Forest Rights Act subverted in Sonebhadra district

May 11, 2010

Media Release: New Delhi, 11 March 2010

Independent Citizens’ Fact Finding Visit to Sonbhadhra confirms widespread violence against Adivasi forest-dwellers

An independent fact-finding committee has just returned from Sonebhadra district in UP, where there have been several reports of widespread violence against Adivasi communities demanding their rights under the Forest Rights Act.

On paper, almost half of Sonebhadra district is classified as forest land and is under the control of the Forest Department. In reality, as much as 40 percent of the “forest” does not have a single tree and has been under cultivation for at least a century. While the dominant castes have huge holdings, the majority of Dalits and Adivasis eke out a precarious livelihood on tiny plots of degraded land, and live in perpetual fear of eviction by the Forest Department which considers them as “encroachers”. Some of these communities have been repeatedly displaced by “development” projects such as power plants, coal mines and cement factories which have come up on forest land.

The Kaimur Kshetra Mahila Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Samiti (KKMMKSS) was formed in 2000 and is mobilising Adivasi and Dalit communities to reclaim their traditional rights to live and work on forest lands. Since its inception, the movement has faced strong opposition from the Forest Department, but has gained in strength and momentum after the passage of the Forest Rights Act in 2007. KKMMMSS activists have been in the forefront of protests and local actions to stop illegal mining, tree-felling and loot of forest resources by a criminal nexus of upper-caste landowners, private corporations and forest officials. Reprisals by the forward castes and the Forest Department have also increased – in the last three years, more than 3500 criminal cases have been filed against Adivasis, many of them under the Goonda Act. A campaign of rumours – including that the organisation is a Maoist front and that it is bringing in people from Jharkhand to grab forest lands in UP – has contributed to creating hostility and tension between communities in this area. The district authorities have done nothing to either confirm or deny these rumours, thus adding fuel to an already volatile situation.

The present fact-finding was initiated after human rights activists and mainstream media reported that a small community of settlers in the Magardaha forest were being repeatedly attacked by local villagers, with the knowledge and connivance of Forest Department officials and the police. The members of the fact-finding team were Adv. Sanjay Upadhyay (Supreme Court lawyer and Member, Drafting Committee, Forest Rights Act); Dr. Kalyani Menon-Sen (independent researcher and women’s rights activist); Prof. Surendra Nischal (Head, Department of Sociology, J.V. Jain College, Saharanpur); Sri Nathu Kol Adivasi (Chairman, Karvi Nagarpalika and Member, State-level Monitoring Committee for the Forest Rights Act); Sri Ramchandra Rana (President, Forest Rights Committee, Village Surma, District Khiri and Member, State-level Monitoring Committee for the Forest Rights Act) and Ms. Purnima Ramanujan (human rights activist and member, Delhi Solidarity Group). The team visited the area for three days (5-7 May 2010) and interacted with the victims, the attackers, Forest Department officials, the District Administration, local activists, media persons, members of Forest Rights Committees and concerned citizens.

The fact-finding team has confirmed that the illegal “eviction” of the settlers from the Magardaha forest on 16th March was accompanied by violence and looting. The site, with huts razed to the ground and littered with burnt thatch and wood, shows clear signs of an organised attack. Victims, most of them women, described to the team how they were attacked with lathis, spears and other weapons and were brutally beaten by a mob of about 600 people from the surrounding villages. Women in particular were targeted with sexual abuse and sexual violence. One woman suffered a miscarriage and several women and children showed the team scars from their injuries. Victims were categorical in stating that local forest officials and police were present and participated in the attack.

Attempts by the victims to file FIRs were stonewalled by the local police and medical examinations were not conducted, despite standing instructions from the Chief Minister that violence against Dalits and Adivasis is to be taken seriously and addressed without delay. Victims reported that the attackers taunted them for having approached the Chief Minister after an earlier attack in August 2009 and threatened them with rape – “Kahan hai teri Mayawati? Le ke aa usko – uska bhi wahi haal karenge jo teri karenge”.

Victims told the team that they had friendly relations with neighbouring communities until they began filing their claims under the Forest Rights Act. They are convinced that the hostility has been engineered by the Forest Department officials who have spread the rumour that the settlers were filing claims to land which had been earmarked for distribution to local villagers.

The fact-finding report underlines the fact that the District Administration did not take pro-active steps to prevent the violence, despite being aware of the history of previous attacks against this community and the hostility and aggression they were facing from villages in the surrounding villages. Even two months after the incident, the situation is still very tense and the victims are living in a state of fear and near-destitution, since all their possessions have been looted. No action has been taken to investigate the incident, provide relief to the victims and protect them against future attacks. The team was concerned to find officials implying that the attack was justified since the victims were “encroachers” and they do not therefore deserve any sympathy or redressal. The local forest daroga (named as one of the attackers) repeatedly voiced his anger and contempt for those who speak of the human rights of encroachers.

