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#MannKiBaat: An Open Letter to PM Modi

First published here: http://coalscam.org/blog/?p=205

Dear Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

I write to you as a citizen of this country, a consumer of its resources and a benefactor of its largesse. As a citizen, I have what your Environment Minister called a ‘vested interest’ in my own survival- from the quality of air in my city to the quality of water piped into my home, the health of forests that serve as watersheds to  the well-being of Indian farmers who provide for me in times of increasing  distress.

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You could call me a 5-star activist for wanting to talk about things such as the right to a clean environment, freedom of expression, the right to work and the right to Free Prior Informed Consent in the same breath.

I have to admit it took me a while, as a citizen and as a witness confronted with mountains of corruption and subversion of the law, to accept that I had inalienable, defensible human rights, even if there weren’t enough laws to grant them legitimacy.

I strongly believe that my countrymen and women deserve the same dignity and liberties accorded to citizens of any other nation. From my travels across the country and inquiry into social conflicts at the intersection of business and human rights over the last five years, I would argue that the need to guarantee rights is even more acute. For rights assume even more importance where they have been systemically denied, where the risks of fighting for them are far greater, and amongst communities who have seen little to nothing of the economic or social development undertaken in their name.  

We are at a cusp of our nation’s history- economically, politically and socially. While a large portion of us now walk the liberal road of wider economic choices, far greater millions are yet to see evidence of basic development, and are being pushed into wider chasms of inequity.

Almost a year into your term, you stand as a living, elected embodiment of the hopes of millions that change is necessary and so is development. My question to you is, what form will this change take? Who will it take with it? And why do you see rights as inimical to- and not a part of- this process?

Your campaign rode on a clarion call against corruption and crony capitalism. You have said your government has tried to counter this through transparent bidding procedures for natural resources such as mines and coal. However, how truly fair or transparent or accountable are these systems to the millions who stand to be affected?

Transparency is being able to communicate these complex norms to all those who will be affected by them. Fairness is ensuring that all stakeholders are involved in the process, duly informed, given notice of decisions and compensated.  Accountability is involving all stakeholders in decision-making processes through conducting assessments and cost-benefit analyses and arriving at a way forward together. It arises from being able to honestly communicate back to companies these deliberations and what is at stake.

However, by removing safeguards on social impact assessment and acquiring the consent of affected communities’ for a series of different projects, you say that businesses don’t have the time to meaningfully consult with stakeholders, ignoring your obligations to protect citizens from human rights abuses. Especially after the arbitrary allocation of our natural resources that you have sought to confront in your role as a custodian, doesn’t it become even more important to have community and civil society checks and balances for those seeking to acquire these resources? Instead, we have been repeatedly portrayed as obstructionists in the path of our own interests, and told that these are not exercises worth investing in.

Science tells us that it takes millennia of matter under pressure to produce the minerals we seek to extract to propel our growth story. Yet, it has also taken us millennia to arrive at a point where our rights and guarantees are recognized by law, where some have the privilege and means to express ourselves and possibly be heard. The language of our laws, let alone an assumed alphabet of SIAs (Social Impact Assessments) and PPPs (Public-Private Partnerships), has still not trickled down to millions who are yet to have teachers in their schools regularly enough or trainings in their own languages to ensure they know how to exercise their rights.

Your Mann Ki Baats, chai pe charchas and online transparency initiatives are great signs that our government is open to engagement. Then why do away with public hearings, gram sabhas and social impact assessments? Why fear people exercising their right to stand up and be counted, consulted and compensated? Why further silence those whose struggles for accountability are scarcely heard? What could be more in the nation’s interest than to protect the law and the resources of the land? Why thenharass its advocates, and limit avenues for remedy?

You of all people know the power of consent, and the reverse of it, when demonstrated electorally. You called out against people using the Land Acquisition bill for their own gains, and this is what communities have been wary of for centuries. Rights are not supposed to come with so many exemptions to the government of the day. The Land Acquisition Act and the Forest Rights Act were born after years of struggle, upheaval and bloodshed that still continue to play out in the country’s margins. India’s environmental laws emerged from the fallout of Bhopal, which we have still not been able to look in the face, assume accountability for and clean up. It’s time for us to acknowledge that the lack of trust goes back centuries, even before the 1894 Land Acquisition Act. While development is an imperative of the day, a one-way Mann ki baat cannot suffice, especially if it means closing other channels of communication and critique.

