World Rainforest Movement

India: Oppose World Bank and Save Forests

At the end of a National Conference on Community Ownership of Forests (April 2-4, 2004), organised by Jharkhand Save the Forest Movement, National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers, and Delhi Forum, held in Chalkhad, a forest village in the Indigenous Peoples majority State of Jharkhand in eastern India, around two hundred indigenous Munda (a central Indian indigenous ethnic group) representatives resolved in unison to “Oppose World Bank: And Save Forests”. Chalkhad is the ancestral village of the legendary Munda rebel leader Birsa Munda who led a struggle against the British colonial government in 1899-1900 popularly known as the Ulugan (great tumult) of Birsa Munda against erosion of khuntkatti (community ownership rights to forests) in Jharkhand. Birsa Munda was arrested and died in Ranchi prison.

When the British foresters came to this tribal area more than 600 Munda villages were already enjoying khuntkatti rights and had the control over management of the forests. The communities had formulated strict rules and regulations about how to manage and use the forests. Livelihoods depended only on that amount of produce including timber regularly harvested from forests that would be replenished every year. The guiding principle appears to have been what we now call sustainability. It was not a mere coincidence, therefore, that the British found vast areas of forest in prime condition.

The basic colonial approach was to declare forests state property and curtail forest people’s rights to areas with commercially valuable species. Clear-felling of vast areas of forest was the method of forest operations, followed by complete closure to grazing and other human activities such as collection of firewood, fodder, medicinal plants, bamboo, etc. A Forest Department was created in 1868 to oversee these operations.

Colonial rule and its accompanying commercialization affected tribal societies in a variety of ways. It strengthened penetration of tribal areas by outsiders from the plains (moneylenders, traders, land grabbers, labour contractors, etc.). It enforced alien concepts of private property. It forced sale of land out of sheer desperation of those in the vicious grip of debt. It ruthlessly exploited indigenous people as cheap indentured labour. It led to alienation that was not just economic or material, but cultural, spiritual and identity-related as well. Ulugan of Birsa Munda was the culmination of a series of revolts in response which forced the British to think back and devise some safeguards and protection for the indigenous people and forest communities resulting in the enactment of the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act in 1908.

Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT) prohibits transfer of land to non-tribals and ensures community ownership and management rights of forest communities over khuntkatti areas. In essence, the private forests under the zamindars (landlords) were reverted back to the Munda community. But, immediately after the independence, by dint of the Bihar Forest Act, 1948 (this area of Jharkhand was within the State of Bihar till September 2000), the khuntkatti land was converted into private protected forests thereby depriving the Mundas of their ownership of and management to the forests. The entire land belonging to 600 villages was vested to the State Forest Department (FD). Although the subsequent Munda resistance forced the State Government to give the community back its land, management still rested with the FD.

The next forty years was a story of loot and plunder of the forests in Jharkhand with active connivance of the FD officials and gradual alienation of the indigenous people from their forests. The primary forest cover was almost destroyed.

In the later part of the twentieth century, since the mid-eighties, when the movement for a separate Jharkhand State gained momentum, the question of social, economic and cultural rights along with political autonomy was also raised by the indigenous people. The forest dependent indigenous community started asserting their rights over the forests. On many occasions the FD officials were not allowed to enter the forests and the villagers themselves initiated measures to save and regenerate forests. This movement was particularly strong in the khunkatti villages of Ranchi and West Singhbhum districts. The initiative also spread to other areas of Hazaribagh and Santhal Parganas inhabited by Santhal, Oraon and Ho tribes with no such khuntkatti rights.

With the new Jharkhand Government not fulfilling the forest communities rights over forests, the movement took the formal shape of Jharkhand Jangal Bachao Andolan (Jharkhand Save the Forest Movement). With its objective of restoring community ownership and management of forests, the movement is spreading like wildfire in the State. Forest communities in non-khuntkatti areas are also demanding implementation of the same khuntkatti model in their areas and are resisting encroachment of the FD. Simultaneously, forest protection committees have been established in villages which meet once a week and implement the ground rules established regarding usage of forest produce by the community including timber for fuelwood.

The deliberations in the three-day National Conference in Chalkad, attended by more than 300 representatives of indigenous forest communities from several Indian States, reflected the threat posed by the forthcoming World Bank forestry project, particularly in the context of the khuntkatti system in Jharkhand. The World Bank project to be implemented in Jharkhand during the next 16 to 18 months, talks of participation of forests communities in conservation of the forests and in the same vein proposes alternative livelihood for these communities to alienate these communities from the forests to save and conserve them. In other words, the World Bank programme, rather than empowering the forest communities with ownership and management rights, aims to deprive them and economically, socially and culturally alienate from the forests.

Therefore, the forest communities in Jharkhand today, have decided to oppose and resist World Bank demanding:

a) restoration of the khuntkatti system;
b) implementing the khuntkatti model in other forest areas of the State; and
c) vesting the management of the forests to the gram sabha (lowest tier of the village self-governance model) in the indigenous Fifth Schedule Areas as per the Central Act of 1996 (extension of panchayati raj in scheduled areas).

By: Souparna Lahiri, Delhi Forum, e-mail: delforum@vsnl.net

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