Diversion Of Forests Hits Adivasi Women The Hardest. Here Is Why

In 15 of the 86 constituencies where the general elections will be held tomorrow, more than 30% of voters are impacted by the Forest Rights Act. We look at how the loss of forests impacts the lives and livelihoods of Adivasi women

Manjulata Miri’s house was first destroyed in 2015. Forest department officials came to her village, Pilwapali in Mahasamund district of Chhattisgarh, and told her and other villagers that they had no right to build houses or cultivate farms on the land because it belonged to the department.

“They started beating people and destroying the houses,” said Miri, 31. “Male and female personnel assaulted women, they held me by the neck and dragged me out of my home. They destroyed the houses with all of our belongings, including groceries, children’s books and utensils, and took it all away.”

Over the next few months, forest department officials visited the village multiple times and destroyed homes and beat up the Adivasi villagers, recalled Miri. “Though they destroyed our houses thrice we did not leave,” she said, describing how the Adivasi families survived in makeshift tents made of plastic sheet and poles in the March heat. “People from neighbouring villages helped us with food and other basic necessities. We did not even have a glass to drink water from.”

The villagers approached all kinds of authorities for justice. “We went to the police station, tried to meet the sub-divisional magistrate, tehsildar, officials at the collectorate and the mantralaya. We even approached a minister. But no one listened to us,” said Miri. 

She alleged that the officials were disrespectful towards them because they were Adivasis and she had heard them say: “Kahan se aagaye ye keede-makode (where did these insects come from)”. The entire village was stressed, no one knew what the future held for them or their children – some contemplated suicide, others planned on migrating.

Manjulata Miri standing outside her fourth home. She said forest department officials had destroyed three of her houses / Shreya Raman

It was in 2020 that Miri’s husband heard about the Dalit Adivasi Manch, a collective focussed on the rights of Dalit and Adivasi people, especially forest rights. “Soon some of us formed a collective of 15 people, including 10 women and filed claims under Forest Rights Act 2005,” said Miri.

The next time the forest department officials came, and this time ready to prepare the soil for plantation, the villagers stopped them. “We showed them the receipts for our claims and told them that if you don’t stop, you will be violating FRA and we can file a case against you,” said Miri.

For India’s 100 million Adivasi people, the world’s largest population of indigenous people, income from minor forest produce such as Mahua, Tendu and Charoli constitutes as much as 40% of the household income. With most of the collection of these forest produce done by women, it is an important source of livelihood for them.

Since 2014-15, when the Bharatiya Janata Party government came to power, 1.45 lakh hectares of forest land has been diverted, 62% of it for mining, depriving Adivasi women of access to forest produce and impacting their livelihood. Almost 21% of the diversion happened in Madhya Pradesh, and 5% in Chhattisgarh. 

In 2023, the BJP government also amended the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, which regulates the diversion of forests for non-forest use: the Amendment tried to dilute the definition of forest and also create exemptions for diversion of forest land for specific purposes, including ‘Left Wing Extremism’, in affected areas.

Tomorrow, 15 of the 86 constituencies with more than 30% voters impacted by FRA, are going to vote in the general elections. This is the second in our series of election stories looking at the impact of the diversion of forests and mining on Adivasi women. Our first story looked at the alleged state-sponsored violence against Adivasi women in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region.

Illegal Methods of Diversion

Miri pointed out that the urban notion that Adivasis destroy forests is a myth. “The forests are still here because we have taken care of them and kept them safe,” she said. “For six months, all we need to sustain is the forest and we get to live off its produce. We never have had to migrate to get work.”

Dayawanti, a resident of Pilwapali, gathering Mahua flowers. Dayawanti, who is a widow and is responsible for taking care of her three children and parents-in-law, relies heavily on forest produce for sustenance / Shreya Raman

For more than a decade, around 380 acres of land in Pilwapali has been under dispute. “Around 10 years ago, representatives of the Jindal Steel and Power Limited came and asked us to sell the land to them,” said Miri. “The company convinced some people but others refused saying that the land is their only source of livelihood.”

