Despite making up only about 8% of India’s population, indigenous forest dwellers – also known as tribals – make up about half of the people displaced by big projects, said the nation’s leading tribal rights activist.

“The tribals are mainly marginal farmers who farm on rain-fed land (lacking irrigation), which is not able to feed them for more than a few months a year,” said Madhuri Krishnaswamy – popularly known as Madhuri Ben (sister) – an activist who has been fighting for the rights of tribals in Barwani, one of India’s most underdeveloped districts.

“Since there are hardly any other livelihood options, there is a continuous exodus of Adivasis (tribals) – often entire families – from villages to cities in search of work, a silent emergency that is invisible to the government,” Madhuri, leader of the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS), told Anadolu Agency, marking International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

The day is commemorated annually on Aug. 9 to raise awareness of the needs of indigenous peoples.

Madhuri said communities are losing their land and forests to mega projects, not just infrastructure projects like dams but also, increasingly, mining and other industrial projects.

She said the government is not doing enough for tribals’ welfare and the schemes announced with much fanfare are only just small electoral sops which are so riddled with corruption that they provide little relief.

The main problem is that there is systematic loss of livelihood and loss of natural resources, which “welfare schemes” cannot compensate for, she said.​​​​​​​

Tribals denied rights to lands

Madhuri said pro-tribal laws are being violated with complete impunity every day. The Forest Rights Act gives tribals rights over the forestland where they live, but this land is snatched from them for development projects, she said.

The Forest Rights Act was passed in 2006 but is hardly being implemented at all. In 2019, it was found that over 2 million claims made all over the country by tribals over the forestland where they live had been rejected, and almost all state governments conceded in the Supreme Court they had been rejected without due process of law.

“State governments agreed to re-examine the claims,” Madhuri said. “But the situation continues to be outrageous. The central state of Madhya Pradesh, for example, has verified only 13% of the 450,899 claims now pending for verification.”

Similarly, laws meant to give tribals some control over the development process in their villages and employment in their own villages under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) exist only on paper, she said, adding that displacement due to industrial and other projects continues unabated.

Health and education facilities denied

Madhuri also said tribals are being increasingly denied education and health facilities.

“Public education is in shambles, and the push to privatization means fewer educational opportunities for their children. The collapse of the public health system, also due to the silent push towards privatization, means escalating indebtedness for tribals,” she said.

Madhuri said the government has been removing them from forestland for the sake of development but under the pretext of “protecting forests.”

“In the name of forest conservation, forest-dwelling communities are facing constant eviction from forests. But the hypocrisy of claims to forest conservation becomes clear when you see that while on the one hand, these communities are denied their small and largely sustainable forest use, on the other hand, huge swathes of forest land are routinely being diverted for mega projects. And this is a rapidly escalating trend,” she said.

She said this April-June, the government invited suggestions from large corporate entities to overhaul the Indian Forest Act 1927 to make it more business friendly.

“At the same time there is a proposal pending to amend the Forest Act to give forest officials sweeping draconian powers against villagers and tribals, including arrests, raids and seizures, hefty fines, cancellation of their forest rights, even firing upon them,” she said.

Madhuri said that despite the right to equality granted by the Constitution, tribals continue to be seen as second-class citizens. But now they are also organizing and campaigning energetically for their rights to dignity and rights as free and equal citizens.

Despite the repression that these movements face, they are continuing, she added.

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