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Destroyed by 'development'

As resource-rich Orissa hurtles towards ‘development’, huge swathes of forest are being cut to make way for industry, mining and infrastructure. Some 200,000 hectares of forests are believed to have been diverted to non-forestry use since the 1940s, and hundreds of thousands of forest-dwellers have been evicted from these common property resources. Subrat Kumar Sahu reports

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Seventy-five-year-old Raimati has to make quite an effort to walk up the 50-foot slope from her ‘workplace’ to her tiny hut in Benakhamar village on the banks of the Upper Indravati reservoir in Nabarangpur district, Orissa. Her ‘workplace’: a manual stone-crushing unit (illegal, according to the administration) run by women like her in the village. They heat the stone by burning fuelwood underneath it for hours; crush the stone into small pieces using big hammers, and then pound the small pieces into stone chips using medium-sized hammers. Even as this tedious process goes on non-stop every day, they might have to wait months for a contractor to come by and buy the chips, at Rs 750 per tractor-load: a meagre sum for a task that involves a month of hard work by a group of four to five women.

Raimati can barely lift the hammer. But she has no choice. “Despite the hardship, I cannot ensure a square meal for myself every day,” she says absent-mindedly, looking across the vast spread of the Upper Indravati reservoir. She points somewhere in the distance and says: “That is where we used to live, in our village surrounded by dense forests. They drowned our happiness, our beautiful world… And look at me now!”

The ‘environment-friendly’ way to destruction

Punai, a 55-year-old woman, comes up to Raimati and says: “Life was so beautiful in the forest. No one ever went hungry. The fruits alone sustained us for four months of the year. The forest used to provide us plenty. We also ploughed the land. But they threw us out, and drowned everything.”

Nearly 50,000 forest-dependent people were forcibly evicted from their homes in the 1980s and 1990s to make way for the multipurpose Upper Indravati Hydroelectric Project that submerged 11,000 hectares of prime forest, which was also one of the most diverse wildlife habitats in Asia. The displaced forest communities had no option but to retreat to the banks of the reservoir. The road that came with the project, tearing into the heartland, ensured that the remaining forest around the reservoir was wiped out by the timber mafia, in connivance with forest officials, in less than a decade. And so the 50,000 displaced forest-dwellers lost whatever livelihood base they were left with.

The misery of the people of Indravati is a small example of how ‘development’ has destroyed traditional communities that depend on natural resources not only for their survival but also to keep their rich socio-cultural ethos alive: a way of life that is aligned with the natural evolution of the planet, its resources, and its life forms.

Dr Walter Fernandes, director of the North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati, and former director of the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi, estimates that between 1947 and 2000 over 60 million people in India were forced to move from their natural homes. Of this, 3 million people were displaced in Orissa alone, most of them forest-dwellers. 

A colonial legacy

The sovereign Indian state was born in 1947. But the newborn did not cry at birth; it came smiling, wrapped in colonial covers. Drunk with the often-debated ideals of his ‘nation-building’ programme, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, did not mind ‘sacrificing’ the country’s natural resources (especially forests) and its indigenous people to make way for industries and big dams – for what he called ‘national interests’. As though the rural and forest folk did not matter in the rush for ‘development’, the National Forest Policy of 1952 -- among other policies -- clearly turned them into sacrificial lambs. For example, it read:
Village communities in the neighbourhood of a forest will naturally make greater use of its products for the satisfaction of their domestic and agricultural needs. Such use, however, should in no event be permitted at the cost of national interests. The accident of a village being situated close to a forest does not prejudice the right of the country as a whole to receive the benefits of a national assetRestrictions should be imposed in the interests not only of the existing generation, but also of posterity.”

So, for the self-ruled Indian state, a “village being situated close to a forest” was just an ‘accident’! Even though the 1952 policy sought to keep one-third of India’s total land area under forest cover, large tracts of primary forests were decimated to build infrastructure, big dams, and industries, and millions were evicted from their natural homes.

The Hirakud dam in Orissa -- an impeccable symbol of development for the insensitive middle class -- submerged around 75,000 hectares of dense forests, grazing lands, and farmland, rendering homeless around 180,000 people who were dependent on local ecosystems for their survival. The Rourkela steel plant -- another pride of the Oriya middle class -- decimated 11,200 hectares of primary forest, evicting 15,000 indigenous people. And it does not end here: in order to feed the steel plant electricity and water, the Mandira dam was constructed, submerging 4,500 hectares of virgin forest and displacing an unaccounted number of forest-dwellers. Then the rail network linking the steel plant with Hatia, Barsuan, Bondamunda and other places evicted 20,000 more people.

