns of forest dependent communities. The State must listen to their voices and act according to the constitutional provisions, rather than violently crushing their demands and putting them behind bars.
Kamal Nayan Choubey is an Assistant Professor of Political Science in Dyal Singh College of Delhi University.