The company’s representatives returned after a couple of weeks and again urged villagers to sell the land, pointing out that some had already done so and that this could pave the way for a factory and jobs for all, said Miri. The resistance continued but a month later the villagers found that the land had been sold to the company.

“It was all fake,” alleged Miri. “The villagers had not signed the documents or gone to the registrar. None of the people who bought the land were from our village – they were outsiders, some were even children, and none were Adivasi.”

Due to this land dispute, forest rights claims of the villagers have not yet been settled. In 2022, Miri along with 39 other villagers filed a petition in the Chhattisgarh High Court seeking redressal on the issue. The court, in an interim order, in July 2022, directed the authorities not to take any coercive steps to evict the villagers.

The court also said that the documents submitted in the petition indicate that the land “was in fact a forest land and now abruptly the revenue records shows that land to be agricultural land and it stands in the name of Jindal Steel And Power Limited,” while asking the state authorities to respond.

‘Fake NOCs Are Common’

Since 2021 when the villagers filed claims under FRA, the forest department has stopped harassing the villagers of Pilwapali. The Forest Rights Act is the first legislation to legally recognise tribal people’s rights over forest, forest land and forest produce.

“Under forest diversion laws, you need an NOC from the gram sabha which says that forest titles have been settled and another certificate saying that they do not object to land being given,” said Rajni Soren, an advocate-activist working on issues related to forest rights and practices in Chhattisgarh High Court. “So, what we have seen is that fake gram sabhas are being constituted where documents are forged, signatures are forged.”

Even when consent is taken, it is often not informed, Soren added. “There have been cases where people have not been told what they are signing onto and then those papers have been used.”

In 2016, in Sonakhan, a village in Chhattisgarh’s Baloda Bazar district, residents found out that their lands had been leased to Vedanta for mining gold only through newspaper articles. The Adivasi villagers of Sonakhan said that Vedanta had falsely claimed that the gram sabha of the affected villages had given an NOC to the project. 

The residents of these villages fought for almost three years, holding protests, rallies and pleading with the chief minister for justice, until the state government suspended the lease in 2019. The same year, several residents of Hiroli gram panchayat in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district alleged forgery of gram sabha consent letter for an iron-ore mining project.

In addition to changing the definition of forest, the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act 2023 and the new FC Rules, also dilutes the need for getting consent from gram sabha before granting forest clearance. In response to petitions challenging the act, the Supreme Court passed an interim order directing governments to use the “broad and all-encompassing” definition of forest instead of only declared forests.

But many substantive issues have not come up in the discussion in the context of this SC interim order, said Tushar Dash, an independent researcher. “Issues like how the act affects democratic forest governance, rights of communities and the governance framework under FRA and Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) have not come up in the discussion.”

Dash and another independent researcher, Soz, analysed data on parliamentary constituencies and found that in 153 constituencies, there are a significant proportion of electors who would be eligible for titles under FRA. A third of the land-related conflicts reported in the Land Conflict Watch (LCW) database, happened in these 153 constituencies and almost half (44%) of the conflicts impacted forest-dwelling communities that are eligible for or have forest right claims.

Almost half (44%) of the conflicts impacting forest dwelling communities were triggered due to conservation and forestry projects, including plantation, found the report. In addition to diversion, afforestation attempts are also shutting out Adivasi women from forests, Thomson Reuters Foundation had reported in February 2022.

Impact On Women’s Livelihood

As we said, these diversions disproportionately impact women, who are the primary gatherers of the forest produce, the main source of income for Adivasi people. “The people who live in forested areas do not have large pockets of land. So most of what they grow is for consumption,” said Soren.

Mahua flowers, fruit and seeds are important Minor Forest Produce in central India. The estimated collection potential for flowers and seeds cross Rs 130 crore / Shreya Raman

Of all the produce, Mahua flowers are among the most common and profitable. “We get groceries like salt and chillies in exchange for dried Mahua flowers,” said Rambhabai Paikra, 49, of Baloda Bazar’s Mahkoni village. “Even the person who comes to the village to sell clothes gives us sarees, telling us to pay after the Mahua season.”

