Anarcho-environmentalism allegorised

The name Anaarkali in the present context has many meanings - Anaar symbolises the anarchism of the Bhils and kali which means flower bud in Hindi stands for their traditional environmentalism. Anaar in Hindi can also mean the fruit pomegranate which is said to be a panacea for many ills as in the Hindi idiom - "Ek anar sou bimar - One pomegranate for a hundred ill people"! - which describes a situation in which there is only one remedy available for giving to a hundred ill people and so the problem is who to give it to. Thus this name indicates that anarcho-environmentalism is the only cure for the many diseases of modern development! Similarly kali can also imply a budding anarcho-environmentalist movement. Finally according to a legend that is considered to be apocryphal by historians Anarkali was the lover of Prince Salim who was later to become the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this romance of his son and ordered Anarkali to be bricked in alive into a wall in Lahore in Pakistan but she escaped. Allegorically this means that anarcho-environmentalists can succeed in bringing about the escape of humankind from the self-destructive love of modern development that it is enamoured of at the moment and they will do this by simultaneously supporting women's struggles for their rights.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Fight For True Independence in Baiga Chak

Naresh Biswas of Nirman ( who is associated with the Baiga Mahapanchayat in Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh has written an excellent write up on their efforts to establish the habitat rights of the Baiga Adivasis under the Forest Rights Act -
The British had established the Baiga Reserve in the current Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh in 1890 spread over an area of 23000 hectares where the primitive Baiga tribe resided in seven villages to provide them with special protection to continue their "Bevar" or shifting cultivation, hunting and gathering based livelihoods. This came to be known in local parlance as the "Baiga Chak". However, after independence the situation of the Baigas instead of improving, deteriorated for the worse.
1. Dispossession and Resistance
The forest department instead of continuing with the British policy of providing special protection to the Baigas to live in their traditional manner began harassing them by preventing cultivation, hunting and gathering citing the restrictive provisions of the Indian Forest Act 1927 which the British had kept in abeyance in the Baiga Reserve. The forest department staff used to beat up the Baigas, destroy their standing crops, sieze their ploughs and bullocks and arrest them. Since they had no other livelihood option the Baigas would submit to such repression and still continue to cultivate their lands and live in constant fear.
Then, from 6th to 8th August 2000, a combined team of forest department staff and special armed police force raided the villages of Dhaba, Rajnisarai and Jilang and another village adjacent to the Baiga Chak named Gourakanhari and severely beat up the people and destroyed their standing crops. This repressive campaign so terrorised the Baigas that they refused to even speak about it let alone pick up the courage to complain at this blatant violation of their rights.

Nevertheless, a meeting was organised in the village Chara on 22nd September 2000 by the NGO Nirman to discuss this repressive action of the forest department staff in which along with the victims, people from other villages of Baiga Chak also participated. The people decided that the repression level had crossed all limits and the only way in which they could survive was to form an organisation to protest these atrocities. Thus was born the Baiga Mahapanchayat (Grand People's Assembly) as an umbrella organisation of the people of Baiga Chak.
A detailed complaint about the repressive action was submitted to various Government, Non-Government and media fora. After persistent mass agitation, the Baiga Mahapanchayat succeeded in getting the administration to conduct an inquiry into the repressive incident and the guilty forest department staff were transferred out of the Baiga Reserve. This was a big victory and it created a great excitement among the Baigas and considerably increased their courage. Instead of hiding in the forests as they used to do earlier when forest department staff used to come to their villages, they now confronted them en masse and spoke to them as equals.
Regular monthly meetings of the Mahapanchayat began to be held to sustain the organisation process and the enthusiasm and courage it had generated. These meetings stressed the need to assert their right to Bevar guaranteed by the British and also drew up plans to access the various public services that were to be provided by the Government but which were all absent in the area. The vanishing indigenous land races that are used in Bevar cultivation were also sought to be conserved and promoted through the "Beej Virasat Abhiyan" (Seed Heritage Campaign).