To not acknowledge or to erode these hard fought gains in the interest of faster investments would take us centuries behind in opening the channels of dialogue- between citizens, civil society, corporates and government. And that is not something we have the time for, as a country that both prides itself as a democracy and an economic power that wants to conduct business on a truly international stage.

To conclude, at the risk of sounding trite, permit me to paraphrase Tagore and project aloud. Of an India where dignity, consent and respect are non-negotiable. Where development is development for all and stems from dialogue. Where there is room and respect for dissent as a sign of how secure and mature we are as a democracy. And where the doors of justice remain open for anyone who seeks remedy.

Into that paradigm of people-centric development, dear Prime Minister, let our country awake.

Sincerely,

Aruna Chandrasekhar

#MothersDay: Motherhood, Conflict and Growing Up Too Soon in Bastar

For children in the grey zone that is Bastar- where violence, arbitrary detentions and human rights violations are routine in the continuing conflict between the State and the Maoists- growing up too soon is not a choice. On Mother’s Day, I go back to a chance meeting with three extraordinary children who’ve seen this conflict play out up close, through the life of their mother, Soni Sori.

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“You know, this is the first time in almost 3 years that they are all together,” says Soni Sori, gathering her three children around her. “They had to be sent to hostel while I was in jail.” In a house in Dantewada’s Geedum tehsil, I’m introduced to Muskaan, Soni’s eldest daughter, studying hard for her 10th standard exams as her brother Deependra, who’s in the 7th standard, packs his bags for his maths and physics tuitions. While both are now doing well in school, Soni tells me both circumstance and separation have affected the children’s education in the years they’ve been apart. Ashu, the youngest, clings to her mother, refusing to let go.

It’s a rare privilege for me to meet them here- in Bastar, in their home and as a family. Soni- an adivasi schoolteacher who spoke up against human rights violations by both security forces and Maoists- was arrested in October 2011 on false charges of being a courier for the Maoists, besides other cases. Despite undergoing horrific torture while under police custody and being repeatedly acquitted in numerous cases against her, Soni was only released on bail in January 2014. Finally re-united with her children, Soni chose to return to Chhattisgarh, in spite of the odds, stood for elections from Bastar and continues to work for the causes she strongly believes in, with a special focus on women and adivasi undertrials in Chhattisgarh’s prisons.

Soni shows me around her home. “This was the house that my husband lived in. My daughter wants to live here; she does not want to relinquish the memory of her father,” says Soni. Muskaan’s father, Anil Futane, was also arrested on false charges of carrying out a naxal attack on the house of Avdhesh Gautam, a Congress leader in Dantewada. Futane spent nearly three years in prison before he was acquitted of all charges in May 2013. At the time of his release, Futane was paralysed from the waist down, as a result of alleged torture he faced while in jail. “It was Muskaan who received him and returned home to take care of him,” says Soni. Anil passed away a few months after he was released in August 2013, while Soni was still in jail. Soni was denied even temporary release on bail bail to carry out his last rites.

“Muskaan was the one who was taking care of her father when he was sick and was with him till he died. She was the only one who could visit me frequently when I was in prison,” says Soni, as Muskaan takes a breather from her studies to play dress-up. “She would come to talk to me, bring me biscuits. I would cry wondering how she could afford it.” Meanwhile, Ashu grins for the camera while her brother Deepu tries to take our picture. “This little thing- she would fight with the prison guards, telling them that ‘I want to see my mother fully, properly, not through these bars. I want to hold her.’”

The family has now re-adjusted to its new settings, with the support of those who’d rallied around Soni’s cause. “When I was released, there was nothing here. No one thought that I would come back. This house was in complete disarray, I had to build everything from scratch, which I have managed to do thanks to others who have helped me. Other women under trials have no such luck.” Soni is determined to help other women in similar predicaments return to society and find their footing.

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Soni and Ashu in their new kitchen.

She takes me to her kitchen. “This was a bathroom earlier. It feels good to be able to cook for your children in your own home, especially considering what jail food was like.” It was thanks to Soni’s intervention and hunger strike that women under trials, who were being fed food with worms in it, now have access to clean and better food in the Raipur jail. “This is one of the achievements that I’m most proud of. A woman prisoner came to me recently, with namkeen they had made in jail. I was so happy to eat it.”