Tendu leaves, which are used to make bidis, are colloquially called ‘green gold’ because they are a significant source of income. In addition, produce like lac, charoli, sal, tamarind, mango and silk cocoons, provide millions of livelihood opportunities year-round, with an estimated collection potential of Rs 1,900 crore.

Forest produce is more profitable than agriculture, pointed out Ramabai from Sonakhan village, because it is available through the year unlike farm yield and there is no need to invest in inputs like fertilisers.

But gathering forest produce is a labour intensive task that is mostly done by women. “Women collect forest produce, women do the farming, men only do the selling,” said Rajim Ketwas, who founded the Dalit Adivasi Manch. “Just like in farming, women do most of the work, while men deal with the money.”

So if the forests are destroyed, so are the women’s lives, said Ramabai. We had reported earlier this year how loss of land and livelihood forces women to migrate for livelihood and exposes them to more violence.

In Sonakhan, around 474 hectares of forest land was allocated for mining, which would have displaced 10,000 people. And Ramabai would have been one of them. “We do not want to leave because the forest ensures our survival,” she said.

Ramabai, a resident of Sonakhan village that was leased for gold mining to Vedanta. After three years of protests, the residents managed to get the licence suspended / Shreya Raman

When Forests Disappear

The scarcity created by disappearing forests also drives competition amongst villagers. In Mahkoni, villagers have distributed the Mahua trees in the neighbouring forests among themselves. “Everyone picks flowers from underneath the trees marked to them,” said Paikra. 

The villagers, mostly women, head out into the forest by 2 am to protect the flowers from cattle and trespassers because they start falling at sunrise. These are collected and sundried.

Forty years ago, Ubadgarh village in Madhya Pradesh’s Barwani district was likely a lush forest. “I remember a time when there were so many Mahua trees in our village that we could jump from one tree to another and go from one part of the village to another,” said Harsingh from neighbouring Sawariyapaani village.

Adivasi women residents of Ubadagarh village in Madhya Pradesh’s Barwani district said that the mountains behind them used to be lush forests. Disappearing forests have created a livelihood crisis, they said / Shreya Raman

The forest stretched all the way to Pati, around 29 km away, old-timers recalled. But then it started disappearing, leaving behind rocky hills with sparse vegetation. “Earlier, we used to get everything we needed from the forest – vegetables, fruits, medicinal herbs, wood, and fodder. Now, we have to buy all of this,” said  

There was a time, Adivasi people across Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh said, when they needed to leave their villages only to buy clothing and salt because the forest and agriculture provided all they required. All that has changed.

The lack of forests has also created a water crisis in the area, said villagers, and women have to travel longer and spend more time collecting water. In Sawariyapaani village, a common handpump is the only source of water for the entire village. And it dries up during the last few weeks of summer, forcing women in the village to walk for an hour to get to the next water source.

Women in Sawariyapaani village have to walk hours in summer months to collect water / Shreya Raman

Ubadgarh’s landscape made only subsistence agriculture possible, increasing reliance on wage labour and migration for livelihood. Soon after the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was passed, villagers in Pati block, where Ubadgarh and Sawariyapaani are, started collectivising and demanding implementation of the Act.

This collectivisation under Jagrut Adivasi Dalit Sangathan led to increased awareness about rights and better implementation of the employment guarantee scheme. In November 2006, villagers of Pati block received the first ever payment of unemployment allowances under it.

Almost two decades since, the Adivasi residents of the villages in the block said that the Act’s ideas have been destroyed and the livelihood crisis has returned. “There are no jobs and even if some jobs come, we get paid months later,” said Jaitreebai. “People in the village have no option but to migrate to Maharashtra, Gujarat or Karnataka. All our Adivasi people have become scattered because of this and our solidarity has been the casualty.”

  • Shreya Raman is an independent journalist based in Mumbai covering gender, health and public policy.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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