//INDIA: Yet another human rights defender attacked in Odisha

INDIA: Yet another human rights defender attacked in Odisha

Police-criminal nexus; Threat to human rights defenders; Forest rights; Corruption; Indigenous communities

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information from Badrama Abhyaranya Vikas Parisad and SPREAD, two human rights organisations working in Odisha state, India, concerning the attack upon the life of a human rights defender in Sambalpur district of the state. It is reported that the attack was premeditated and suspected to be carried out with the assistance of some officers working in the State Forest Department. The persons who attacked the victim in the case, Mr. Dusmant Pradhan a human rights defender working with the indigenous communities of the district, returned to the place of incident in a vehicle belonging to the forest department on the same day, looking for Dusmant since they could not murder him at the first instance. Despite having made complaints, the suspects have not been arrested or any form of protection provided to the injured human rights defender.

CASE NARRATIVE:

The incident happened on 21 March 2011 between 1.30 and 2pm at Dusmant’s house. At the time of the incident, Dusmant was at home. It is reported that five to seven local criminals came to Dusmant’s house and chased him out of the house. Then they surrounded him and assaulted him with bamboo sticks and iron rods on his legs, in which Dusmant suffered serious injuries. The assailants left Dusmant for dead. But on the same day evening the assailants returned after hearing that Dusmant was not dead and that he had not only sought medical treatment, but has also filed a complaint with the local police. Eyewitnesses claim that the assailants came in a vehicle used by the Odisha State Forest Department. It is also reported that when they found Dusmant not at home or in the village, they shouted and threatened the onlookers asking them that should Dusmant return home, to inform him that the next time they will not spare him and to stop his work in the community and of making complaints against the forest department or against the local contractors who have business with the department.

Dusmant is from the Kisan Tribe and is the Convener of Badrama Abhayaranya Vikas Parisad, a local human rights organisation working for tribal welfare within Badrama Wildlife Sanctuary, in Sambalpur district of Odisha.

Dusmant has filed a complaint at the local police station – originally at Jamankira Police Station and later transferred to Badrama Police Station – which was registered as First Information Report (FIR) number 32 dated 21 March 2011. Despite describing the event and even identifying some of the persons who attacked Dusmant, none have been arrested yet. The assailants are from the locality and roam around free, and in public, despite having a complaint registered against them. Dusmant is afraid that his assailants would kill him the next time and having no security at home, he is staying away from his home and village. It is alarming to note that while the criminals who assaulted a human rights defender and have publically threatened that they would murder him are roaming around in public looking for the victim, the victim despite having made a police complaint has to remain in hiding.

The Abhyaranya Vikas Parisad is a local people’s initiative working with the tribal communities residing inside the Badrama Wildlife Sanctuary in Sambalpur district of Odisha. 27 villages of about 1500 families from Kisan, Kondh, Oram and Munda tribal groups along with some backward communities live inside the sanctuary. For generations, these families have depended upon the Non-Timber Forest Products otherwise known as Minor Forest Produce (MFP) for their livelihood and survival. The Parisad, being a people’s initiative have members of these communities among their ranks. The Parisad has been actively lobbying for the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 in the state, in particular, within Badrama Wildlife Sanctuary.

The Act is a result of long struggle by the marginal and tribal communities of India to assert their rights over the forestland over which they were traditionally dependent. This Act is crucial to the rights of tribal and other forest dwellers in India as it provides for the restitution of deprived forest rights across the country, including individual rights to cultivated land in forestland and community rights over common property resources. The notification of Rules for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 was on 1st Jan 2008, thereby formulating the essential procedures for the administration of the Act. It is estimated that a thorough implementation of the Act, would positively influence the livelihood of an estimated 100 million people in India. The Act envisages the integration of forest conservation with livelihood rights of the tribal and forest dwellers.

During the British colonial rule of the subcontinent, many forests within the British administered territories, including certain sacred groves, were declared as ‘reserved forests’ thereby limiting access of the tribal communities into the forests and depriving these communities all forms of traditional livelihood options. Though the reason at the time was the brutal exploitation of forests by the British — for timber, hunting for pleasure, trophies, ivory and meat, and clearing of forestland for the cultivation of cash crops — after independence in 1947, the government of India and the State Forest Departments constituted by the states continued the practice of keeping the tribal and other forest-dependent communities away from the forest, by expanded enforcement of legislations like the Indian Forest Act, 1927, the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 and the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.