The team found an almost complete lack of transparency and widespread lacunae in the implementation of the Forest Rights Act in Sonbhadra. While the Forest Department congratulates itself on having settled more than 3600 claims, the land allotted to successful claimants is far lower than their due, with no reasons given for the cut. Unsuccessful claimants have not been able to ascertain the reasons for rejection of their claims. Forest Rights Committees have not been formally constituted in all villages, and records of claims received, approved and forwarded are not easily available. Claimants have not been informed of the various categories of evidence that can be adduced to prove that their ancestors previously occupied the lands they are now claiming – in fact, the team found widespread confusion and misinformation about the provisions of the Forest Rights Act among communities as well as officials.

The team also found serious anomalies and gaps in the land settlement process and land records in the district. Decades-old land disputes are hampering the process of implementation of the Forest Rights Act. A committee set up by the UP Revenue Board in 1982 to examine the issue of disputed forest lands noted that lands belonging to Adivasis had been illegally acquired by the Forest Department and by outsiders, and recommended restitution of these lands to the original occupants. A land survey (The Kaimur Survey Settlement) in 1986 in response to a Supreme Court order, is the benchmark for the District Administration and the Forest Department, but is highly contested because it excluded 433 villages where literally thousands of disputes are still pending. Decisions on eviction and filing of criminal charges for encroachment are being made purely on the basis of rumour and hearsay. For instance, in the case under investigation, the eviction of the settlers is seen as being justified “because everyone says they came there after 2007”. The settlers’ claim of having been on the land in 2004-05 is therefore not considered worth investigating.

The fact-finding committee has urged the District Administration to act immediately to provide relied to the victims, register their complaints, investigate the incident and file charges against those named as leaders and instigators of the attack. The report emphasises the need for the administration to seek support from human rights groups to ensure that the letter and spirit of this landmark legislation are not subverted or diluted.




Dear Friends,

Many of us have been involved in and working on Forest Rights Act, 2006, status of its implementation and its role in empowering and strengthening the tribal community in India. While the act itself allows for the restoration and recognition of rights of the forest tribes and communities, its implementation has been filled with obstacles and problems, the least of them being the Forest Department itself. In this regard, the incident in Sonbhadra, Village Satdwari, PS Kon on March 16th 2010, reported by our friends in NFFPFW and the media came as a serious shock.

As reported, the Forest Department officials, in collusion with local elements attacked a group tribal and dalit settlers who were leading a peaceful march to reclaim the land from which they had bee evicted in August 2009. The attack on the group and on women in particular was vicious and violent and also resulted in miscarriage of a pregnant lady. It has been reported additionally that 4 people were detained arbitrarily and denied medical attention in custody. The evicted families, comprising of landless adivasis, schedule castes, tribes and other non-schedule tribes have been residing in the Madargah forest land since 2004. The local administration is trying to make this a case of conflict between the tribal settlers and residents of village, an attempt that should be countered with all possible means.

It is in this context that a Fact Finding has been organised to visit the area and report on the incident. The terms of reference for the Fact Finding are:

1. To investigate into the attack, including details of the attack and the events leading up to the same.
2. To investigate into whether the local administration has followed the framework and provisions set by the FRA 2006.
3. To investigate reasons for use of violence by administration on people, particularly on women and their treatment under detention.
4. To meet with the affected tribals and dalit settlers as well as residents of Village Satdwari.
5. Meet with local administration representatives – including District Magistrate and Forest Department and assess the handling of the situation by the Local Administration through the use of force and violence as opposed to non-violent means

The Fact Finding team will conduct their investigation by visiting Sonbhadra. The dates for the same are 5th – 7th May 2010. The findings of the Fact Finding will be shared with the public through a Press Conference on May 7th in Robert Ganj, and the final recommendations will also be shared with concerned Government authorities and agencies.

The Fact Finding team comprises of:

1. Arundhati Dhuru – Advisor to the Right to Food Commissioner to the Supreme Court
2. Kalyani Menon-Sen – Senior Researcher and Activist on women issues
3. Prof. Surender Nischal – Reader, JVJ Jain College, Affliated to Meerut University
4. Sanjay Upadhyay – Advocate, Supreme Court and Managing Partner Enviro Legal Defence Firm
5. Sh. Nathu Kol – State Level Monitoring Committee Member, U.P
6. Sh. Ramchander Rana – State Level Monitoring Committee Member, U.P

Purnima Ramanujan (Intercultural Resources, New Delhi) will assist the team in note taking and other secretarial work during the visit.