Raimati crushes stones for a living. She used to live in a village surrounded by dense forests

Apart from big dams, in recent decades it has been the mining and metal sector in Orissa that has caused the most distress to forest-dwellers. Of the 5,813,700 hectares of ‘categorised’ forest area in the state, mineral reserves have been identified on some 3,500,000 hectares; that’s more than 60% of the total forest area. According to a press statement by Orissa’s Steel and Mines Minister Raghunath Mohanty in June 2009, “preliminary exploration for mining had already been done on 3,100,000 hectares of forest land”. That, coupled with the rate at which the Orissa government has been signing MoUs -- more than 80 by now -- with metal, mining, and related industries speaks volumes about the dark destiny that awaits forest-dependent people in the state.

Indeed, the situation is so chaotic that nobody even knows what happened to around 32,000 adivasi families (more than 200,000 people) in the Joda and Badbil areas of Keonjhar district, where mining (mostly iron ore) has been taking place for the past 40-odd years. They disappeared without a trace! In Damanjodi, in Koraput district, where NALCO (National Aluminium Company) has been mining bauxite in the Panchpatmali mountains since the 1980s, over 70% of indigenous forest-dwellers who once were completely self-reliant today eke out an existence below the poverty line. While the price paid for such large-scale mining is already etched on the wrinkled foreheads of the adivasis of Koraput, the Damanjodi project is being glorified by the state as an indisputable symbol of progress and development for the local populace; a benchmark for private mining and metal companies to follow.

Michael Ross has already warned of the ‘resource curse’ that rampant mining unleashes, in his insightful report, ‘Extractive Sectors and the Poor’ (Oxfam 2001). Studies by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) too show that all the poverty indices in Planning Commission statistics are invariably worst in mining-affected districts. The fact that mining breeds poverty rather than diminishes it is glaringly on display at Damanjodi.

The onslaught on forest communities that started with the commercialisation of forests during the British Raj has now become a multi-pronged attack, with scores of ambitious development projects -- mining, dams, metal factories, rail networks, tourism, sanctuaries -- in the pipeline, and many more in the offing. These so-called ‘development’ projects seek to wipe out large tracts of primary forest forever and destroy forest-dependent communities.

In Orissa, the extent of forest area diverted for non-forestry use since the 1940s would be close on 200,000 hectares, most of this inhabited for generations by forest-dependent tribal populations. Between 1980 and 2007 alone, according to government records, the area of forests diverted for non-forest activity was close on 35,000 hectares. And this does not include vast tracts of forest promised in MoUs but not yet transferred by the state to industry.

Response of forest-dependent communities

Soon after Independence, especially around the time when the Hirakud dam was coming up, communities displaced by such projects did not know how to ‘effectively’ respond to their predicament. But resist they did. However, an unprecedented degree of state repression, ironically now empowered with ‘democracy’ and assisted by the feudal class that primarily represented the new political class in independent India, succeeded in suppressing the spontaneous but unorganised resistance by forest-dependent communities.

By the late-1970s and early-1980s, the winds of ‘environmentalism’ had already started blowing in Orissa. By this time too, most communities had witnessed the devastation caused by ‘development’ projects. The 1980s saw the beginning of a new phase of resistance to such projects. The ‘Save Gandhamardan’ movement around the Gandhamardan mountains in western Orissa is a classic example in which communities, social formations and individuals cutting across social structures joined in to successfully force the state government to scrap a huge plan to mine bauxite by BALCO (Bharat Aluminium Company). Gandhamardan has been a source of livelihood not only for thousands of adivasis but also for scores of farmers, traditional health practitioners, and other social groups.

Another successful people’s resistance was the Baliapal movement in coastal Orissa where people fought a long, hard, democratic battle with the state to stop a huge military base from being set up there.

Unfortunately, after the economic reforms of 1991 in which India took the path of rapid and indiscriminate industrialisation, Orissa turned into a sort of ‘laboratory’ for the neo-liberal agenda, putting huge pressure on the state’s forests, water resources, and energy supply. Metal factories, power plants, dams and mining units sprouted like mushrooms all across the state, especially in forest areas.

Taking on the assault

Of late, communities everywhere are resisting being sacrificed at the altar of development. In many cases, people have been able to halt the progress of industry, putting the brakes on the disruption to their lives and livelihoods: Kalinganagar, Kashipur, Jagatsingpur, Niyamgiri are just a few…

But despite the widespread resistance, a number of communities have already been devastated. A prime example is the Sambalpur-Jharsuguda stretch in which Lapanga falls. Lapanga boasts the oldest ‘recorded’ instance of community forest management in Orissa, since 1936.

