‘FIRST SETTLE LAND RIGHTS OF TRIBALS’

A veteran politician, Union Minister of Tribal Affairs and Panchayati Raj Kishore Chandra Deo has been fighting for the rights of adivasis for decades. Strongly critical of the mining policy that is dispossessing tribals of their land, Deo insists on fully implementing the Forests Rights Act (FRA). His stance against POSCO and Vedanta are well-known, and it was after his efforts that miners weren't allowed in Araku – his constituency, which has sent him to Lok Sabha for five terms. He has also been a member of Rajya Sabha once and Union Minister of State for Steel, Mines and Coal in 1979-80.

Deo belongs to a family of adivasi hill chiefs from the Konda Dora Scheduled Tribe community of Andhra Pradesh. Educated in Chennai, he holds an MA in political science and a BA in economics from Madras Christian College. He has also been a part of several parliamentary committees. In an exclusive interview with Hardnews, Deo speaks about FRA, Leftwing extremism and several other issues that haunt India's indigenous people

Akash Bisht Delhi

The Forest Rights Act (FRA) has become a bone of contention across different parts of the country. What has been the progress in its implementation?
The implementing agencies are the state governments. Complaints about certain limitations in FRA have been registered by voluntary organisations that are representatives of tribal people. The National Advisory Council (NAC) and the NC Saxena report too have made some recommendations. I have gone through all these and had detailed discussions with the officials of my ministry. We hope to resolve these issues by October 2011.

Are adivasis victims of 'collateral damage' for 9 per cent growth? How do you bring a balance between development and the rights of adivasis?
I believe we need to have inclusive growth, and the prime minister too has spoken of it. The development process must take a long route to ensure that it involves all sections of society, especially those that have been deprived, oppressed and suppressed for centuries. The development of tribals takes priority in our scheme of things; our government has said that FRA is one of the priorities as one of our flagship schemes for tribals.

Do you think that they are a casualty of 9 per cent growth?
I don't think you should connect the two things. Nine per cent growth is good, but it should not exclude those who are deprived and neglected, in areas where there has been no progress at all for centuries.

How do you plan to end the increasing hostility between adivasis and forest officials?
The Indian Forest Act came into existence in 1927, the Forest Conservation Act in 1980, and in between there was the Wildlife Protection Act of 1971. Thus the concept of 'forest' came into being in 1927, whereas the tribals have been there for hundreds of years. So the larger question is, who is the encroacher – have the tribals encroached upon forest land, or has the forest department encroached into tribal territory? Only history will answer that question. Truth is, forest conservation has been around only for the last three or four decades, so had the tribals been responsible for destroying forests, there would be no forests at all. In fact, forests exist where tribals live, and where tribals and forests exist, that is where you can find wildlife too. There has been a symbiotic relationship of sorts between the tribals and the flora and fauna. So, who is destroying the forests? It's the timber mafia, possibly with the patronage of persons in positions of power. Why do you have to harass the poor tribal and constantly confront them for something you are to be held responsible for? Unfortunately, however, forest officials have developed a mindset that is often hostile towards the tribal population.

A newspaper has reported that forest officials fudge reports to let big business houses enter their respective areas. What is your reaction?
I cannot totally disagree with that report even though I have not read it. I can say from my own experience that there have been such complaints. I have seen it happen in my own area. I represent a constituency that is largely forested and is at the centre of Leftwing extremism – an outcome of the practices of the last few years.

You recently said that there should be a ban on export of raw materials and iron ore. Why did you say that?
That is my personal view. Ores and minerals are our national wealth that does not belong to any individual. The nation needs this wealth for economic development. So unless there has been some value addition, you should not export it. Our economy is still in a nascent stage of development, we are yet to reach the take-off stage. If we export all this wealth, we would have to go around begging for valuable minerals resources when we need it for ourselves. So we must conserve this wealth. We should have a national mineral policy and a mining policy. A ban on export of raw materials and ores can prevent criminal activity of the kind that has been taking place in Bellary, Goa and several other places.

