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Fighting for land rights

A case of Juang and Bhuyan adivasis in Orissa

Land and forest resources are the core of survival for many tribal communities. While fighting for their land rights, Juang and Bhuyan communities in Orissa, are also protecting the forests and the ecology on which their lives and livelihoods depend upon.

A protest rally by Juang tribes
A protest rally by Juang tribes

Keonjhar is one of the poorest districts in Orissa state. It is characterized by dense forests and hills with a difficult terrain. The primary education and health services are almost absent and the villages are not connected by a good road. Juang and Bhuyan are the indigenous communities living in this region. They mainly depend upon agriculture for their livelihoods and the forest for forest based food produce. They have been practicing shifting agriculture from ages, relying primarily on local traditional knowledge. But the introduction of modern agricultural practices has resulted in farmers abandoning local traditional practices, even in these remote areas.

Industrialization and implementation of development projects have had a strong negative impact on these tribal communities, denying their access to land and forest resources. They are losing land for various reasons – the region being rich in huge deposits of minerals likes iron ore, quartz, pyrophillite, limestone, manganese etc., extensive mining activities have made these people landless. The rich and powerful companies take over peoples land by giving fake assurances. Also, it has had a negative impact on the soil, water bodies and the forest, thus affecting the primary sources of livelihood to these communities.

The government has already dedicated entire Joda Block to 48 companies for the mining operation on 30,137,717 hectares of land. Presently, agriculture is not possible in more than 10% of the total land. Similarly, entire Gandhamardan Hill range which covers Banspal, Harichandanpur, Telkoi and Jhumpura Block of the district is under mining at the cost of the thousands of the adivasi families. So the life of the communities who are basically living on shifting cultivation and perennial stream on the hills is affected.

Further, illegal land transfers, commercial plantation activities and extensive deforestation are resulting in landlessness, environmental pollution and community displacement. Farm land is being invested for many non-farm purposes like housing, industry, mining, commercial plantation etc. Besides, the government has allocated agricultural land to the big corporate for steel industry displacing 1600 families in 36 villages.

This has had great impact on various aspects of farm livelihoods. Having become landless, they are also not being able to be employed in industries for want of skills. The gap between rich and poor is increasing due to industrial development in the district. The cost of land is increasing. The huge number of industrial units operating in the district consume lot of surface as well as ground water and this has resulted in water scarcity in the area. The moisture level of the land is also reducing due to reduced green cover on the soil.

Keonjhar Integrated Rural Development and Training Institute (KIRDTI), a grass root level voluntary organization, has been working with the adivasi communities, addressing their livelihood concerns, since 1989. It has been working towards enabling and empowering the poorest of the poor to assert their rights, have better access to and control over natural resources and actively participate in the grass root democratic institutions. By promoting

strong peoples organizations, KIRDTI presently reaches 40,000 people in 260 villages of Harichandanpur, Banspal and Telkoi blocks in Keonjhar district.

Stopping illegal land transfers

Illegal land transfers from the adivasi families to the non-adivasis is very common in the area. KIRDTI started legal education camp in the area with the support of district legal authority under district court and district bar association. Being sensitized on the laws related to tribal land transfer 1956 (2), law related to tribal atrocity, women atrocity, forest, revenue, excise etc, the adivasi people expressed their willingness during follow up visit to take steps to get back their recorded land transferred to the village elites. With the support of KIRDTI and the district legal authority, 36 families filed legal cases, and as a result around 24 acres of land were released.

By using land mapping technique, tribal communities were able to identify and claim their rights on land. Around 11581 farmers applied for land rights. Of them 566 farmers were successful in getting their land records in the name of both wife and husband of the family till date. Similarly, under Forest Land Right 2006/07 Act, 1096 families from the project area and 5054 families from the entire KIRDTI operational area have applied for land records. Around 48 village communities have applied for community ownership.

