The Kol community, a Scheduled Tribe in most states, has had little in the name of land rights or even human rights and dignity. But not one to step back, they see some hope in the Forest Rights Act of 2006 even after 10 years of running back and forth in the corridors of power.
The lives and livelihoods of indigenous communities are closely linked to forests. The Kol community in Madhya Pradesh’s Umariya district, too, used to be dependent on the forests around them. But a group of 25 families living in Tenduha village now have no forests to turn to owing to a host of reasons- a reluctant village council, a hostile Forest Department, and a district authority that seems to be turning a blind eye to their predicament.
“We cleared the forests and built our homes ourselves, twice. But they (the Forest Department) burnt our homes and took away our belongings. Where do we go now?”, asks Dukhiya Bai, saying that the community has nothing left to survive on.
Unlike other parts of Madhya Pradesh like Rewa, the Kols in Tenduha are not being deprived of their land rights because of roads and dams and bridges. Community Correspondent Ramlal Baiga, who himself belongs to an Adivasi community, explains the problem:
“Earlier there was one village council, Patrai. But as the population grew, the villages were divided between two or more village councils. The families in Tenduha earlier lived in another part of the area and that is where they carried out most of their farming and forestry. But that part of the village now falls under the Patrai village council whereas their current settlement is under another council. They have been trying to stake claims to the forest land in Patrai because their current council has very little forest land. There are different village councils now but the land area remains the same, so some people have forest land and some don’t.”
The residents of the villages in Patrai along with the village council, who have the support of the Forest Department, are trying to stop the families in Tenduha from settling on any land in the area by getting the department to evict them.
Ramlal adds that the problem is complex, and the authorities only give hollow assurances to the Adivasi families. They don’t own any land and carry out farming in the fields of landowning farmers, from ‘upper’ castes who do not even pay them properly. Most of them are paid in kind, given some share of the produce.
Once the residents learnt of the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, they filed their claims and approached the District Magistrate. But they have been doing so since 2008. Ten years later, after multiple visits to the District Magistrate and even a visit the current MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly), nothing has happened. Ramlal himself has visited the District Magistrate with applications a couple of times along with the community.
Adivasi communities have been the most vulnerable to evictions and displacement, mostly in the name of ‘development’. In many cases, they have had strained relations with the local Forest Department. But the Forest Rights Act has changed a lot for many of them, giving them community land rights and individual land rights. The Kols in Umariya are also holding on to the Act as the last straw, and in the meantime, resisting all efforts by the Forest Department to evict them from their present settlement.
“We will not move from here even if the government opens fire on us,” says Dukhiya Bai, summing up the tenacity of the fight.
To support the community, help Ramlal build pressure on the District Magistrate Mal Singh Bhayadiya by calling him on 7653222600 and apprising him of the decade-long struggle for land rights.
Video by Community Correspondent Ramlal Baiga
Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team