Then, in 2006 the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, popularly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was enacted providing for legal title to the land that the Baigas were individually cultivating in the forest area and also community title to the forests for their livelihoods, religious and cultural needs. However, the big problem was that due to lack of literacy and not having any documentary proof of their cultivation, the Baigas could not apply properly for legal title and all their applications were rejected. After this the forest department staff once again began to raid the villages to dispossess the Baigas from their land in the same way as they had been doing earlier till 2000. The people of Gourakanhari village filed a petition in the High Court of Jabalpur and got a stay on their eviction and the Mahapanchayat used this to mobilise the people of Baigachak to organise to resist the forest department.
The Mahapanchayat pointed out to the administration that under Section 3.1.(e) of the FRA it had been clearly stated that - "Rights including community tenures of habitat and habitation for primitive tribal groups and pre-agricultural communities" are to be ensured in addition to the general rights provided to all Scheduled Tribes to cultivate and live in forests. These provisions were specifically detailed in Rule 12 of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Rules 2007, which were further amended in 2012 to specifically mention the habitat rights of the primitive tribal groups and the procedure for their recognition. Thus, the Baigas being notified primitive tribes had special and stronger habitat rights in the forests in which they had lived for generations. Especially since the British had made special provisions for the people residing in the Baiga Chak to be able to live in accordance with their indigenous customs, religion and lifestyle.
However, there was some confusion as to what was meant by habitat rights as some people interpreted them as to mean just the right to reside in the forest in a habitation but not to cultivate land in it and access its resources for livelihoods, cultural and religious purposes. Subsequently, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs of the Government of India has clarified the confusion in this regard through its directive to Chief Secretaries of all States dated 23.04.2015 numbered 23011/16/2015/FRA which states that Community Forest Resources (CFR) will be recognised and managed by the Gram Sabha in accordance with the customary practices and livelihood needs and will include all the resources in the forest area. The working plans of the forest department have to be modified to accommodate the management plans drawn up by the Gram Sabha.
2. Establishment of Habitat Rights
During an informal meeting with the District Collector of Dindori on 26th November 2014, the subject of providing recognition to the habitat rights of the people of Baiga Chak was raised. The Collector said that there is a provision for habitat rights in the FRA, however, there were no guidelines as to how these rights were to be established. Then it was explained to the Collector that the British had established the Baiga Reserve in 1890 over an area of 23000 hectares and the people of seven villages had been given the right to practice Bevar cultivation in this area while those living outside the reserve did not have that right. The British delineated this area on a map and it was notified in the Mandla Gazetteer published in 1912 extending to an area of 36 square miles. Many different anthropological studies of the area also mention the existence of the Baiga Chak with its special rights for the inhabitants and the names of the villages. The villagers too possess documents stating that they are residents of the Baiga Reserve.
These documents state that the seven villages of the Baiga Chak are - Ajgar, Dhaba, Jilang, Silpidi, Dhurkuta, Rajnisarai and Lamotha. However, presently the number of villages are more possibly because more people have come and settled in the reserve over the past century and more since the notification of the area. The present situation is given in Table 1 below.
Table 1: Villages in Baiga Reserve of Dindori District of Madhya Pradesh
Gram Panchayat
Revenue Villages/Gram Sabhas within the Baiga Reserve
Hamlets in the Villages/Gram Sabhas
Jamuntola, Tendutola
Bhoulatola, Chhapra




The tribal residents of the Baiga Chak have preserved the bio-diversity of the area by practising their nature friendly Bevar cultivation and animal husbandry and so under the provisions of the FRA they are entitled to get habitat rights.  Rule 12.1 of the FRA Rules 2012 specifies the following regarding claim settlement of primitive tribal groups -
(d) ensure that the claim from member of a primitive tribal group or pre agricultural community for determination of their rights to habitat, which may either be through their community or traditional community institution, are verified when such communities or their representatives are present; and
(e) prepare a map delineating the area of each claim indicating recognizable landmarks.
(f) delineate the customary boundaries of the community forest resource with other members of the Gram Sabha including elders who are well versed with such boundaries and customary access;
(g) prepare a community forest resource map with recognizable land marks and through substantial evidence as enumerated in sub-rule (2) of rule 13 and thereafter, such community forest resource claim shall be approved by a resolution of the Gram Sabha passed by a simple majority.
The Collector accepted that the process of habitat right settlement could be begun on the basis of the documents provided in accordance with the aforementioned rules. After the documents regarding the special status of the Baiga Chak were submitted, a workshop was organised to discuss the process with the community leaders of the Baiga Chak.
3. Workshop on Habitat Rights
The District Collector organised the workshop on 8th January 2015 to ascertain the status of forest and habitat rights in Dindori. Forest Department Staff of the district from the lowest to the highest, a Government trainer on Forest Rights Act from Bhopal, Baiga leaders, Chairpersons of the Forest Protection Committees, the leaders of the Baiga dancing troupes, Principals of schools and members of the Baiga Mahapanchayat were the participants in this workshop. The forest department staff and the leaders of the forest protection committees spoke against the settlement of habitat rights saying that this would lead to the forests being destroyed by over exploitation. The trainer from Bhopal did not know anything about habitat rights for primitive tribal groups and said that these meant only the provision of rights to habitation and not to the control of Community Forest Resources. The members of the Baiga Mahapanchayat spoke at length about their forest based livelihoods, the diversity of the traditional Bevar cultivation and its produce in terms of food and nutrition, the food and nutrition security that this provides and the spiritual relationship of the Baigas with the forests. They also said that the leaders of the Baigas that had been invited to the workshop were not the traditional leaders but ones who had been forced on their community by various Government departments. The traditional leaders referred to in the FRA as the arbiters of rights in the villages are the Mukaddams and Dewans. As a consequence of this detailed presentation by the Mahapanchayat it was decided that a campaign would be conducted to have discussions in the seven villages of the Baiga Chak with the traditional leaders, Sarpanches and the Chairpersons and Secretaries of the Forest Rights Committees.
4. Mukaddam Awareness Campaign
The opposition of the leaders of the Forest Protection Committees set up by the forest department to the establishment of habitat rights led the Baiga Mahapanchayat to initiate a campaign to raise the awareness of the traditional Baiga leaders, the Mukaddams, regarding the provisions of the FRA regarding the special role they have in settling habitat rights. Each village in the Baiga Chak has its own community organisation which is headed by a leader who is variously known as the Mukaddam, Dewan or Samarth. Small disputes within the community and various other social matters are decided by these leaders in consultation with other elders. They also play an important role in the conduct of various social and religious events. The community meetings that are held to decide on disputes and social events are called "Jati Samaj". The awareness campaign was conducted in each village of the Baiga Chak to make these leaders and the community in general aware of the provisions of the FRA so that they would be able to competently place the demand for habitat rights before the District Collector and other government officers.

