‘The rights of indigenous people? That’s a non-issue’

Millions of Indians have been displaced. This is how they fight back

© Magnum / Thomas Dworzak


Anyone who fights land grabbing will be dragged onto the street. Millions of indigenous peoples in India have had to leave their patches of land, their means of sustaining themselves. Communities in the Northeast and South of India choose to resist, to fight for their right to land. The question remains: at what cost?

Etti Dhanalakshmi looks at the rain-soaked dirt trail leading to the forest at the edge of her village. For over a decade, the 33-year old woman from Satyanarayanapuram, a hilly village 260 km east of Hyderabad, had followed this trail to reach a small plot of land her family called their own. It is less than an acre, but for Dhanalakshmi, it has been her main source of sustenance. Looking at the patch of vegetables and herbs, she always felt a sense of joy and security.

That sense of safety was broken on July 21st, when a group of policemen arrived and forced her out of the land with a warning to never return. Along with her, seventy other families of her community were also evicted. All are part of an indigenous forest tribe called Koya. Their land, the policemen claimed, had been chosen as a plantation site.

‘This has always been our land, my grandmother and my mother grew food here. How can I just leave?’

Since Dhanalakshmi had no formal proof of ownership, she was considered an encroacher of the land, an invader, a trespasser. ‘The police said I must stop farming and leave’, the woman testifies, still shaken and baffled about what happened. ‘This has always been our land,’ she told them, ‘my grandmother and my mother grew food here. How can I just leave?’ The police held her hands and ankles and dragged her out, out on the street, for everyone to see.

© Reuters / Amit Dave


Less forest coverage due to farming techniques

The eviction of Dhanalakshmi and seventy other families in her community is not an isolated incident. Across India, there has been a raging battle between the indigenous communities and government agencies over the right to crucial sources of their livelihood: jal, zameen and jangal – water, land and forest in Hindi. Current forest law, the Forest Rights Act dating back to 2006, assures indigenous peoples’ access to forests and forest resources.

In reality, access is often denied, for a number of reasons. Indigenous people do not have the right documentation. Or they would do the forest harm, so they are not allowed to enter the woods.

Global experts often emphasize how land use by indigenous peoples plays a role in conserving the environment, not degrading it.

In Satyanarayanampuram, officials were clearing land for an environmental project called Haritha Haram, which can be translated as: green all around. It is a state government-led project that aims to increase forest cover in the region. Kolvakuntla Chadrashekhar Rao, chief minister of the state of Telangana, launched it in July 2015. He promised to increase the region’s forest cover, which is now about a third of the region, by 24 percent. The chief minister aims to do that by planting 2.30 billion trees, preventing land degradation, and putting an end to trespassing and poaching practices.

Many experts believe that the real reason of this shift in forest management has been the sort of agriculture practiced by indigenous communities. Since the Neolithic era, which dates back from 3000 until 1400 B.C., forest tribes across India practice slash and burn-farming, a technique known locally as podu. They slash the trees along the hill slopes for open space and burn them to use the ash as fertilizers. After farming on a piece of land for about three years, they move to a fresh patch, to allow the cultivated land to regenerate.

Slash and burn-farming has allowed communities to reign in poverty, never leaving them without any food. However, since the colonial era, the technique has been criticized by forest officials, who blame indigenous peoples for degrading the forest cover. Interestingly, all the critics – academics and environmentalists included – are non-indigenous people.

‘Podu may be essential for primitive tribal groups, there are huge environmental implications to the farming technique’, claims Bharat Kumar, forest conservator in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh, a region with an equally large population of indigenous peoples. ‘Slash and burn-farming degrades the soil. Soil erosion is one of the major reasons for water pollution. It also leads to silting up of the downstream rivers, which at times lead to floods.’

In contrast, global experts often emphasize how land use by indigenous peoples plays a role in conserving the environment, not degrading it. A special report on Land and Climate Change released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in August 2019 highlights how indigenous and traditional ways of managing land can help reverse land degradation and mitigate climate change in the process.

‘The reason why government agencies continue to ignore such facts, is because they are prejudiced against the indigenous people and their culture’, says Danda Lingaswamy, an indigenous peoples’ rights activist. According to him, the Haritha Haram project is well intended but poorly implemented, violating existing laws. A national act dating back to 1996 states that local village councils must be consulted before implementing any development project in an indigenous territory. For Haritha Haram, none of the Satyanarayanapuram villagers were contacted.

‘To tell you the truth, the rights and honor of the indigenous peoples are a non-issue for the officials’, claims Lingaswamy, who is now leading the community in their fight to reclaim the land and justice. He gives the example of women like Etti Dhanalakshmi, who were assaulted and publicly humiliated back in July. ‘Would this be done to any non-tribal community? No! Because the dignity of the tribal women is never seen as a serious issue. In their mind it does not even exist.’

© Stella Paul


The true victims of the lockdown

Environmental activist Deepa Pawar, 32, has been fighting for indigenous peoples right to dignity and equality since she was 14. She lives in Badlapur, a Mumbai suburb, and is part of the Gadiya Lohar community. The literal translation of the community’s name is the ‘Bullock Cart Blacksmith’, meaning the blacksmith who makes iron tools and other equipment needed for a bullock cart. Up until this day, members of the community often work in construction: not as independent blacksmiths, but as migrating day wage earners. They are part of the informal economy and never have any certainty whether or not they will receive work or wages.

