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Advocacy’s fine art rural leaders know better: Organising tribals around forest rights

By Gagan Sethi* 

Baba Pansare was a young tribal activist then. He was working in the Manchar taluka near Pune among tribals of the region. Adi Patel, one of the famous names in the development world those days, recommended to us in Janvikas that the Baba should be given a fellowship. He was organizing tribals around forest rights issues.
The Baba knew it well: Forest dwellers take care of the ownership of their habitat and protect it better than any outsider agency. The archaic forest act, which ruled the roost, was penned by the British rulers. The Britishers used it as the prime driving force to hold complete sway over the forests. It was a thorn in the flesh for the tribals.
Though forest department officials now have become friendlier, the powers they hold remain plenipotentiary. They harass tribals and tribal activists, who are often arrested and detained just under suspicion. But, clearly, times have changed. Tribals prefer to be identified as adivasis – the original dwellers of forests. Dependent on minor forest produce, they seek grazing and agricultural rights over the forest areas they live in.
In the second half of 1980s, the Baba was in the forefront of the struggle in his region. One of his main thrusts was to ask for the annulment of the archaic forest law. He wanted an alternative law to be enacted, which would give adivasis control over their forests.
At that time, many state governments would declare sanctuaries and reserve forests, allegedly to maintain the green cover. As if to balance this out, they would favour land acquisition for urban and industrial projects, which would undermine forests. This was the main reason for the tribals’ resistance to forest laws. At best, the governments would agree to cosmetic changes in forest rules, without seeking a comprehensive review the act itself.
The Baba organized major a movement to demand a change in the forest act. Demonstrations were held and petitions were handed over at the district level. Various groups got together and took up the matter with state authorities.
But all they were told was, things weren’t in the state authorities’ hands. Since it was a Central Act, the state government was just helpless.
As part of the leadership group which took the matter to Delhi, the Baba first met political leaders, but found that they wouldn’t do anything except paying lip service. After all, vested interests were very strong. Powerful lobbies were at work. They would fund political parties regularly.
Disgusted, the Baba and his group decided to take a 500 strong delegation to the then President of India, Giani Zail Singh. He was sure, the President was a kind man, and would definitely give a patient hearing to the grassroots leaders. On the day of the appointment, 15 of them went in to meet the President.
And this is what he told the President of India: “We have been told that now India is independent. Even the house you stay in now – Rashtrapati Bhavan – doesn’t belong to the Queen of England, which it was earlier.
“Every political party agrees that the forest law is against the Indians who live in the forests, and yet refuse to change this archaic law.
“You are our last hope. It would not be nice for us to directly request the Queen. But we plead that you, as our President and representative, ask the Queen that since the law was made by her, could she please change it now?”
The President was stunned. Impressed by the logic and simplicity of the Baba, he was up on his feet.
I was told that he called the Forest Secretary and the Forest Minister forthwith, and asked them to assure the Baba and his group that their demand would be met, and a comprehensive legislation – which did not criminalize the forest dwellers – was drafted.
During my interaction with Baba Pansare, a rural leader, I found in him a leader with strong abilities to effectively deal with the highest authority in land – something urban bred advocacy groups wouldn’t dare without thorough research and evidence-based arguments.
Clearly, moral arguments often have a stronger impact, and are difficult to challenge with logic. Janvikas is proud to have supported a leader like Baba Pansare. Today, he is a Buddhist Bhikshuk, and wanders around the country!

*Founder of Janvikas & Centre for Social justice. This article first appeared in DNA

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