Do you think that the faulty mining policy is pushing more and more adivasis towards Leftwing extremism?
Absolutely. I am saying this from my personal experience in my constituency. Leftwing extremists have set their eyes on Visakhapatnam district, which has become part of my constituency after the delimitation, only because of the proposed bauxite mining in that district for which the tribals are being ousted from their lands, where they have been living for centuries. Their livelihood resources are being taken away, and if we don't do anything about it, then they will have to fall back on Leftwing extremists, who at least lend their ears to their plight.

Moreover, justice today is quite inaccessible even to the middle and upper middle classes. So the extremists have been imparting instant justice in kangaroo courts etc. The issue of justice needs immediate attention.

How will you take this challenge?
We have first look at their problems and see that there is some redressal of their grievances. I think their basic problem today has to do with mineral resources.

Do you think the government is trapped between development and tribal rights?
No. FRA is quite a path-breaking legislation which came after several decades. Another major enactment was the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996. It made prior consent of the gram sabha mandatory for projects like mining, or if you want to utilise the land for any purpose or divert it for non-forest use. However, there have been many instances of contrived gram sabha resolutions. For gram sabha now they have been actually taking the panchayat as a unit. Let me clarify that for the purpose of PESA, the village has to be taken as a unit and not the panchayat. Since there has been a lot of controversy about gram sabha meetings, I propose to get these meetings videographed after discussing the feasibility with officials of my ministry.

But what in your reckoning is the state of adivasis in the country?
The ray of hope for their identity actually came from the FRA, which was enacted during the UPA-I period. Even if you have to rehabilitate or compensate the tribals or the forest dwellers, on what basis will you do it? They don't have any revenue records. They don't have any telephone bills or electricity bills. The absence of these records will be an impediment unless you recognise the existence of these people in the forests and give them pattas to their land. So this must be the first step before any new activity takes place. This is what I told my colleague, Minister for Environment and Forests Jayanthi Natarajan, and she has agreed that her ministry will not give clearance for any activity unless there is a certificate of compliance.

Who is going to ensure compliance?
Compliance has to be ensured by the state governments, but they will also have to make certain officials accountable. But the Union environment minister is total agreement with me that this should be absolutely necessary before the clearance is given.

What is the percentage of pattas that have been given?
This process began in 2008 when rules were framed and it's an ongoing process. The state governments can provide this information. I will be visiting the state capitals myself, and my priority will be Leftwing extremism affected states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. I will ask the state officials to give me the exact figures to continue with the process.

What does the number of tribals below poverty line compare with the national average?
The number of tribals in the country is supposed to be 8.4 crore, and by now it may have gone up to 10 crore, making up 8-10 per cent of India's population. It's a large number and surely the majority of them are below the poverty line.

Many of these societies are de-monetised and don't use currency...
No, they know how to use currency, but they live on forest produce and resources, besides cultivation of coarse grains in the forest areas under their control. The Northeast is slightly different as they enjoy greater constitutional protection. Economically, too, they are better off than their counterparts from other parts of India.

How do you intend to deal with the environment ministry declaring new tiger reserves, which then forces the adivasis out of their lands?
In FRA there is a provision for this particular thing. Areas that are inviolate should be determined by a team of wildlife experts, scientists and local people, who are the best judges to identify such places. But, even for that, you have to first determine their rights as per FRA. You can shift them from national parks and sanctuaries; I and the environment minister have no issues with that. But you can relocate them only on the basis of their established rights.

Another problem in relocation and rehabilitation is that many of the tribals are living in the Fifth Schedule areas that are under the constitutional protection. If you relocate them in another Fifth Scheduled area, I have no problem. But if you have to relocate them outside the Fifth Schedule areas, say, for wildlife conservation or some irrigation project, then you have to guarantee them the same constitutional rights. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2011