I ask Soni how she feels about coming back to Chhattisgarh. “Coming back to Bastar was very important for me. Not only to show that I’ve been released, but to take part in elections, to legitimately participate in the government that once considered me a threat.” Even though she lost by a wide margin, Soni doesn’t consider it a deep setback. “I got an opportunity to interact with my own people, even those who still consider me a Maoist. It was a chance to clear the air and tell people my true story. That people voted for me is a testament of this trust.”

Even so, Soni’s children are getting used to her political life that requires her to be away for long periods of time. “Even now they are ready for anything to happen to me. Such is the political reality of Bastar that my children live with.”

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As Deependra runs out the door for class, I ask him what he’d like to be as a grown-up. “An IAS officer!” What about Ashu, I ask Soni. “This one doesn’t like studying- but she’s a firebrand- she’ll either become a human rights activist or a politician.” I turn to Muskaan, who looks like she’s already made up her mind. “I want to be a lawyer,” she tells me. I ask her why. “So I can fight for and release people like my mother who can be arrested while fighting for the right causes.”

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Soni shows me a shawl hand-embroidered by women undertrials. She plans to help more women who have been released from prison with rebuilding their lives and livelihoods.

Frontlines of Revolutionary Struggle

Arundhati Roy (byline)Despite gaping holes in the case against Afzal Guru, all India’s institutions played a part in putting a Kashmiri ‘terrorist’ to death

Arundhati Roy, The Guardian, Sunday 10 February 2013

Police bring Afzal Guru to court in Delhi in 2002
Indian police bring Afzal Guru to court in Delhi in 2002. Photograph: Aman Sharma/AP

Spring announced itself in Delhi on Saturday. The sun was out, and the law took its course. Just before breakfast, the government of India secretly hanged Afzal Guru, prime accused in the attack on parliament in December 2001, and interred his body in Delhi’s Tihar jail where he had been in solitary confinement for 12 years. Guru’s wife and son were not informed. “The authorities intimated the family through speed post and registered post,” the home secretary told the press, “the director general of the Jammu and Kashmir [J&K] police has been told to check whether they got it or not”. No big deal…

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City of Pieces

Picture by Javed: http://moonchasing.wordpress.com
Picture by Javed: http://moonchasing.wordpress.com

(This story first appeared here on 11 February 2013 in DNA’s Bangalore edition)

What have I learned in two weeks of trying to remotely coordinate relief work at EWS Ejipura? It’s hard to distill anything close to an overarching homogenous feeling.

There is grief, that is for certain. Every single home has been squashed into the ground and none of our scurrying around, tweeting or pleading could stop it. 115 families are now living on the footpaths surrounding EWS, while 30 families are now homeless in Sarjjapur, miles away from their homes, their jobs, their schools and their lives.

There is anger at the brutal efficiency that wrecked over 1500 families in less than a week who had been ignored for 9 long years in makeshift tin sheds. There is betrayal that we should have expected, as promises of temporary shelter and reprieve were broken by every high-ranking stamp worth its weight in the Vidhana Soudha. And add to that the colossal guilt that this was done to build another sanctum for our top-dollar, a parking lot that will magically metamorphosize into a mall, just like its predecessor on Magrath Road. Go to EWS now and there is nothing to show for the thousands who lived and dreamed and fought the odds here, but flattened land and a high fence pronouncing the dawn of the brave new age of the Public Private Partnership. Except that the public who are legally entitled to be here have now, either been kicked to the kerb or forced into tempos with their meager belongings and 5000-2000 rupees in hand to mythical rehabilitation sites across the city.

Doubt underlies everything. Single mothers, senior citizens and pregnant women wait for godot with their biometric cards and any scraps of paper generated over the years that qualify them for shelter or relief. Many of them have none. They have endured the cold, the  shock, the harassment, the complete disruption of their lives, the loss of livelihoods and dignity as they are forced to look to us for relief, with no access to water or toilets or compensation.

There is immense respect for those who were on the ground way before the first tin sheet fell, lying in the path of bulldozers, braving assault and feeding thousands from their own pockets. There is shame that even the more sensitive among us had blind spots right in front of our eyes, as if we have the privilege to pick which battles to fight, only to ignore our immediate environment.