5. Forest Food and Indigenous Seed Festival
The Baiga Mahapanchayat in association with the NGO Nirman organised a Forest Food and Indigenous Seed Festival on 9th April 2015 in village Bhoulatola. The District Collector was invited along with other government officers so that they could understand the forest based livelihoods of the Baigas and its basic conservationist ethic. Many different kinds of seeds, fruits, herbs, medicinal plants and grasses were on display. The various agricultural implements, cultural artifacts and musical instruments that are used by the Baigas were also on display. The traditional Baiga leaders and men and women in large numbers had come to the festival. The District Collector stayed for four hours and had detailed discussions with the village leaders and the people. The traditional Baiga leaders submitted a written memorandum demanding the settlement of the habitat rights for the whole 23000 hectare area of Baiga Chak.
Following this the members of the Baiga Mahapanchayat and staff of Nirman remained in constant touch with the Collector providing various documents regarding the process of settlement of habitat rights. Initially it was decided to hold a combined Gram Sabha for the whole of Baiga Chak but after a close perusal of the FRA it was decided that the legal provision is for holding separate Gram Sabhas in each hamlet and so this was decided on.

6. Sample Habitat Mapping and Preparatory Workshop
Subsequently in a meeting with the Collector on 13th August 2015 it was decided that there would be a preparation workshop at the district level on 20th August followed by Gram Sabha meetings in all the seven villages of the Baiga Chak on 22nd August. It was also decided that a sample habitat mapping exercise would be conducted in one village prior to the Gram Sabhas and the procedure established in this sample exercise would be followed later also. This sample habitat mapping exercise was carried out in Dhurkuta village on 18th August. The District Project Officer along with two workers of Nirman and the Baiga leaders and people of the village conducted this exercise. The results of this mapping exercise were presented in the preparatory workshop. The traditional leaders of all the seven villages, forest department staff, revenue department staff and the Sarpanches and staff of Nirman all took part in the workshop. All the procedures to be followed in the Gram Sabhas were finalised and explained to the participants and Deputy Collector rank officers were designated as nodal officers for the conduct of the Gram Sabhas. The Collector decided to tour all the seven Gram Sabhas to oversee the process.
7. Gram Sabhas for Habitat Rights
The Gram Sabhas were held as per schedule on 22nd August 2015 in all the seven villages from 11 am onwards and they went on till 4 pm. The Collector chose to be present in the Gram Sabha at village Dhaba. The habitat mapping was done through participatory rural appraisal (PRA) method. The claim for habitat rights was presented and the Gram Sabha resolution accepting the claim was passed. In all seven villages the people and their traditional leaders held forth at length on the symbiotic relationship between forests and Baigas, the dependence of the latter on the forests for their livelihoods and food, the importance of Bevar cultivation and the spiritual connection of the Baigas with their forests which are home to their Gods and clan symbols. On the basis of this the people claimed their right to the entire forests.

Thus, a process that had started with an informal meeting on 26th November 2014 has culminated in the conduct of Gram Sabhas for securing habitat rights in the Baiga Chak. This was possible because the District Collector of Dindori Ms Chhavi Bhardwaj is a very sensitive officer committed to the proper implementation of the FRA. Our effort has been to facilitate the cooperation between the Baigas and the administration so as to benefit the former. Often, NGOs expend a lot of energy and resources in mobilising the people and conducting habitat mapping and Gram Sabhas but without the active involvement of the administration, ultimately nothing concrete is achieved in terms of securing legal title under the FRA. This is the important contribution of Nirman in this case in securing the cooperation of the administration to actualise the FRA. The Collector says, " If we can establish the habitat rights of the people in the Baiga Chak then in future nobody will be able to displace them for any project whatsoever." This will then be a historic achievement of the people of Baiga Chak and a first in Madhya Pradesh and only the second after Mendha Lekha village in Gadhchiroli district of Maharashtra where too the tribals have established their habitat rights. The Baiga Mahapanchayat and Nirman have together been able to organise the Gram Sabhas for habitat rights but there is still some way to go before the process is brought to its logical end with legal title to the forests with the Baigas and establishing true independence denied to them so far.

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