Trouble in Dewas

Deforestation, corruption or politics? The killing of four tribals in Madhya Pradesh's Dewas district leaves many questions unanswered

By Kazimuddin Ahmed
Published: Thursday 31 May 2001

Trouble in Dewas

-- the Madhya Pradesh government would like to forget it. The residents of Dewas district, however, will remember it for the rest of their lives. Four people were killed in a confrontation between the administration and the tribal people at Mehendikheda village, about 100 km from the district headquarters of Dewas, when police opened fire on a group of protesters on April 2, 2001. Several others, including one police personnel, were also injured.

The district administration says the shootout was in self defence -- to save themselves from a violent mob working at the behest of "external forces". A Naxalite movement is brewing here, claim government officials. The villagers say they had got together to protest an administration trying to assert its power. It isn't easy to get to the heart of the matter. Rumours abound in the area and one can be left grappling to understand the real picture.But one thing is certain: far from being a Naxalite problem, the real issue is of an outdated forest act.

There are two versions of the incident and the circumstances leading to it. It is important to look at both ones.
Deforestation The collector of Dewas, Ashok Barnwal, says the incident took place in course of the district administration's drive to collect illegal timber from villages of the Bagli subdivision. The decision to launch the operation was taken after long deliberations on the strategies to check deforestation in the area. Teak forests in this part of Dewas along with adjoining areas of Khargone are reportedly some of the last patches of forest cover left in the state. The illegal timber in question is used as support beams for the ceilings of houses of the villagers. Locally called chasmas , they come from these forests. According to the administration, villagers procure more than their necessary share of chasmas and this has led to massive deforestation.

The operation began on March 28. A taskforce comprising forest officials, police personnel, revenue officials and van samiti (forest committee) members started visiting villages to confiscate illegal timber. The van samiti is a part of the joint forest management jfm programme of the state government. They asked the villagers to give up any illegal timber they possessed. Apparently, the people of Hirapur and Sewanpani villages returned the excess timber. By April 1, 2001, around 250 cubic metres of timber worth Rs 49.6 lakh was confiscated.

On the ill-fated morning, the team went to Mehendikheda with a force of about 250, including 150 police personnel, 50 forest officials and 50 van samiti members from the nearby villages. "We told the villagers a day before the raid that we would come to collect timber. But when we reached the village, we were confronted by some 400 angry tribal people affiliated to the Adivasi Morcha Sangathan ( ams )," says Barnwal. The ams is a part of a larger coalition of non-governmental organisations (ngos) called Jan Sangathan, recently re-christened as Jan Sangharsh Morcha, working on social and developmental issues. ams is also referred to as just sangathan . The administration pins the blame on ams for instigating the violence among the tribal people of the area.

The tribal people apparently started pelting stones with slingshots called gofans , and firing from country-made and 12 bore guns as soon as the team arrived. "We restrained ourselves. However, the villagers continued their attack and injured a few of us," says Barnwal. This was despite the police firing 65 warning shots, tear-gas shells and rubber bullets.Finally the five fatal shots were fired that killed three tribal persons and a non tribal person. The authorities then went on to confiscate 8.5 cubic metres of timber worth Rs 1.7 lakh.

A day later, the administration claims to have recovered 15 gelatine sticks, 15 electric detonators and other explosive material. However, these were not displayed to the press or the public. Neither did the chief minister (cm), Digvijay Singh confirm reports of the cache of explosives during his visit to Mehendikheda on April 22, 2001.

On April 3, the police arrested Rahul Banerjee, a leader of ams . The administration alleges that Banerjee instigated the tribal people against the administration, provided them with arms and ammunition and encouraged them to cut trees with the help of "outside forces". Mahendra Singh Dhakad, district forest officer (dfo), Dewas, says the ams and its members terrorised the people in the area and started taking the law into their own hands. "They imposed sanctions on those who refused to collaborate and even threatened to burn their houses," he adds. Barnwal further states that since these villages are located in remote areas and the administration cannot monitor them regularly, the ams has total control over the area.

However, not many people suspect Banerjee's commitment to the tribal cause. A gold medalist from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, Banerjee has long years of experience and credibility in working among rural communities in regions like Jhabua.

Quite different from the official version is what the villagers have to narrate. They say that the administration had unleashed terror in the area. In the pretext of confiscating illegal timber the raiding teams demolished their houses. They also beat up and arrested a number of people, including women. The roofless houses, broken walls and scattered household items bear witness to the villagers' story. The villagers also allege that their houses were not only demolished, but also looted by the people who accompanied the raiding party.

Khum Singh, a resident of Mehendikheda and a member of the sangathan , says that a day before the firing, tribal people from 15 neighbouring villages gathered in the nearby Sabalgarh village and called Barnwal to discuss the problems. Instead, the collector arrived with a force including van samiti people. When the gathering at Sabalgarh came to know about the force, they rushed to Mehendikheda. The situation got out of hand when both sides started pelting stones at each other. The confrontation culminated with the killing of the protesters.