Though the purpose of the above legislations were protection of wildlife and conservation of forests, in practice, the officials of the forest departments had an upper hand over the tribal communities which they used often for corrupt reasons. In fact the implementation of the above laws in India did not considerably improve the forest cover in India, though the tribal communities were kept away from their traditional habitats.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 in this context is considered to be an affirmative legislation that guarantees the thus far neglected and negated rights of the tribal communities in preserving the forest and thereby depending on it for survival as they did for generations in the past. It is also the legislative recognition to the concept that the tribal and forest dwellers are the best conservators of the forest and wildlife. The implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, thus brings rights back to the realm of the tribal and forest dwelling communities, a concept that has the potential to challenge corruption and mismanagement of the forest by the agents of the state. The Act also empowers tribal and forest dwelling communities to prevent private or otherwise vested business interests from exploiting the forests for private business.

The Parisad is active in lobbying for the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 within the Sanctuary. This included, not only bringing about the implementation of the Act, but also lobbying against poaching, felling of timber, the running of brick kilns and quarrying within the sanctuary.

Between 2006 and 2010 three elephants were killed inside the sanctuary. The Parisad and the villagers suspect the involvement of forest officials in the poaching. According to the information of the local community, th
e repeated poaching would not have happened inside the sanctuary without the knowledge of the forest officials. At the very least, repeated poaching is evidence to the fact that the forest department was not vigilant enough in the discharge of their statutory duties. Similarly, running of quarries and the manufacturing of bricks — activities that permanently destroy wildlife habitat, since these are industrial level activities — are avenues of illegal source of income for many officers in the forest department in the form of bribes. The Parisad with the support of the tribal communities was lobbying to stop these operations within the sanctuary.

The Parisad along with the members of the communities had filed a complaint against Mr. Kastu Maker, the brick kiln owner to the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) having jurisdiction over the sanctuary. The DFO accepted the complaint, but failed to take any credible action, though he had promised he would. The Parisad is lobbying for declaring the sanctuary as a ‘community forest area’, under the Act. This would entitle the tribal and forest dwelling communities to effectively use their right in forest management as well as in its preservation and further would entitle the communities from gathering MFP from the sanctuary. In a counter move the forest department had declared the sanctuary as a Critical Wild Life Habitat (CWLH), which overrides most of the rights provided in the Act to the communities, in particular their right as provided in the Act to gather MFP. However, no member of the communities living within the sanctuary have been charged by the forest department for gathering MFP from the sanctuary so far. Despite all the efforts of the tribal community and the Parisad, including the filing of petitions, the state government is yet to sanction the communities their right to collect the MFP.

In the meanwhile the district administration has been trying to implement ‘development plans’ within the sanctuary under the Integrated Action Plan, a scheme intended to provide development facilities to the tribal communities living within the sanctuary. The Parisad with the support of the tribal community was opposing the implementation of the plan, since there were no consultations with the tribal communities when the plans were conceived. In fact the Parisad led the tribal community to successfully prevent the district administration from implementing some of the development plans inside the sanctuary in Kharmunda, Cheptamb and Kutab villages, for the reason that the plans were lopsided and were executed since it would fetch petty contractors from the town to make illegal profit.

Some officers within the forest department are inimical to the Parisad’s leadership on the issue since the stoppage of constructions would prevent the corrupt officers from demanding and accepting bribes from the construction contractors. Often such work is used as ruse for felling of timber and for poaching. Since the works are to be undertaken with the approval of the forest department and often deep inside the forest, the forest department’s officers could demand exorbitant bribes from contractors for approving the construction and for issuing completion certificates. The Parisad and its leadership, thus has been an eyesore to many persons, including private contractors as well as corrupt forest officers.

Dusmant, in his statement to the police had identified and mentioned the names of four persons who were part of the criminal gang that attacked him. They are (1) Mr. Hemanta Pradhan, (2) Mr. Hrudanand Ghatual, (3) Mr. Brundaban Pradhan and (4) Mr. Ajay Pradhan. Mr. Tularam Majhi, a petty contractor from Deogard, a place near the sanctuary, employs all four. Dusmant had given his statement to the police on 21st March, which was converted into the FIR by the Jamankira police and later transferred to Gaudpali police for investigation, since the incident happened within their jurisdiction. On the next day, he had also provided the police with the medical documents that would prove that Dusmant was in fact treated for serious injuries that he suffered in the incident. Despite being the statutory responsibility of the police under the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 to provide Dusmant a copy of his statement, the police have failed to do so. This makes Dusmant fear whether the police is also under the influence of the contractors and the forest department, a common phenomena in India in similar circumstances. The police also informed Dusmant, that the assailants that he had named in the compliant had in fact visited his village on 21st evening looking for Dusmant, allegedly to ‘finish him off’.