Finally, there is gratitude. I’ve easily received over a thousand calls this week, offering food, water, clothes, blankets, manpower, medicine and media support. Over 200 volunteers between their teens and 40s spontaneously offered help when we’ve needed them the most, braving intimidation by the police, hauling food and water on foot when barricades were put up, bunking work to put in 12 hour shifts of food distribution, rushing to the scene when things got ugly, helping those displaced find jobs, enrolling children into schools and hostels, treating the sick, surveying needs and staying with us to teach newer recruits. The city of Banglaore could perhaps teach those responsible for this disaster a lesson in humane rehabilitation, but that would mean letting them off the hook.

These last two weeks have only reaffirmed what we’ve felt in struggles across the country: the importance of the larger community to be an active witness in the face of suppression. The demolitions took place not in the Saranda forests, but right around the corner from Koramangala. Not one national news channel descended in the week-long demolitions, and so the need to document things that we are neither trained to see nor shown ourselves becomes key. If it were not for citizen blogs, social media and a few good papers, the exodus of over 5000 people from the heart of Bangalore would’ve been a blip on the news radar.

Despite the wreckage and weariness, I have learned to trust in the kindness of strangers and in the strength of ordinary individuals, whatever their affiliations. I have learned that you do not need to be a disaster relief specialist or a full-time activist to know how to care. I have learned to put cynicism aside and weigh cautiously on the side of hope. My city has shown me how.

Ejipura Timeline: 1991 to 19th January 2013

The Ejipura timeline (building on this Citizen Matter timeline)1991: Completion of EWS quarters which was started in 1987

November 10, 2003:
Block 13 collapses. 21 of the 42 flats could have been repaired, but the BBMP decides to demolish all the buildings.

October 2004:
BBMP floats tenders for the reconstruction of the EWS quarters.

February 2006:
Infrastructure Development Corporation (Karnataka) IDeCK recommends Akruti Nirman as the preferred PPP partner.

May 2006:
The BBMP claims that there are some discrepancies in Akruti’s bid and it identifies Maverick, the second highest bidder, as the PPP partner

October 2006: The BMP council passes a resolution proposing to award the contract to Maverick.

November 2006: Akruti files a writ petition in the Karnataka High Court challenging the council’s proposal to award the contract and obtains a stay against construction.
The stay remains till 29th May 2008.

July 2007: An 18 month old baby, Mahalakshmi and Perumal a 40 year old man are killed and 3 others are injured when another block collapses

August 10, 2007: Siddique dies of contact with live wire in a demolished building.

November 9, 2007: Block 34 collapses killing 11 year old Xavier and 15 year old Gabriel and injuring 5 others. In almost all the cases, family members still haven’t received compensation.

May 29, 2008: Governor through the Principal Secretary UDD sends a notice to the BBMP to show cause for passing October 2006 resolution.

June 9, 2008: As there is no response for the BBMP, the resolution is cancelled.

September 26, 2008: The state government issues a government order awarding the contract for construction to Maverick

November 6, 2008:
Akruti Nirman, Now called Akruti City Ltd gets a stay on construction from the HC.

February 3, 2009:
MLC files Lokayukta complaint against Maverick Holdings.

March 12, 2010:
Both parties make their concluding arguments to HC and are awaiting the Judgement.

September 22, 2010:
The Karnataka high court directed the BBMP to immediately start construction for rehabilitation of 1640 families, as well as commercial buildings, while dismissing the petition filed by Akruti Nirman Ltd. and disposing the petition filed by families, ordering the BBMP to ensure displaced families were put in occupation of the flats at the earliest. Justice Reddy acknowledges wrong decision on the part of BBMP, but public interest taken into consideration, Maverick should begin work.

Jan 2, 2012: BBMP enters into a concessionaire agreement with Maverick Holdings, signed between Uday Garudachar of Maverick  and BBMP Engineer in Chief BT Ramesh, for the construction of 1640 houses. The commercial space will be leased out to Maverick Holdings for 30 years, for which BBMP will receive Rs. 2.3 crore per quarter.

Jan 14, 2012: Shantinagar MLA NA Harris asks residents to vacate their sheds and move out for the construction to start.