A survey conducted by the Samaj Pragati Sahyog (sps), a Bagli-based ngo , says that at least 50 houses were destroyed and valuables looted in the five villages of Kadodia, Patpadi, Mehendikheda, Potla and Katukiya. With 22 houses demolished in Katukiya alone, it is one of the worst-hit villages. It is also said to the bastion of the sangathan . Strangely enough, the search party did not face any resistance here: like all the targeted villages, the people of Katukiya abandoned their village in terror of the administration.

The fears are not unfounded. Anybody seen talking to a suspected sangathan member is branded as a sympathiser and is victimised. For example, Nandu Rawat, a member of the district panchayat was threatened with arrest by the district administration under the National Security Act. His fault: his family members live in the so-called sangathan villages. The 27-year-old civil services aspirant was forced to go underground for a couple of days. The terror on Nandu's face was writ large while he spoke to the chief minister in front of district officials. Obviously, he was forced to tow the official line. Only when he was out of sight of the officials could he speak to the cm about the real situation.

The district administration has tried to hush up the matter by highlighting only the tribal violence and alleged anti-establishment work of the ams , and not the demolitions. Even the secretariat in Bhopal got the real picture only when its team came to assess the situation. Visits by Dilip Singh Bhuria of the Scheduled Caste and Tribe Commission, organisations like the People's Union for Democratic Rights, and other social workers to the affected villages revealed more murky details.

Banerjee's arrest is also an example of the administration's unwillingness to divulge information. His wife, Subhadra Banerjee, says she got the news only from the newspapers the following day. Banerjee was arrested in Indore, where he had gone to meet the next of kin of the deceased villagers. After his arrest, there was absolutely no news of his whereabouts. Only after a lot of pressure from friends and the press has the administration revealed that he is lodged in Bagli jail.

The larger picture
The politics of illegal timber, violence and all the other related issues raised by the administration seem to revolve around two things -- the van samiti and the sangathan . A part of jfm people from van samiti villages get employment and other benefits from the forest department. To retain the favours, the van samiti members speak the language of the administration, says Munnalal of Magradeo village. The van samiti members were also taken on the raids, supposedly as labourers to load the confiscated timber into vehicles. "A forest official must be a member of a particular van samiti and along with the sarpanch , they can do whatever they want.Money going to the van samitis are also misappropriated," alleges Gulab Singh of Sewanpani village.

A troubled organisation
It is curious that despite the threat perceived by the administration, there are not many leaders of the sangathan . Whenever an issue is raised, the villagers call for a meeting, discuss the problems themselves and implement the decisions. Villagers say they are now more aware of their rights because of the ams and refuse to be exploited, a situation some officials are not happy about. This reportedly became one of the major issues to take on the ams .

For example, for a single chasma , the villagers have to pay Rs 1,000 to a forest official. "If we construct houses without paying these officials, they stop construction and file cases against us," says Munnalal. It is interesting that neither the Forest Conservation Act (1980), nor the state government has any provision to give timber to the tribal people for the construction of houses.

Despite the constant mud slinging, the so-called animosity between the van samiti and the sangathan has few takers. "The sangathan people and the van samiti people are not enemies," says Balusiki of Semli village and a member of its van samiti . "Be it the van samiti or sangathan , every household needs timber to construct houses and everybody cuts trees," says Metab, the head of the van samiti of Patpadi village. Not many would disagree with Metab.

The primary concern of the administration seems to be taking on the sangathan rather than take a serious look at the problem of deforestation and tribal welfare. As far as the theory of Naxalites goes, the minister of state for home, Chandrabhan Singh, has gone on record saying that there are no Naxalites in the area and that the movement wound up with the creation of the Chattisgarh state.

Government response
The cm has declared a compensation of Rs 1 lakh to the families of those deceased and Rs 5,000 to people whose houses were demolished. He also said that the van samitis now would be constituted through the gram sabhas and the role of forest department would be minimised. The van samitis in consultation with the forest department would also decide on the quantity of wood needed for a village. It was also decided that forest officials would not be posted in any area for more than five years.

Accepting that the Forest Conservation Act as a major impediment in handing over more power to the people, Singh said that a meeting of the chief ministers would be called to review the Act in June. "The way the Act is formulated, it ensures that the tribal people are made criminals," remarks Mihir Shah of sps . It may be noted that the cm had earlier written to the prime minister regarding loopholes in the Act.

The incident has in some way tarnished the image of the people friendly policies that Singh and his government are applauded for. Though the district administration in Dewas says that decisions for the operation was taken at a high-level meeting in Bhopal, the incident has come as an embarrassment to the cm . "Implementation of preventive measures, like controlling deforestation, rests in the hands of the district administration. But they did not have the right to shoot people," added the cm .

With no legal provisions for timber, the only option for the tribal people is to buy timber from government depots. But with little money, the tribal people are forced to cut illegally. And then there is the case of exploitation by forest officials -- a tribal family has to pay Rs 5,000 for the minimum for five chasmas to build a house.

With all these complications around, all that was needed was a bureaucratic goof-up. Though the government's decisions have provided some respite, many are sceptical. Activists find it hard to believe that democratic institutions are being violated in a state that is moving towards decentralisation. How far the government succeeds in sensitising its bureaucracy, succeeds in making changes in the forest act and makes sure that such incidents do not happen in the future, remains to be seen.

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