Centre’s farm laws, non-execution of Forest Rights Act insidiously linked, say Maharashtra’s Adivasi farmers at Azad Maidan

It is the 72nd Republic Day and almost 15,000 farmers from all over Maharashtra have gathered at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan to show solidarity with the farmers protesting against the Centre’s farm laws on Delhi’s borders.

However, small and marginal Adivasi farmers, who were part of the Mumbai’s protests, are here to draw attention to one of the major issues they are facing – lack of implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA).

A significant number of protesters at the Azad Maidan sit-in are Adivasi farmers from districts like Nandurbar, Palghar, and Nashik – many of whom had marched 180 kilometres to Mumbai in 2018 to demand the complete implementation of FRA.

Since the Kisan Long March in 2018, adivasi farmers are still grappling with problems due to the lack of ownership papers for the land they have been cultivating even before the forest department existed.

Along with roadblocks caused by this, farmers in the Maharashtra’s tribal belt also faced massive losses of crop due to excessive rains and floods in 2019 and 2020, for which they are yet to receive compensation.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown only exacerbated their poor economic condition, as jobs in the agricultural labour market also dried up. Agricultural labour is usually a means to earn money in times that have not seen a good yield, but with big farmers also reeling from the effects of the lockdown, there was no budget to hire farm labour.

Raise issues of ownership of land and crop losses, demand Maharashtra Adivasi farmers 

Sitting under the shamiana at the Azad Maidan after hoisting of the Tricolour on occasion of the 72nd Republic Day on Monday, farmers wait for their turn to board buses and trains back home. They arrived from all over Maharashtra, united under the banner of the ‘Samyukta Shetkari Kamgar Morcha’, for a three-day sit in on Sunday night.

Ramnath Raman, a farmer from the Bhatode village in the Dindori taluka, received his ‘praman patra’ or acknowledgment certificate for one acre of forest land from the Nashik district collector in December 2019. He then proceeded to sow soyabean, udad daal, and toor daal crops.

Six months later in July 2020, forest department officials descended on his land without a prior notice and uprooted his crop, broke his house, and beat him up.

“We wanted to file a complaint against them, but the police refused to write down our complaint. Even after providing the letter from the DC, the police were cross-questioning us instead, asking why we were cultivating the land,” he said.

The farmers are eager to talk about the issues they are facing, and conflict with the forest department over occupancy, cultivation, and ownership of forest land emerges as a common thread.

Raman’s case is unique in the fact that he has received a legitimate document for his land, but the conflict is a pattern among other residents of the Bhatode village. Several said that they have applied for the ownership of land in 2002, but their applications are still pending.

Rangnath Raman was beaten up by forest officials for cultivating land despite having ownership documents. Firstpost/Natasha Trivedi

Several farmers from villages like Chendi Kapur, Bhatode, Ozarkhed, Gondhari, and Sangamner in the Dindori taluka have also carried certain documents from their local courts with them to the Mumbai protest.

These documents show that they have spent a duration of two weeks in jail in 2002, on the charge of ‘illegal’ occupancy of public land at the time.

Incidentally, it is this document from the court that is crucial proof for their claims of having occupied the land before December 2005. According to the Forest Rights Act, 2005, people who can provide proof of occupancy from before 2005 are to be granted rights over the land.

Farmers brought court documents proving their occupancy of their land to the Azad Maidan protest in Mumbai. Firstpost/Natasha Trivedi

However, despite providing this document to authorities, they have not received ownership or acknowledgement of their occupancy on the land.

“All the decisions about land rights are made by officials who have never visited the villages to verify the applications and claims of ownership. They accept and reject claims on their whims and fancies,” said Appa Vatani from the Nandurbar district.

Apart from periodic clashes with the forest department, farmers say that the lack of ownership papers create obstacles in receiving the insurance under the Centre’s Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana in the event of crop failure.

In many cases, the saat-baara, which is a document indicating the owner of the land, names the government as the primary owner and the farmers as secondary owners.

“We pay the insurance amount for our crops every year but when our crop fails, the insurance money goes back to the government because the land documents say that the government is the owner,” said Tukaram Damu Badade from the Kwaraty village in the Dindori taluka.