An elder (who pleaded anonymity) of the widely publicised and respected Lapanga Prajarakshit (community-protected) Jungle Committee says: “What tremendous collective efforts and care went into protecting the village forests here, for decades. But today this place has become unfit for human beings to live. Not only have we lost large areas of forests to factories all around, the environment is totally destroyed… Even the social environment now stinks! Living here is going to be even tougher in future.”

Another member, a middle-aged man who also pleaded anonymity, says: “Our elders had sown the seeds of prosperity for us by keeping the forests, and my generation reaped the harvest. But what is our next generation going to do? What will they survive on? We still have about 300 hectares of forests. But suddenly, after these companies came here, trees in our forests are being felled every day and transported out. We do fight, but they come with the company goons. We do not know how to tackle the problem. Our elders had protected this forest for over 100 years by contributing foodgrain set aside from family rations and also by putting in voluntary labour. Earlier, 80% of the village forest and farmlands were lost to the Hirakud dam; now the remaining 20% of forest is in the greedy sights of the companies. We do not even know where they came from.”

The present situation might point to a kind of travesty of history: Lapanga has always been a prime example of the glorious tradition and history of Orissa’s community forest management (CFM), which started around 1900 as sporadic, localised resistance in various places, in response to the British takeover of people’s forests, and had turned into a mass movement by the 1970s. The enormous efforts of communities throughout the state to regenerate and protect their forests since then is reflected in the fact that today there are about 17,000 village forest protection committees (FPCs) covering around 19,000 villages, protecting about 2 million hectares of forests in Orissa. This means, over one-third of the total forest area in the state is now under community control and care even though ‘legally’ it is state property.

Walking with the man in the forest, I could feel his helplessness. The forest is dotted with hundreds of stumps of freshly felled sal trees. Our conversation is repeatedly interrupted by the sound of heavy trucks plying right through the forest. He says: “This was the go-danda (path meant for cattle to return home). But now it is a sort of highway for heavy vehicles belonging to the Hindalco coal mine located just a few kilometres from here. They cut so many trees to build this road.” He adds: “Due to the factories all around, especially of the Bhushan Steel Company, and the coal-carrying vehicles, this place has turned into an industrial dumpyard. We are inflicted with strange diseases now.”

I saw industrial waste, especially ash, dumped randomly all over the place, even on the main road -- a state highway. I learnt that in order to carry away one truckload of ash from the factory, a truck owner gets Rs 11,000. However, it is not specified where he is supposed to dump the ash and so he takes the easiest way out! On a prominent signboard showing you the way to the Hindalco coal mine, you cannot miss the tagline: ‘We care for the environment’!

I follow the ‘environment-friendly’ directions given by Hindalco and end up near Beheramunda village, about 10 km from Lapanga. Manbodh Biswal, a local activist who was arrested for questioning the state about allowing the company to set up on forest land, and is now out on bail, wonders: “There was a dense forest standing here. How did the company manage to get the land? Moreover, they have acquired the village commons and have paid some paltry compensation. It’s like hacking your head off and then saying that the rest of your body is okay for you to live a lifetime!”

A little while later, he laughs and tells me that what I had mistaken for a hill in front of us was actually a dumping site for soil extracted through mining! Ugrasen Mahanand adds: “Because of the dumpyards, our farmlands remain waterlogged due to which we have not been able to cultivate our lands since the past six years.”

The Sambalpur-Jharsuguda stretch is testimony to the dark side of Orissa’s ambitious industrial development drive in the past 10 years. Apart from destroying forests rich in resources, industrial pollution and waste have reduced farm output as well. An un-plucked cauliflower looks like a palm-full of cowdung meticulously placed on the ground! And the biggest paradox is that many of the industrial units have been certified as CDM (clean development mechanism) projects even as the rest are awaiting certification!

The middle-aged man in Lapanga says: “When we keep the forests and, in effect, keep the environment clean we never get such certificates! Why?”

Deepening paradoxes

Amidst the intense conflict of interests, in post-reforms India, between natural-resource-dependent communities on one side and the state and corporations on the other, in December 2006 the Indian Parliament passed a ‘historic bill’ relating to India’s forests -- the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill 2006, generally referred to as FRA 2006. At the outset, it seemed that the ignominy of the British legacy mindlessly carried forward so far to exploit forests and forest-dependent people was finally coming to an end. With a strong CFM network in place, one would think communities in Orissa would be upbeat about FRA 2006. But on the ground, the Act has only compounded the crisis.