The true victims of the pandemic are the tens of thousands of migrants who have returned to their home region since the lockdown, without any form of compensation.

The Gadiya Lohar are one of the 150 indigenous communities labelled as criminal tribes in the colonial era. Until 1952, a mere five years after independence from Britain, they were tagged as “criminal tribes”. This tag has deprived them of the basic respect and rights of a free citizen. They were seen as pariahs. ‘They are still treated as such’, Pawar says. Displacement and denial of basic rights are a constant reality for her community. ‘We are still treated as “ex-criminals”, as “habitual offenders”. Due to this extreme marginalization my community is always struggling for land, livelihood and social inclusion.’

In March India announced a general lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus. Since then, thousands of nomadic and so-called “decriminalized” indigenous groups like the Gadiya Lohar, have been fighting an uphill battle for basic amenities.

Pawar runs a charity called Anubhuti Trust and has been on the frontline of the struggle, distributing food aid and basic sanitation materials to 2700 families so far. According to her, although the virus has affected the entire country, nomadic communities are suffering more because they are landless. ‘Marginalised, vulnerable people often work in the informal economy, in industries such as the construction or garment industry. Textile mills have been closed down since the beginning of the lockdown.’

According to Pawar, the biggest victims of the lockdown have been the thousands of migrant workers who have since returned to their home region, without any form of compensation. Lockdown or not, the government wants to prevent economic hardship following quarantine at all costs. That is why they have intensified rural development projects. They have decided this under their flagship program MNREGA, which stands for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. With this Act, the government wants to desilt community lakes and build roads and irrigation dams.

Regional governments were keen on this, claiming this is the way to provide jobs to the thousands of returned migrant workers. In the end it did not work out that way. MNREGA jobs are given to those who have a Job Card, a document which proves their citizenship, financial status and local residency. As the indigenous peoples are undocumented, they did not qualify. ‘No documentation, no access to the internet and no social connections results in no income.’

‘In addition, there is little money for the economic and social development of indigenous peoples’, Pawar states, being the first woman from her community to have a postgraduate degree. The federal budget allocations verify Pawar’s claim: in 2020-21 budget, the government has allocated only 100 million rupees for the overall development of 150 million nomadic and decriminalized tribes. In comparison, the overall budgetary allocation for MNREGA programme  — meant to provide work to the country’s poorest —  is 61.5 billion rupees.

Winning a battle against land grabbing

On the day that Etti Dhanalakshmi and her community members were losing their right to land, millions of indigenous peoples in another part of India had a reason to rejoice. The government of Assam, a region in the Northeast of India, had recalled an order to take over their land for industrialization that same month.

Hoping to quicken further industrialization, the Assamese government had called for a controversial ordinance to simplify the land acquirement process on June 29th. According to the order, farmland could now be converted for setting up a small or medium size enterprise. The order sparked criticism as locals saw this as a threat to the land rights of indigenous peoples.

Political activists, human rights defenders and indigenous peoples’ groups accused the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)-led local government of appeasing the prime minister Narendra Modi, who is also part of the BJP. In a recent address to nation, Modi had called for an Atmanirbhar India, meaning: a self-reliant state. The changes in state’s land policy, the activists claim, would please Modi ‘at the cost of existence of local people’. After days of intense protests, the local government called the order off on July 9th.

In Vishakhapatnam, a coastal district of South India, communities won a similar battle in September 2019. They were protesting bauxite mining, an ore mostly used to make aluminum, in their homeland.

The mining had been approved in 2015 by the government in two reserve forests, Jerrila and Chintapalli home to 12,000 Konda Reddy people. The community live in minor forest, using flowers, fruits, grains, seeds, tubers and roots for food and medicines. They worship the forests and repeatedly protested the planned mining.

After failing to get any official response, last June the community warned the authorities that they could launch an armed movement. Hundreds of indigenous men, women and children turned up at a public meeting organised at Jerrila village carrying their arms. ‘Any move to mine bauxite would be met with an armed opposition’, Adapa Vishnumurty, a resident of Jerrila, warned the officials. Finally, on September 26, the government cancelled the mining plan.

‘Any move to mine bauxite would be met with an armed opposition’

For both the Konda Reddy and other indigenous communities living in the area, this was a clear win against possible displacement. It did not feel that way. ‘This situation almost pushed us to take up arms’, Vishnumurty states afterwards with a heavy heart. ‘Had we really done that, the government would have called us yet another militant group.’

‘People will say it’s foolish to protest, as mining could give us jobs and other economic benefits’, Krupa Shanthi, head of the Chintapalli village, adds. ‘But at what cost? Polluted water, destroyed forest, loss of our traditional livelihood. Don’t we have right to fresh air, safe water, food security like everyone else?’

That is a question which 10.4 million indigenous peoples of the country, including the Koyas of Satyanarayanapuram, would probably like to see answered, too.

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