“We were all happy that after waiting for so long that we would finally get a house when Harris arrived on the scene. He said that all of us had to vacate our sheds and move out for the construction to start” says Johnson, a resident of Ejipura for the last 9 years . But move where? “That, Harris said was left to us. He said that we could move to the brand new apartments once the construction was over” Citizen Matters, March 2012

March 2012: Residents being pressurised by BBMP to vacate in a week, water supply to the toilet complex stopped. Residents also told they have to pay-out at least Rs. 20 thousand as security deposit and Rs. 2500 as rental for next 24 months for new homes.

July 10 2012: “The high court on Tuesday came down heavily on the Bruhat BangaloreMahanagara Palike (BBMP) over quarters built for economic weaker sections in Ejipura. After hearing a petition, the court wondered how these buildings had been constructed in the first place. The division bench said it would not hesitate to order a CBI enquiry and make every officer accountable.” “The court also held that the Division Bench in W.P. No.11912/2008 on the matter of reconstructed housing did not permit the BBMP to enter into any contract with third parties for the reconstruction of flats and that the entering into such a contract between the BBMP and the third party prima facie appeared to be in contempt of the order of the Division Bench dated 12/02/2009.”

August 2012: Members of Samta Sanik Dal (SSD), Dalit and Minorities Land Protection Forum (DMLPF) ask chief minister Jagadish Shettar to stop eviction of people living at the economically weaker section (EWS) quarters in Ejipura.

August 2 2012: Karnataka High Court gives BBMP, Maverick and the original allottees one week to sort out matters.

August 24th 2012: Karnataka HC disposes petition by appellants, i.e. original allottees as satified in view of the Agreement Exhibit C (can’t be found online) entered into and recorded in Writ Petition No. 45915/2011. In case of the latter, the HC issues the order for beginning construction, says that all occupants are to be evicted after 8th October, 2012 and they should have the police protection to do so. But it also says that BBMP has made arrangements for R&R of the 1512 original allottees minus those who’ve taken 30,000 at 5 acres of land at Iglur, Hosur Road, and is to hand it over within 15 days to Maverick Holdings to construct temporary accommodation.

http://bangalore.citizenmatters.in/articles/view/4444-ejjipuras-ews-flats-quagmire-settled
http://newindianexpress.com/states/karnataka/article595690.ece

October 9-10 2012: Residents stage a dharna that lasts several days opposing their eviction. Given the option of rehabilitation at Iglur, Anekal or Rs. 30,000 in compensation and told that ‘their ID card was only a proof of residence, not a means to acquire land’ by BBMP officials.

October 18, 2012: BBMP applies for police protection in the High Court to see through evictions, as they stated that residents weren’t amenable to being evacuated.

December 13, 2012. Residents allege threats by goonda elements, political agents.

Jan 10, 2013: Evictions and demolitions begin once again.

Jan 18, 2013: Demolitions intensify, hundreds of residents thrown out of their homes, toilet complex is destroyed. http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-karnataka/chaos-in-ews-colony-as-bbmp-starts-demolition/article4321799.ece

Jan 19, 2013: Kaveri, Gee and 21 women arrested along with their 4 children while peacefully protesting at the water tank. Water tank is later demolished that day. Children and two women later released, Kaveri, Gee and 19 others spend the night in jail.

Now playing on the nostalgia reel

Recording from Niyam Dongar last year, at a festival celebrating the annual resistance against illegal occupation of the abode of Niyamraja and the Dongria Kondh by Vedanta. For 3 days , the women in this video were an inspiration and our friends- they taught us their songs, showed us their streams, fed us till we burst, laughed at our sleeping bags, and danced the night away, as the stars glistened in a happy sky, the wind whistling across the mountain top.

What the Wall Street Journal Can’t See in India’s Forests

(published in Kafila on Feb 17, 2012)
 
‘If we cut the entire forest down, where will we live?’- Muria adivasi, Warangal, Andhra Pradesh 

I don’t even know how to begin addressing a story as blindly biased in its premise as this one in the Wall Street Journal, which draws an obtuse line between loss of forest cover and land usage by adivasis, when it is land grab by industrialization that is endangering all we have left.

So I’m going to do this paragraph by paragraph.

India’s forest cover decreased by 367 square kilometers between 2007 and 2009, and it was primarily tribal and hilly regions that were to blame.

