Beyond the Kisan March: Why farmers demanding Community Forest Rights must be heard

The protests in various states, including Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, among others signal to a rising tide of deep grievances that should be addressed immediately.

For an agrarian economy like ours, it is rather a shame that we neglect the farmers in our country, who are forced to the streets in such large-scale protests to undertake gruelling trudge across the State to get their concerns addressed year after year.

On April 3, thousands of protesting farmers marched to the Himachal Pradesh Vidhan Sabha in Shimla led by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) to protest against forced evictions from the lands that they till, the price of milk in the state and the government’s failure to control the menace of wild animals. This followed the agitation that took place last month in Maharashtra. There have been a number of farmer’s protests that have been planned out across the country in the upcoming months.

The Kisan March that brought thousands of protesting farmers who walked for over 170 kms from Nashik to the Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha in Mumbai on March 12 voiced the concerns of several farmers in the region regarding certain issues including the non-implementation of the farm loan waiver announced in 2017, and the non-implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and the Swaminathan Committee’s recommendations on the fixing of Minimum Support Price(MSP) for crops.

The sympathy for these protesting farmers prompted Mumbai residents to turn out in the streets to offer their support in the form of food and medical aid. There was little show of anger or resentment at any disruption caused by the protest march. The march was instead lauded as being exemplary of Gandhian peaceful protest by citizens, activists and politicians alike.

In April 2017 similar agitation had taken place when hundreds of farmers from Thanjavur and Tiruchirappalli districts in Tamil Nadu were protesting at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, against the rampant farmers’ suicides which were taking place due to the drought in Tamil Nadu, demanding a sustainable drought relief package.

Forest Rights ownership

The Forest Rights Act, 2006, sought to accord rights to the forest-dwelling communities in the form of Individual Forest Rights and Community Forest Rights which transfers ownership of land to the tribals who have been tilling for generations under specifications enlisted in the FRA. Individual Forest Rights enables landholders to get the legal right to cultivate and invest their resources on the land to make it more productive, while Community Forest titles enable villagers, including landless people to access, use and sell minor forest produce and use other forest resources.

The implementation of these provisions, however, have been largely lacking, leaving the farmers frustrated by slow pace of approvals or by rejected applications or appeals kept pending. In some places the Community Forest Rights and Individual Forest Rights titles have been given but found faulty. The land continues to be under the State Forest Department.

According to a November 2017 report by the Community Forest Rights- Learning and Advocacy Group Maharashtra, 21 districts have near-zero recognition of Community Forest Rights, while there is over 60% implementation in districts such as Gadchiroli, where the approach has been different owing to traditional movements for land, the law and order situation and due to the efforts of select district collectors.

Of the total forest rights titles issued so far, the majority are of individual forest rights. Only less than 4 per cent titles recognise community forest rights. Though recognition of individual rights is crucial, the community forest titles enable all the villagers, including landless people, to access forest resources.

Forest resource ownership

A reason why FRA was lauded as a landmark legislation at the time of its passing was it recognised the community rights to forest resources for cultivation and investment to make it more productive. Under FRA the rights to collect and sell minor forest produce (MFP) was conferred on the community. This included tendu leaves used in beedis, bamboo and other forest produce of high commercial value.

The provisions of the FRA enabled joint management of forest resources between Gram Sabha and the Forest Department. However, these resources have continued to remain largely in the control of the forest department.

This has been enabled by the conflicting legislation that has been passed subsequent to the FRA which goes against the spirit of FRA. For example, the Maharashtra government issued Village Forest Rules in May 2014 under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, which placed the governance of the forests in the hands of the committees constituted and controlled by the forest department.

The farmers were also protesting for the implementation of the proposals made by the Swaminathan Commission for fixing the minimum support price at one-and-a-half times the cost of production. However, at the discussion with State government officials it was agreed upon that this demand could not be enforced by the State government, only the Central government had the power to do so.

What lies ahead

An 11-member delegation of farm leaders met a six-member government panel with their demands on March 12 with the roughly 40,000 protesting farmers gathered around the Vidhan Sabha building. The state government promised immediate and concrete solutions to two of the demands– introduction of a more comprehensive loan waiver and assurance that river linking and dam construction projects don’t displace farmers in Maharashtra or divert water to Gujarat.

The chief minister also gave a written assurance that a six-member committee of Kisan Sabha members and state government ministers would consider the important demands of the farmers – give land titles under the Forest Rights Act to Adivasi farmers; implement the other recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission; ensure due consent of farmers for projects like the proposed Mumbai-Nagpur Samruddhi Highway among other promises.

While a similar farmers protest had taken place in June 2017, demanding the implementation of the loan waiver promised by the government, an issue that was raised once again, if these protests will amount to concrete action on the part of the State government will be seen.

The Leaflet