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The tribal's right

By Michelle Chawla

Dahanu’s special environmental status has made little difference to the poverty-stricken Warli tribals, shunted out of the forests and lands they cultivated for generations. The 2006 Tribal Bill, on the other hand, goes a long way in granting them their rightful share of the forests

Read Part 1 of this series here
Read Part 2 of this series here
Read Part 3 of this series here

Read Part 4 of this series here

Shankar of Raytali village, Dahanu, retells the popular Warli folktale about the rat that takes away the grain from the fields. Called ‘The Rat's Right’, he explains that the rat was one of the earliest creatures to provide humans with the seeds to begin agriculture. Thus when they see the tops of their rice crop eaten up, the adivasis do not call the rat a thief, but say that it has taken its rightful share. The rat inevitably finds its role and space in the lives of the Warlis.  

Several other stories of wolves and ants, rabbits and tigers follow, revealing the rich cultural ecology and ethos of the community of Warlis, the tribal people of northwestern Maharashtra and south Gujarat.  

Numbering approximately half a million (Census of 1991), a majority of the Warlis live in Thane district of Maharashtra in tiny hamlets spread across the fringes of the picturesque Sahyadri mountain range. A deep environmental consciousness is reflected in their worldview, in which humans and nature are linked in a relationship that is celebrated in myth and reality. 

The folklore also records the history of oppression, brutality and resistance against the takeover of their forest homelands by the British and the loss of lands to Parsi and Marwari landlords and moneylenders. A tongue-in-cheek story tells how a Parsi landlord eventually usurped everything from the Warlis, even his wife!  

Of a total population of 3,31,829, in Maharashtra’s Dahanu taluka (Socio Economic Abstract, 2006-07, Thane district), 64.84% are tribal, belonging predominantly to the Warli tribe. Dispersed  across 174 villages in Dahanu, the Warlis are today a marginalised community.  

Brutally shunted out of the forests and their homelands during British rule, independence did not alter the harsh realities for these communities. With a majority of the forest lands taken over by the government, the adivasis lost their habitats and culture and took to settled and subsistence agriculture while still being dependent on the forests for food, fuel, medicine and in many cases cultivation.  

Some became daily wage labourers on farms, brick kilns and boats. The changes in the forest management system had a negative impact on their social and cultural lives. Low levels of literacy, malnourishment, poverty and deprivation are the realities of a once proud and brave Warli community.  

Moreover, the post-independence development agenda of modernising and integrating tribals into the mainstream, has been partial and fragmented, impacting the Warli identity and consciousness adversely. The struggle for access to forests, rights over land and minimum wages became the critical conflicts around which the Warlis have been struggling for the last several decades.  

In the current milieu with Dahanu being an environmentally protected region since 1991 and the passing of the Tribal Bill [Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2006], it is critical to analyse whether these laws and notifications have played a role or contributed in changing the conditions of the tribal communities.  

Dahanu's environmental status and its forests  

At a brick kiln in the village of Ganjad in Dahanu, Jaanu Ravte bargains over the price of bricks to build a new home. “There are hardly any large-girthed trees left in the forest for me to build with,” he states when asked why he is not constructing a traditional adivasi home. While this may seem ironic given that the village is in the declared ecologically fragile zone of Dahanu taluka, it is the reality in most parts of the region.  

Envisaging the potential damage to the tribal area due to industrialisation, the ministry of environment and forests declared Dahanu an ecologically fragile region in 1991, specifically stating that the tribal culture needed to be protected. With this, Dahanu's forests -- approximately 45.91% (46,706 hectares) of the total lands -- became protected, with no polluting industries, quarrying or commercial felling permitted in the region. Dahanu has 34,720 hectares declared reserved forests and 11,986 hectares as protected forests.   

However, according to Deputy Conservator of Forests, Dahanu division, Mishra, “Despite these restrictions, there has been illegal commercial logging, forest fires, felling for energy use and shifting cultivation that has caused degradation of the forests.”  While the forest department claims a lack of support from the community, tribal activists state that the forest department has no genuine commitment in protecting the forests.  

“The reality is that the pressures on the Warli community to eke out a livelihood from their eroding forestlands has increased tremendously, with the growing urbanisation and industrialisation all around – Mumbai to the south and the Vapi-Valsad industrial corridor to the north. Meanwhile, systematic and large-scale efforts to save and rejuvenate the forests in partnership with the community have not taken place simultaneously,” states Lahani Tandel, tribal leader and sarpanch of Sogve panchayat.  

While the community has restricted access to the forests for fuel, other minor forest produce, and cultivation, the sense of ownership and thereby participation in conservation is absent in most areas.  

For its part, the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority (DTEPA) appointed by the Supreme Court to oversee Dahanu's development, has played an important role in ensuring that afforestation projects are undertaken and maintained for the benefit of the community. The DTEPA has sanctioned   nine projects where more than 70 hectares of land have been brought under afforestation. Moreover, acting like a watchdog, it has ensured that any illegal stone quarrying activity in the forests is immediately stopped and no new quarries are permitted.  

Nevertheless, these legal mechanisms have had a limited role to play in a reality that is far more complex.  

Tribal bill and justice 

For the communities in Dahanu, the passing of the recent Tribal Bill that recognised their rights was a step at reversing the historical injustice they had faced at the hands of the colonial and modern State.  

Brian Lobo, of the Kashtkari Sanghatana, a grassroots movement that actively campaigned for the Tribal Bill and is involved in its implementation in Dahanu, believes that  “the Bill is a culmination of a struggle that has gone on for 200 years”. “For us,” he continues, “it is one step closer to the democratisation of forests and towards the dismantling of the forest bureaucracy that controlled the jungle and abused the adivasis. We definitely believe that the Bill can change the reality of forest-dwelling communities given that it provides power to the people to control the forest.” 

According to estimates provided by the forest department in Dahanu, there are currently approximately 5,500 individual claims for regularisation of forest plots. Dighe, Deputy Conservator of Forests, Dahanu, who has mixed reactions to the bill and seems reluctant to see its implementation, admits that most claims are for fairly small sizes of land, granted to the communities several decades ago and not regularised till now. More importantly most claims do not exceed a few gunthas of land, contrary to propaganda stating that the bill would amount to a land grab by brokers and the land mafia.  

The regularisation and eventual handing over of these plots to the tribals will indeed be a huge victory for the community and enhance the livelihood of the families.  

However, the most powerful sections of the Act concern community rights to manage, protect and conserve its forests. While the state government and forest bureaucracy continue to ignore these aspects of the bill, the community’s preparedness to take control of this resource also seems lacking. 

For the Tribal Bill to significantly alter the power equations and grant control of the forests to the adivasis, communities must be united and work towards conserving and protecting a resource that is collectively owned.  


While the environmental legislations in Dahanu, may have played some role in allowing the Warlis to retain a measure of their tribal ethos and identity, the Tribal Bill goes a longer way in granting them their rightful share of the forests. However, much more would need to be done to grant the Warlis their rightful place in society. In the meanwhile, the struggle for the Warlis continues.  

(This is the concluding part of Michelle Chawla’s  series on the conflict between environment-protection, development and livelihoods in the protected area of Dahanu. Michelle has a Master’s degree in social work and is founder and trustee of the Tamarind Tree Trust, which is located on a chickoo farm in Dahanu, Maharashtra, and works on developmental and environmental issues in Dahanu. This series was researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2008.) 

Infochange News & Features, July 2009