The tribal and hilly regions are the last vestiges of India’s forests.  How can you blame entire regions, without casting any aspersions on institutions or practices responsible?

The report showed some areas of progress. Among the 15 states that increased their forest cover in the period are Orissa and Rajasthan. In Punjab, the nation’s grain bowl, enhanced plantation activities and an increase in agro-forestry practices contributed to the highest gain in forest cover with 100 square kilometers.

Between the years of 2008 to 2011, Orissa’s Forest Department granted clearance for diversion of 3239.81 hectares of forest land to mining companies (source: Forest Department Records). Between 1980 and 2011, 46,256.29 hectares of forest were diverted for non-forest purposes, while 60% of all claims for recognition of people’s forest rights were rejected. For the POSCO project alone, 800,000 trees and 1300 hectares of forest will give way to what is hailed by the business papers as India’s largest Foreign Direct Investment. 74% of the total area to be occupied by the steel plant is forest land and 60,000 trees have already been cut as of last year.

As for the plantation activities in the state of Punjab, which has only 6 percent of its area under forest, five times less than the pristine national goal of 33%, around 1.5 lakh trees were axed for a six-lane national highway. According to environmental policy, compensatory afforestation must be done for twice the number of trees, and yet the state’s forest department hasn’t even planted one-fourth of that number, when it should have finished by 2009. 

The blame, in this case, has been placed on Compensatory Afforestation Planning and Management Authority (CAMPA) and the mismanagement of funds under it.

CAMPA is mechanism to collect and disburse funds from project authorities whenever there is diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes. It is based on the fundamentally flawed assumption that money can compensate biodiversity, and the funds, once procured, can be adequately made to work hard for the environment, despite overwhelming proof indicating otherwise. As this story in the Deccan Chronicle indicates, between 1997-98 and 2006-07, a total of 8,915 hectares of forest land was diverted for 96 projects in Madhya Pradesh. From this, Rs 38 crores was made available by user agencies, of which only Rs 2.61 crores ended up being used for afforestation. In India, 11,000 crores available under CAMPA lies stagnant, as projects and clearances issued multiply.

The reason why there’s possibly so little afforestation carried out, as certain not-so-bashful state governments admit, is this: there’s no more land left. Most of it has been sold or promised in the thousands of Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) signed between government and private entities each year- to set up mines, industries, thermal power plants, Special Economic Zones that skip through the loops, ports and big dams, all valiantly opposed by indigenous communities who fear the destruction of their environment.

None of these projects find any mention in the story as even possible causes of deforestation. No space, similarly, has been given to the lapses in the land acquisition and environment clearance processes, which have been sped up exponentially since the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the early 90’s.

While it can’t get any clearer that the reporter has written this from the comfort of her desk, what makes it worse is that no attempt has been made to understand the traditional practices and knowledge systems of India’s forest-dwelling communities. Instead, there has been selective use of  quotes from governmental sources (anyone notice that none of the environmentalists or tribal welfare activists are named?) and pictures that portray tribals as responsible for large-scale deforestation, when they are anything but.

Most adivasis have a spiritual connect with the land they belong to, and look upon the forest as their mother- the source of life and livelihood. Each tribe has extensive religious and social norms that prohibit the exploitation of natural resources and the idea of separation and compensation are repugnant to their existence. Deforestation in India first began on a large scale with the arrival of the British and their need for timber, culminating in the repressive Indian Forests Act that had little to do with conservation, but was responsible for making adivasis encroachers on their own land, subject to evictions and brutal exploitation to this day.

The irony is that while those who have been conservationists long before the word was invented are perceived as intruders, Forest Department officials strike deals with private enterprise and allow illegal mining and felling to go on on a rampant scale inside India’s “protected forests”.

 Instead, Mr. Kumar said, new regulations that protect forest-dwellers’ rights may have encouraged more tribal populations to occupy forested areas between 2007 and 2009 and contributed to de-forestation.

The Forest Rights Act of 2006, portrayed seen with such suspicion in the story, is a measure to undo the historical injustices committed against adivasis and to recognise them as the rightful owners of the forestland that they have lived on and protected for generations. It is not, as erroneously pointed out, a means to “occupy” forests, but to provide people with a means to oppose illegal acquisition of their forests by government and private interests. Which is perhaps why the government officials in your story don’t sound overtly enthusiastic about its implementation.