As I moved from one village to another, the usual story was that people on the ground are utterly confused about the concept, scope, process, and the very objectives of the Act. On the other hand, the state is doling out pattas against ‘individual’ claims as a ‘favour’; there is virtually no information made available to communities about the provision of ‘community rights’ enshrined in the Act. It is also evident in many places that the forest department is spreading misinformation about the scope of the Act and misguiding forest communities -- especially discouraging them from claiming ‘community rights’ over the commons, and promoting JFM bodies whilst grossly undermining the gram sabha, which, according to the Act, is supposed to be the most empowering body.

Besides the forest department’s regular tricks to undermine the Act and retain its lordship over people’s forests, what turns this historical Act into yet another paper tiger is the state’s aggressive industrial policy -- passed off as ‘development’ -- in which it has already committed to decimating vast areas of forest. It is an irony that Orissa’s huge expanse of primary forests has become the most favoured destination for global and national mining giants, and yet it is not clear what the government, both at the Centre and in the state, stands for. Do they want to implement FRA 2006 both in letter and spirit? Or displace and decimate them by pursuing a dangerously aggressive mining policy that even the West has abandoned? At one level, the Indian state is trumpeting the fact that it is rectifying a ‘historical injustice’ perpetrated over centuries on forest communities. At another, it sends in police and paramilitary forces to repress these same communities for demanding their rights over natural habitats, community resources, and livelihood avenues.

To top it all, the Union government has recently discovered a mouth-watering ‘treasury’ in the forests, as hinted in the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) document entitled India: State of Forests Report 2009. It states: “Putting a conservative value of USD 5 per tonne of carbon dioxide locked in our forests, this huge sink of carbon is worth Rs 6,000 billion (USD 120 billion)…” So now the millions are turning into billions, as international carbon traders knock on India’s doors. That is why the investment amount too has gone up -- to attract ‘competing’ traders. Besides a whopping budgetary allocation of Rs 8,300 crore (USD 1.85 billion) of public money, the MoEF hopes to mobilise a mindboggling Rs 44,000 crore (USD 9.5 billion) for its ambitious and controversial Green India mission.

In this inane and ambiguous arrangement, one thing is clear: the investors are now going to be the new absentee landlords of India’s forests, but without upsetting the forest department’s ‘official’ zamindari (landlordism). In order for the investors to stake a claim, expenditure needs to be visible. That is why standing natural forests (even farmlands) have to be razed and replaced with commercial ‘plantations’, as is already happening in many districts of Orissa like Kendujhar and Debgarh. So, with a simple stroke, virtual ownership of a forest will change hands from the community to the company. ‘Unlocking’ this new-found ‘treasury’ will mean ‘locking up’ the provisions of FRA 2006!

Then perhaps forests will be renamed after companies. Niyamgiri may be called ‘Vedantagiri’ five years down the line; and Khandadhar mountain, ‘Posco peak’! Just as nobody today knows that there once existed quiet, idyllic, self-reliant forest villages called Kalimati and Sakchi; they lie buried under the incessant roar of engines on the sprawling urbanscape we know as Tatanagar in Jharkhand…

(Subrat Kumar Sahu is an independent filmmaker and journalist based in New Delhi. He was an Infochange Media Fellow for 2009)

State appropriation of forest commons in India

Forests in India, however described or legally defined -- whether scrub jungle, dense evergreen or even desert lands -- have always seen human interaction, use and management. They are considered ‘traditional commons’ and have often been governed by local communities, either tribal or ‘forest-dwelling’ people. The idea of ‘rights’, particularly collective, is intrinsic to the notion of commons, and for communities dependent on these resources, rights over the resource and its governance have been critical. Forests in South Asia are still thriving socio-ecological systems where dependent communities derive not just economic returns, but their entire existence and identities are determined by the health of the resource, their rights over it, and access to the same.

In pre-colonial times, vast tracts of forests were under different regimes of ownership, administration and management. In 1878, the British colonial administration passed the Indian Forest Act, through which most lands were classified as ‘reserve forests’ or ‘protected forests’ and people’s access to these areas and resources was restricted.