Similarly, 247 cases have been filed by 122 Juang and other Adivasi families of other project area whose land had been taken away by the local elites illegally. Out of the total, 180 cases have been cleared by the revenue court with verdict in favour of the Juang adivasi families. The Orissa state government was planning to amend the Orissa Schedule Area Tribal Immovable Land Transfer Law 1956, schedule (2) with the recommendation of local district level self government institutions of all scheduled districts inspite of the rampant transfer of the land of the Adivasis. However, it was halted by mobilizing the representative of local self government institutions in Keonjhar as well as in 11 other schedule districts of the state during 2006 with the support of other NGOs in the districts.

Protecting forests, protecting ecology

Sensitization campaign for the forest protection which started since 1996 continues in 120 villages as a result of which the forest is being protected by local communities. The local communities also took the onus of protecting the forests from smugglers. They seized a number of vehicles with logs of wood cut from the forest. They caught the log smugglers in spite of threat from them. For example, the women collective of Sunapenth Panchayat seized logs worth two lakh rupees on 12 April 2008 and handed them over to the local police.

Communities identified varieties of uncultivated food like 16 of roots, 33 of leaves, 46 of fruits, 18 of mushrooms, 5 of flowers and 11 of tubers which are available and harvested from the forest area for consumption purposes. Realizing the importance of the natural forest which contributes to the survival of the tribal population, the communities started protecting the huge diversity embedded in the forests.

Around 2,500 adivasis, both men and women, demonstrated a protest against compensatory commercial plantation species like Eucalyptus, Acacia, teak etc which were neither edible nor environment friendly

Fighting for their rights

Thirty four year old Fulmani Juanga is from primitive Adivasi community called “Juanga” from “Budhighara” village located on the top of Gonasika hill range. She lives with 8 family members including her 3 children. Her husband had no recorded land. Her father- in- law had mortgaged his only double cropped land for 5 kg rice and 60 Rupees to meet his food needs during lean period 20 years back . So her father in law was living along with his children on wage, forest produce as well as shifting cultivation.

Fulmani Juanga along with 8 other fellow farmers filed case in the revenue court at district headquarter with KIRDTI support during 2004. But owing to administrative callousness they could not succeed.

During 2007, Fulmani was elected as the ward member of the local self-government institution representing her village. During 2008, she along with 5 other farmers filed the land cases again in the district revenue court to get back their land.

On 24th January 2009, the court declared Fulmani and five others as the owners of the land they had claimed. The money lenders had to give a declaration not to occupy the same land again. The court also ordered the local revenue office to hand over the land to the victims . The victims felt very happy for the victory. But the local revenue officer delayed the process of releasing the land. So, Fulmani and five other villagers approached the local revenue officer and demanded their land to be demarcated soon.

The local revenue officers called both the parties and asked the landlord to vacate the land immediately. Although the land lords had sown the second crop they vacated the land to the Adivasi families. Fulmani took over the land with the crop and harvested her first crop during May 2009.

“I have got back my land after a long struggle. We are proud of our land and our life” says Fulmani.

Seeing the success, now some more Juang tribes are slowly revealing about their land they have lost to conspiracy and cheating by the money lenders and will be filing their cases, very soon.

People’s campaign against land transfers

The tribal communities in Keonjhar have been opposing the state government’s proposal to amend the Orissa Scheduled Areas Transfer of Immovable Property Regulation, 1956 (OSATIP, 1956). OSATIP, 1956 is a provision to protect the interest of tribal people provided under the the Constitution of India, under Schedule V. This law which failed in checking the transfer of tribal lands to non-tribals was amended in 2002 making it comparatively effective. Now the new proposal of the state government is to amend this amended law which would facilitate the easy selling of tribal land to non-tribals.

There is a widespread protest by the tribals and civil society organisations in the area. A State level meeting of NGO, Civil Societies and Panchayat Raj Institutions was organised in 2006. A plan of action was prepared in this meeting. A campaign called as “Adivasi Oh Dalit Jami Surakhya Abhijan” was initiated. District level Adivasi leaders Action Committees were formed in each district. Meetings were organized – 7 at the district level, 3 at the block level and 130 at village level. During the last Panchayat election, KIRDTI campaigned on this issue in around 256 villages of 35 Gram Panchayats in Harichandanpur and Banspal Blocks of Keonjhar district. Land transfer regulation policy amendment was included in the election manifesto of Panchayat election.