Most of the north-eastern Indian states, which have hilly terrain and are inhabited by many tribal groups, showed significant reduction in forest cover. These are areas where shifting cultivation, a practice where plots of fertile land are cultivated and then abandoned, is commonly practiced. The communities clear additional land as they move from one area to the next.

As for podu or shifting cultivation, it is a traditional system of farming well-rooted in the principles of crop rotation; while one plot is cultivated over seasons, another is allowed to regenerate. The sheer bio-diversity and yield of indigenous crops grown in this sensitive system of farming is spectacular, and compared to plantation and extensive cultivation practised in Punjab and Haryana, agriculture in tribal areas thrives alongside the forests that nourish it.

But most importantly, it is ridiculous to bring up the impact of shifting cultivation in the north-east, when 7.8 million trees will be cut as part of the forest clearance process for a single dam, the 1,500MW Tipaimukh hydroelectric project in Manipur, with the diversion of a total of 24,329 hectares of forest land.

The Dibang Valley Project in Arunachal Pradesh will submerge what their own EIA describes as “some of the last large contiguous tracts of tropical, subtropical and temperate forests in the country.” It is also home to the Idu Mishmi tribe, numbering only 9500, who are at threat from 17 different large hydel projects on the river. The Prime Minister gave sanctity to the project before the environment clearance was even given. Interestingly, in the North-East, the implementation of the Forest Rights Act hasn’t even started.

The state that really jumps out in the report is the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, which lost a whopping 281 square kilometers of forest cover, contributing 76.5% of the net decline in forest cover nationally.

Ah, my beloved home state, where 256,000 hectares of forest have been encroached upon as of March, 2011 (source: MoEF). How green are its 300 industrial parks, its 113 shiny SEZs and thermal power plants happily munching away at its coastline. What a benevolent government that dubs wetland ecosystems as waste lands, while it acts as a front agency for mining companies with bauxite on their minds.

But no, did we hear you say that “Maoist militants that are active across several Indian states – are responsible for the felling of trees and heavy deforestation?” Is it militants, then, who are coercing the government of Andhra Pradesh to submerge 4000 hectares of virgin, deciduous forest at a single go for the Polavaram dam, Mr. Chatterjee? And yet, here we have the Director General of the Forest Survey of India, blissfully unaware of one of the biggest diversions of forest in the state’s history (and the largest evictor of people in India’s history for a single project), as he tells us “even the drastic reduction in the Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh is not permanent.” In 2009, the government of Andhra Pradesh told the Ministry of Environment and Forests that there were no land rights to be settled in the project affected areas, whereas in Khammam alone, 4,000 claims are pending at the sub-division level and 205 villages will be submerged if the project goes through.

While the increase in eucalyptus plantations is, in part, responsible for deforestation in Andhra Pradesh, it’s important to understand who’s doing the planting and why, for which we have to rewind to the Kyoto Protocol, where the idea of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) was conceived. CDM, put simply, allows countries like mine to trade credits for offsetting the polluting activities of free markets like yours by pretty afforestation drives. Except that as soon as you broadly dub an ecosystem a carbon sink, you make it seem replaceable. In India’s case (which has cornered up to 33% of the total CDM projects worldwide), when native forests give way to mines and dams, compensatory afforestation is done with exotic cash-crops such as eucalyptus, which can either be sold as carbon credits and/or at an extremely high profit that is seldom shared with the forest communities that do the hard work.

This de/afforestation, contrary to what the article conveys, is carried out by a) a nexus of the funding agencies such as the World Bank in collaboration with private entities, and b) the forest department itself. Worst of all? In Andhra Pradesh, the eucalyptus plantations are being raised with CAMPA funds after clear- felling 4,900 hectares of existing forest area. No wonder the Eastern Ghats are seen as such a lucrative venue for CDM-based agro-forestry initiatives; with the extent of permissions being given to exploit its mineral wealth and natural resources, there is plenty of lost forest cover and juked statistics to make up for.

And so, understand this before you colour victims as perpetrators, and perpetrators as the saviours of India’s forests:
it is not indigenous communities that are razing India’s canopy to the ground. It is because the Indian government refuses to recognise/continues to violate customary rights and every progressive law in the book to favour an economic policy that puts profit over people and their environment.