by Aditi Pinto
In the foothills of the Western Ghats, in the villages of Badanehaalu, Bandigudda, Belligere, and Udaynagara in Shimoga district, Karnataka, small farmer and pastoralist families constantly struggle for land against the Forest Department. These families have lived here for over 70 years, each farming small plots of 0.5 – 3 acres along with doing other wage labour to fill their stomach. Most families did not have document proof, and were labelled bagar hukum or “without permission” cultivators.
One year ago, in March 2013, The Forest Department deployed JCB and Hitachi bulldozers to dig trenches, clear fields and remove all signs of cultivation. The bulldozers were confronted with a band of 25 women villagers, marching up to challenge them. When asked what motivated her to go fight the machines, one woman told me: “Seeing our farms being cleared, I had an image of poison running through the bodies of my children!”
|The villagers who went to jail and the land they were fighting for|
It wasn’t until violence broke out between the Forest Department, their police protection, and the village women, that the men joined in. According to one woman involved:
“We were taken to the police station, and since we knew Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (Karnataka State Farmers’ Union), they came along with us. A KRRS leader asked us why we wanted the land. And we responded ‘Our life is run on this land. The ragi, maize we grow — we can’t live without them. We want these lands!’ So the KRRS leader told us that if we wanted our lands, we should all go to jail willingly to show them! That’s when we went to jail.”
In the end 87 people were taken to jail. Some such as a Tamil speaking goat-herder named Bharti were injured and had a huge loss of blood, which put her in the hospital for over a month. Those released sooner from the hospital joined the others in completing a 16-day stay in jail.
For many, March 2013 was not their first time to jail. The villagers have a long history of resistance and confrontation with the Forest Department. It’s not only their struggle, but their parents’ struggle as well.
In the 1940s, many landless families from Central Karnataka migrated to Shimoga district in search of livelihood. Over time families from Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Kerala also migrated to Shimoga, incentivized by available lands and the prospect of working in the VISL Bandigudda mines. However, the migrant labourers did not earn enough as mine workers, and the food provided by the government to fill the gap consisted of a red maize so hard that “it could not even be boiled, but only fried in order to consume.”
70 years ago, in order to fill their stomachs, the migrant workers began farming, planting the ragi and jollah crops that they still live off today. In the dry seasons, the local pastoralists grazed animals here as well. Small and landless farmers grew food crops and lived out the connection between animal and land amidst valleys full of commercial cultivation.
While they worked hard on the stony lands and in the mines to put food on the table, in the background another story continued. The princely states of Mysore, which at one time owned most of these lands, later gave them to the British. What was earlier multi-purpose land came under the famous Raj era bureaucratic institutions of the Forest and Revenue Departments. These categories continue ’til date, with new links to the private sector.
“When we first began cultivating in the forest, no one came here. The miners would give [the government] revenue, and so no one would say anything to us,” reflects Nanjamma, one of the oldest women in the community. The company was kept afloat through cheap contract labour and the Forest Department was kept happy by the spin-off benefits. Neither had any reason to trouble the local people.
However, this changed when the workers found out about the Supreme Court order to issue them permanent worker status. They formed unions and went on strike as the miners refused to abide by the order of the Supreme Court. In response, the mine owners cancelled their contracts and mechanized the mines. As the locals became ever dependent on the land, the Forest Department perceived a decline in mining revenue. Thus began the conflict between the Forest Department and the local land inhabitants.
Farmers trapped by pseudo-environmentalism
In 1972, the Forest Department allowed the Nilgiri Plantation Group to take over large tracts of these lands to plant their trees. The villagers protested, and 15 members were jailed. Ever since, tussles with the Forest Department and brutality have been constant. Pastoral communities suffer as much as the farming communities. The Forest Department has kept Gawli communities in tent cities outside of the villages and has banned grazing, a right protected in the Forest Rights Act.
Across India, historically, lower caste Dalit families have had no access or been robbed of their lands. Meanwhile, upper caste families were the landowners or zamindaars. Despite the Land to the Tiller Act and the Land Ceiling Act, upper caste families leverage loopholes and remain on top. Many lower caste families have no land or only have access to infertile, unproductive land. Dalit families began to cultivate government lands that are categorised as “Forest”, “Gomala”, or “Revenue” lands. However, as they have no official permission, they are considered bagar hukumcultivators, and their ties to their lands are threatened time and again.
In Shimoga, the state government has refused to legalise bagar hukum lands, even though the local MLA got these families out of jail and slept on their floors. The forest department, bureaucrats, and corporates have consolidated their power under a banner of “greenwashing”. Brewed in boardrooms, green capitalism such as large scale plantations and carbon offset forests push farmers off their land. On one hand, the Forest Department enforces a Supreme Court judgement to protect forests from local deforesters. Meanwhile, large Western companies, with a helping hand from the same bureaucrats “protecting” the forest from locals, wash away their greenhouse-gas sins by trading carbon credits for forests, REDD+ and plantations on the exact same land.
In late 1993, The Forest Department began the Joint Forest Planning Management program (JFPM) in which they set up Village Forest Committees (VFCs) that consisted of equal numbers of local community members and forest officials. Through this program, the poorest of the poor receive dry firewood and wet bamboo as well as loans to purchase their animals. However, even this program is dominated by the interests of the Forest Department and is used to harness local politics and spread misinformation based on the need of the moment.
In the context of Shimoga, the Forest Department’s “need of the moment” was uncultivated land. Foreign plantation owners gave the Forest Department crores of rupees to provide open space for a plantation, as per Kesavan, a local gram sabha member. The co-managers of the Village Forest Committee, shrewdly chosen by the Forest Department, signed away the village land rights under a cloud of misinformation. Shortly thereafter, foreign businessmen came and surveyed the lands. The next day, JCBs and Hitachis began cutting trenches.
What does the future look like?
At present, the court case slapped on these 87 people has been dismissed, as the families got approval at the Tehsildar level to cultivate. However, in the long-term there is no resolution as the power of the Supreme Court overweighs this Tehsildar document at all levels. Furthermore, a month back the foreign plantation owners came to survey the lands and found it cultivated even though they had given many crores to the Forest Department asking for open lands! They are likely to mount pressure through the Forest Department again.
The feeling in the village is calm, yet some people talk of sleepless nights. There are rumours that twelve people have died in the last year due to the constant pressure and stress from the Forest Department.
“The lands we cultivate are not even forest lands. These are hullubanniharaju or revenue grasslands! The Forest Department has no proof or certificate to say these lands belong to them,” informs Manju showing us the official document from the Tehsildar’s office that these lands were under revenue lands and up for bidding. Some villagers show us documents that demonstrate their grants to these lands.
It is a lose-lose situation. As one villager put it, “Even if we have documents, the amount the government will compensate us [for selling] cannot buy a house, our food, or education! The value of our land is much more than what they claim.”
Yet there is a resilience, reason, and strength in some voices, from those who have fought before and will fight again.
Two local villagers, Rammegowda and Nagegowda, work every day to look after a plot of sugarcane owned by MPM Paper factory. One offered, “In Haihodde, many politicians own large plots of 100 acres of Forest Land. Even MPM paper factory and VISL own a total of 31,000 acres in Bhadrawati area. But the Forest Department comes only after poor people, and leave the rich alone,” says Rammegowda. “Only if the Forest Department takes over the lands of the rich, will we give up ours!”
“We are now ready to die. If the Forest Department comes back for our lands, we will fight till our death,” shouts a confident Ratnamma.