Future plans include strengthening the mass organisation of the adivasi communities at various levels, sensitization of newly elected PRI members, Resolution at the newly elected panchayat bodies opposing this land amendment and submitting a memorandum to the State Governor and the Revenue Commissioner.

 Campaign against mining and commercial plantations

Farmers have also started raising their voice against mining. A campaign against mining survey for lease was started in Budhipada village. Similarly, farmers in Ghugung village of Bareigoda Panchayat and Chutung village of   unapenth Panchayat started resisting against mining survey. Farmers took a resolution and submitted it to the district administration, demanding the mining survey which was being carried out in different areas to stop. When the survey team entered their area, the farmers stopped them from doing the survey. This was followed by police complaints against 80 adivasi leaders and the arrest of three staff members, depicting them as maoist insurgents. The support of people from the surrounding villages forced this survey to stop.

The district forest department had planned to cover 4588 hectares of forest land in the juanga dominated area under commercial plantation during 2007/08. Around 2,500 adivasis, both men and women, demonstrated a protest against compensatory commercial plantation species like Eucalyptus, Acacia, teak etc which were neither edible nor environment friendly. Farmers demanded that the commercial plantation be stopped, and that records for the land they have been cultivating since their ancestral period be issued. These campaigns were run and managed by the adivasi leaders. Owing to the pressure exerted by the communities, the high level district administrative officers decided to stop the plantation. The whole campaign caught the attention of a large number of people as it was highlighted in most of the daily newspapers.

Promoting sustainable agriculture

Besides campaigns and protests, tribal communities were also empowered to make sustainable living on the lands they had access to. Opportunities for knowledge sharing and exchange on traditional farming system was provided at the village panchayat, block and district levels. Farmer to farmer learning exchange and exposure was carried out within and outside project area. Workshops were organised for the farmers, at the block level and the district level, on the importance of organic farming, traditional seed, organic manure usage, and on leadership. The farmers also decided to revive the traditional way of farming to ensure the sustainability of farm practices and food security of the farmers.

With an enhanced conviction and commitment, a few farmers decided to revive the traditional way of farming which their forefathers were following in the past. They first started addressing the issue of soil fertility by increasing the application of organic manure. On the basis of their own experience, and without external support, these farmers also started sharing the benefits of organic farming and the harmful effects of chemical use- with other fellow farmers. Many of these discussions focused on the crucial and important role which the natural forest plays in traditional farming, and on how it helps farming by enabling the soil to hold moisture.

The adivasis have been successful in reviving their traditional agricultural practices. The success stories of local communities are being shared and have spread to neighbouring areas as well. Farmers in the neighbouring areas have shown interest to adopt the process of sustainable agriculture. They have been participating in seed fairs and district level events. The government, on the other hand, does not have any policies for the organic farming. However, the local officials have shown keen interest in this process.

Conclusion

The Juang and Bhuyan communities today are an empowered lot, capable of addressing issues concerning them. They are taking the lead in organizing learning exchange programmes, rallies, seed festivals, meetings, press meets etc. and have been successful in many instances.

However, there are challenges that need to be addressed. It is still difficult to regain the land being lost by the adivasi farmers illegally since the elites are not ready to give back in spite of court verdict. Nexus between the government and the industry in promoting industrialization and mining is a great threat to the livelihoods of these adivasi tribal communities. Similarly, the protection of the local ecology has slowed down because of the threat from the local police. Another threat comes from the insurgents present in this area which restrict farmers from moving freely, meet or organize training activities.

Duskar Barik
KIRDTI, Baldevjew colony, Behind Kashipur School,
Keonjhar – 758001, Orissa.
Ph: 06766 – 255147; 9777401550
E -mail: kirdti09@gmail.com