The Indian Forest Act (IFA), 1927, a revised version still in operation in independent India, marked a significant starting point for the state’s appropriation of the commons which were declared ‘forests’ and brought under the administration of the forest department with the objective of maximising extractive use. The lands that came under these definitions of forests included hilly lands, scrub forests, grasslands, even coastal lands and desert regions of mountain areas. Therefore, many of these forests that did not even physically exist, and revenue lands that were supporting livelihoods, were sealed off as forests. In the bargain, several communities dependent on these lands were alienated from these areas as were their unrecorded rights over these resources.

The governance of the commons and the direction of policy reforms in the present context must incorporate a historical understanding of forest management in India. This history is responsible for very significant changes in how the commons are viewed today, the definitions of various common resources such as ‘forests’ and ‘grasslands’, and the present-day relationship between people and the state over the governance of these areas.

The most significant social phenomenon since Independence has been the growth of various people’s movements aimed at securing rights over the commons and their different trajectories, which has resulted in the state’s present conception of people’s rights to forest commons.

Policies over forest commons management: Steps towards reform?

The meaning of forests

The Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980, presumably a conservation legislation, put in place a system for the diversion of forests for non-forest purposes, with the state forest departments and the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) deciding the fate of these forest lands.

Recent analyses of this legislation show that it has actually led to greater alienation of forest lands through its evolving clearance procedures. The MoEF declared several forest communities as encroachers, in litigations around the FCA argued in the Supreme Court (SC). Newer complexities arose in the famous ruling by the SC in T N Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India (Writ Petition 202 of 1995 -- popularly known as the Godavarman case). The Supreme Court’s interpretation, and the subsequent application by its Central Empowered Committee in this landmark case, of the FCA being applicable to ‘all areas that are forests in the dictionary meaning of the term irrespective of the nature of ownership and classification thereof’, led to further cases of encroachment and alienation of communities from forests.

Participation versus ownership

Several people’s struggles have marked post-Independence forest management regimes. In 1988, the government initiated a small change in its forest policy. The National Forest Policy was introduced in 1988 which recognised environment conservation and meeting rural people’s needs as important objectives of forest management. In addition, it envisaged the creation of a massive people’s movement with the involvement of women for achieving these objectives.

On June 1, 1990, the MoEF sent a circular to the forest secretaries of all states and union territories asking them to involve people in the management of forests, in a programme titled Joint Forest Management (JFM). This was to be implemented under an arrangement between the village community (notably now defined as ‘beneficiaries’), the forest department and voluntary agencies. The village community was to organise itself into village forest committees (VFC) for the regeneration and protection of forests. In return, they were entitled to a percentage of ‘usufructs’ like grass, ‘lops and tops’ and minor forest produce from areas reserved for JFM. Voluntary agencies or NGOs were envisaged as catalysts in the process; they would interface between the forest department and local village communities. JFM was largely project-driven in various parts of the country and in most places its simplistic approach to the complexities of the commons has resulted in its failure.

Righting wrongs: The Forest Rights Act, 2006

On December 29, 2006, the Indian Parliament promulgated a legislation to recognise and vest forest rights, to recognise the occupation of forest land by forest-dwelling adivasisand other traditional forest-dwellers, “who have been residing in forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded”. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA), 2006 not only recognises individual land rights, which in principle must be jointly registered in the names of the spouses in case of married persons, it also recognises community rights to use, manage, and protect forest resources. Further, this Act stipulates the conditions for relocation and rehabilitation in “critical wildlife habitations”with the requirement of “free informed consent” from the displaced and the offer of alternative land. The Act, moreover, holds precedence over all other forest and wildlife-related laws. The passage of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2006 is considered by campaign groups as a watershed event in the hard-fought and prolonged struggle by adivasisand other forest-dwellers of the country. This legislation is significant as an admission by the state that rights have been appropriated and denied to forest-dwelling people for long, and that a legislative process is required to right ‘historic injustices’ and give forest communities the primacy in forest management.

However, the FRA has been accused of ushering in an inordinate emphasis on individual rights of use and occupation of forest land. It is alleged that, except in cases where people’s movements have been spreading information and aiding in the application and approval process, beneficiaries are unaware of the full provisions of the Act, especially those pertaining to the community. In addition, there are certain administrative barriers against its implementation. Complaints range from unrealistic deadlines for completion of the recognition of rights; the continuation of forest land diversion without the approval of those affected, which is against the provisions of the Act; and initiatives for the notification of critical wildlife habitats in a manner contrary to the Act. The FRA represents a shift in control over land, and therefore a shift in power equations. This is naturally resisted by vested interest groups that fuel the disregard for the implementation of this law as reported from certain areas.

(Reprinted from Common Voices 1, published by Foundation for Ecological Security)

Infochange News & Features, March 2011