Badade grows soyabean, cotton, and peanuts.

Excessive rains in 2019 and 2020 led to his entire crop failing in both the years.

“Farmers in the entire taluka faced major losses because of unseasonal rains, and have been struggling to provide food for their families for almost two years,” he said.

However, government officials are yet to visit Badade’s village to map the extent of loss and start the process of compensating them for it, they said. A majority of Adivasi farmer families use their yield for their own use as they are faced with rising food prices and an inadequate amount of ration from the Public Distribution System (PDS).

“When our crop fails, we are asked to produce a saat-baara document in our name to be able to claim compensation. But how can we do that when the same administration has issued the saat-baara with the government as the owner?” he questions.

Tukaram Damu Badade (centre-left) and Appa Vatani (centre-right) from the Nashik district face issues in availing crop insurance due to lack of ownership papers. Firstpost/Natasha Trivedi

Farmers from the three districts are incredulous at the processes with which the decisions on land ownership are made. “They reject our claims of occupancy despite the fact that we show them unambiguously that we are occupying the land. It’s very frustrating because it’s a matter of our livelihood,” Raman said.

The only means for survival for farmers in such dire circumstances is to engage in agricultural labour. However, with big farmers also struggling with funds, the labour work has almost completely dried up or the wages have dropped further.

Sandeep Laxi Gadag from the Dhapchari village in Palghar district’s Dahanu said that before the pandemic, he was able to earn Rs 450 as a daily wage labourer. However, the rate has now reduced by Rs 100.

Meerabai Uttam Dhamode, a farmer from the Kwaraty village in Dindori, walked 35 kilometres to Nashik to participate in the Azad Maidan protest. She also travelled to Delhi to join the protest at its borders.

She has faced massive crop losses in 2019 and 2020 and has turned to labour as a last resort. However, she said that she earns only Rs 100 as a daily wage labourer.

“We have no concept of an income or expenditure because we live from day to day. If there is money, we buy food properly. If there is no money, we survive on bhakri and salt,” she said.

How will the farm laws affect marginal Adivasi farmers?

Isram Yashwant Lilke from the Nashik district agrees that land ownership is the main issue for farmers in Maharashtra but adds that the provisions of the contentious farm laws and the issue of non-execution of the FRA are insidiously linked.

“Currently, the saat-baara issued by the government lists the government as the main owner of the forest land and the farmer as a secondary owner. If the provisions of the farm laws like contract farming are implemented, the government is at the liberty to deprive the farmer of her land and hand it over to companies,” Lilke explains.

He adds that the APMC system is not as flawed as its critics claim it to be. “True that there are middlemen who manipulate the prices, but in the APMC system, we are at the liberty to choose whether or not to sell in a certain market. If the rates in the Nashik APMC market are not suitable for me, I can choose to go to any other market till I get favourable rates. If the laws are implemented, that will be taken away.”

Isram Yashwant Lilke (L) says that the APMC allows a profit for middlemen as well as the farmers and is necessary even if it's flawed. Firstpost/Natasha Trivedi

Dr Ajit Nawale of the CPM-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), which has been instrumental in rallying the causes of farmers in Maharashtra for the last few years, said that the Maharashtra farmers had conducted the Azad Maidan protest with a few clear demands, one of which is the complete repeal of the Centre’s farm laws.

“If the laws will be implemented, the small and marginal farmers will be left completely vulnerable. They will be left without food security without PDS and regulated prices in the APMC markets. The issues of FRA and the new laws are intertwined,” he said.

Farmers from Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh have been at the helm of the two-month-long protests against the new farm laws. Unlike farmers in these states who have large land holdings, farmers from the tribal belt in Maharashtra own between an acre to five acres of forest land.

In a year of good harvest, they are able to save some yield to sell in the APMC markets, however, successive floods in 2019 and 2020 either completely destroyed many of their crops.

Shankar Appa, a CPM office-bearer from the Mukhed taluka in Nandurbar, stated, “In the present circumstances, we are hopeful that small farmers will receive ownership rights over forest land with sustained protests. But if the new laws are implemented, the possibility of a favourable resolution for us is completely negated.” ​

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