SWARNA RAJAGOPALAN | 23 FEBRUARY, 2019
Traditional rights have been rejected, forest homes lost
On February 20, 2019, the Supreme Court passed orders (https://barandbench.com/forest-rights-act-sc-orders-eviction-scheduled-tribes-forest-dwellers-21-states/) on a case challenging the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which seeks to protect the rights of forest-dwellers and communities that have traditionally depended on the forest. They ordered state governments to proceed with evicting those whose traditional claims have been rejected.
As a consequence, more than one million (https://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/sc-orders-forced-eviction-of-more-than-1-million-tribals-forest-dwellers-119022000855_1.html) tribals could be displaced, mainly in central India.
The specific merits of the case and the decision apart, what does this displacement mean for the human beings involved?
What does it really mean to be an internally displaced person—or a refugee, for those who cross borders in flight?
It means making the difficult decision to leave a home you have built or a village where generations of your family have lived and farmed. You move only when you decide that staying threatens your survival more than moving would. You move to the nearest space that is safe. If you do not cross a border, you are indistinguishable from local people in the host area so no one knows to provide for you. You find a space for yourself, maybe shared with many others, and if you are lucky, you may stay near your fellow villagers and extended family.
You have left behind your primary means of livelihood. In your rush to leave, you may have left behind whatever patta or identity papers you had. You need address proof or guarantors or notarisation in order to apply for replacement papers. Yes, others around you, even those born in this place, live little better, but the few entitlements that are available—ration rice, for instance—are only available to people with local cards. And you do not have that. You do not belong. But you are not an outsider either.
As a woman, you did not get to go to school for long and you studied another language. How are you to navigate this state’s administrative offices and claim the paperwork, the food and medical assistance and other entitlements that are your due? You fled to survive, but now you have to fight to survive each day.
As a woman, maybe stepping out of the house for the first to find employment, you can do domestic or care work. Sometimes you beg; sometimes you trade sexual favours to feed your family. Living on the margins, crowded by strangers, you are visible and vulnerable in so many ways—on the way to a communal toilet; to fetch water; to earn a living; and in your interactions with officials and house-owners.
But disadvantaged as you are as a woman, you are not weak. You and your sisters asked questions, protested and stood your ground until the ground itself shifted. Now, after one… two… three displacements, the fight is going out of you.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimates (http://www.internal-displacement.org/sites/default/files/publications/documents/201809-mid-year-figures.pdf) that in India, in the first half of 2018 alone, 373,000 were displaced because of floods and 166,000 because of conflict or violence.
This is in addition to the 2017 year-end estimate (http://www.internal-displacement.org/countries/india) of 806,000 conflict-displaced and 1,346,000 disaster-displaced persons.
A 2016 IDMC study (http://www.internal-displacement.org/sites/default/files/publications/documents/201607-ap-india-pushed-aside-en.pdf) on displacement in India that is caused by development projects quotes a common estimation that 15 million people around the world are so displaced every year and says India is one of the countries where this happens the most. The one million displaced by this week’s Supreme Court order will join this number.
Once displaced, people are vulnerable to being displaced again and again. For many of those who will be affected by this Supreme Court ruling, it is likely they moved into forest areas after being displaced once. In Central India, this is likely to have happened as a consequence of dam construction in the Narmada Valley.
During a recent study in Chutka (https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/d56377_5261955c38e749dca55ec45f913cc2d0.pdf), villagers described their memories of being displaced once by the Bargi dam construction, and rebuilding their lives once.
In an earlier study in Assam (https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/d56377_06df1b070ab64ad78dfbbd977f1f7b9a.pdf ) too, women described their repeated displacement experiences and the sense of futility that now shadows their rebuilding. Every round of displacement further impoverishes and disenfranchises communities, families and individuals and makes them more vulnerable to relocation.
Several international regimes seek to define categories of the displaced, enumerate their rights and entitlements and charge states with their protection: The Refugee Convention of 1951 and its various Protocols, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and most recently, the Global Compact on Refugees.
Displaced persons are entitled to be safe; to have identification and travel papers; to receive support for their physical and social welfare; and to enjoy political and civil rights.
But India, like most of our neighbours, is not a signatory to these. Not signing allows them to occasionally say: We are not bound by this convention. Thus, having decided, for instance, that Rohingyas are not welcome, India can say, we are not bound by the provision against returning refugees to their country of origin.
The twinning of belonging and entitlement—citizenship and political rights, residence and socio-economic benefits—creates a natural antagonism between displaced persons and host populations.
The pie is small and it must now be shared. This twinning is why immigration, citizenship and voting rights are such a big issue in North East India. If the displaced are given political voice, will it drown out the ‘original,’ ‘local’ and ‘native’ interests? If they must receive benefits and protection, will it be at the expense of those whose claim predates theirs?
International conventions require governments to provide and enable displaced persons within their boundaries, but local politics does not always support this.
The Supreme Court order this week will mean that soon entire communities and families will be packing what they can carry in order to leave their homes for destinations unknown. Where their first journey ends, whether they are welcome, whether they find a way to survive and whether they are able to rebuild their lives again, remains to be seen.
It is a little before examination season. What will happen to school-going children who have exams to take? How many of them will never return to the classroom? We do not know what they will do.
Some women will miscarry en route; some will give birth in camps. Those children may grow up as ‘IDPs’ or ‘refugees,’ living in camps or IDP settlements all their lives. Small gardens will be planted, rangolis drawn, makeshift temples and churches set up.
But they will always remember home. They were once from somewhere else—a lost forest home where they belonged and which truly belonged to them.