(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
March 29, 2009
Tribals Rise To Defend Rights, Livelihood
Tikender Singh Panwar
THE district of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh is full of scenic beauty apart from being rich in hydel resource. This district is a tribal-majority one, comprising Kinnaur tribe, also known as Kinnars. There are various connotations to this tribe. Some say they are the aboriginals who were pushed back by the Aryans and the Khasas, another tribe of the region.
At present, there are 21,136 households in the district. The total land cultivable is just 9,355 hectares, whereas the forests occupy an area of 4,58,297 hectares and non-cultivable land is 6,12,387 hectares. (All figures are from the HP governmentís statistics department.) This shows that the average land holding with the households is less than 0.5 (in fact 0.44) hectares. This land is insufficient for the survival of a family. In addition, the dalits are worst placed; they own less land than the average. Quite interestingly, the tribals in Kinnaur are unlike other forest tribals or forest dwellers in the country where they just occupy land and have no legal document. The Kinnaurs either have pattas (a document showing their ownership) or they have been awarded land under the 'Nau Taur' scheme (essentially a policy of the government till 1968 and then further extended till 1980, meant breaking of new land and further distribution to the people).
Apart from the land that they owned, though very scant and limited, the people of the tribal region also enjoyed certain other forest rights, the foremost being the 'TD' right (already written about in one of the previous columns), whereby the villagers used to get access to the forest land for timber for house construction, repair, fuel wood, etc.
Second is the right for cultivation in forest land in a place called 'Kandas' (a place on the hilltop where there are no trees, which remains snow covered and is accessible only during the summers). These kandas are very fertile, and vegetables and other like crops are cultivated here.
Then is the right for lopping of trees, which was allowed under silviculture (cultivation and care of forests). This right, which provided fuel wood to the people, was essentially a right to bread and butter for the blacksmiths who used to burn these lopped branches and convert them into coal for the sharpening of various kinds of tools and other agricultural implements.
Similarly, there was the age old right to collect medicinal herbs and plants for commercial use.
Now, with a fresh policy direction which is though not yet finalised, all the traditional rights have been put on hold. The provisions of the proposed policy are very dangerous, and will eventually throw the tribals out of their lands. (These have already been discussed in these columns.)
The area in the tribal region and the people remained a neglected lot. There are over a score of villages in Kinnaur alone. These still stand unconnected through the road network. These include Roopi, Panvi, Baturi, Taranda etc. The main road connected to the border was laid by the Border Roads Organisation. It was in view of this reality that some central sponsored schemes and budgetary allocations started pouring in for the tribal development in the state.
The district has immense potential of hydel generation --- nearly 10,000 MW. However, while this potential could and should have been tapped for the development of the state and the area, certain ruinous policies of the BJP government are making the people of the area, i.e. the Kinnaurs, their worst victims. These hydel projects, of both mini and mega varieties, are being constructed chiefly by private houses and violation of norms is their hallmark. The pertinent issues for the peopleís livelihood and environment can be summarised as below.
1) According to various studies conducted by independent scientists and geographers (Professor Nilanjana Das et all), the Tibetan plateau is getting submerged and this pace of unchecked development is further enhancing the ongoing natural processes. Besides, the Satluj river flows against the gradient, which is why it is quite turbulent at places, and conduiting or changing its course would further aggravate the problems. Now, it is said that the entire Satluj river from Khab (where it enters India from China) to the famous Govindsagar Lake (also known as the Bhakra Dam) would be conduited. It means that the river will be diverted. Its course would be changed
underneath the mountains and hydel generation would be done through various surge shafts.
2) But this is a principal source of rains in the locality as precipitation and humidity in the atmosphere are because of the flow of the main river and innumerable other rivulets which are also being targeted for hydel generation in a similar manner. Thus the conduiting will severely affect the local precipitation. According to the study this would eventually lead to a condition where there may be no or little rain.
3) Another associated problem with the conduiting of the river is that the Head Race Tunnel, as it is called, runs several kilometres underneath the mountains, for which large scale excavation is required through blasting and drilling. An estimated 15 years work on the Nathpa Jhakri Hydel Project (NJPC), with a generation capacity of 1,500 MW, used thousands of tonnes of gelatine for the blast work. But this range of mountains is among the youngest ones and the strata are loose or weak. Hence such blasts have created a condition whereby the natural springs and hot springs have either dried up or are in a process of drying. There is a famous place called Sarahan that falls in Shimla district. Here, a village is called Garath which is the local term for a watermill, and one can well imagine that the village bore the name because of the quantum of water available due to springs was that so great that even watermills could be run. But because the tunnel goes underneath the mountains, the stream has now dried up.
Similarly, the grazing fields have become dry, cracks in the houses are now a common feature, and slides are now a regular phenomenon. A case to the point is that of Nathpa village from where the Satluj has been diverted to an underground channel through a run on the river dam technology. This village is just above the dam but because of blasting and other associated activities, not only has this village started sliding, heavy boulders also started shifting and claimed the life of over a dozen people. The foremost demands include that of declaring this village in Kinnaur unsafe. Thus the tragedy is that the village that initially lost some of its land for the development works, will now lose its existence. To add to the peopleís woes, the employment generated through these projects for the local and affected people is virtually negligible --- less than 100 in NJPC and that too after a prolonged struggle led by the Himachal Kisan Sabha.
It was in such a background that the people of Lower Kinnaur decided to oppose the 1000 MW (BOT) Jay Pee hydel project in Wangtoo Karcham region, again on the Satluj river. The people fought valiantly but the police resorted to a massive cane charge and firing that hit half a dozen tribal youth. (Fortunately, none died.) Somehow, true to its colour, JP was able to break the strike and, as usual, the government is not bothered about this particular managementís nefarious activities. The JP Group has started work on the Wangtoo Karcham project. It was during this period of agitation that the people, mainly the aged, once again expressed their anger. Despite the fact that there is a huge reserve of the unemployed in the state and the district (20 percent of the population), employment creation for the local inhabitants is avoided. In JP group, where nearly 8000 workmen are engaged in construction activity, not more than 150 are from Kinnaur. Thus the so-called development activity, in a regime of the neo-liberal policies, is also ruining the traditional Kinnaur economy and livelihood.
As already stated, very little land is available with the people here. The Kinnaurs have also encroached upon some forest and government land. Now with the Forest Tribes Act, they can become owners of these lands, with pattas in their names. But, despite the fact that the act passed by the central government specifies the land to be 4 hectares, in Himachal the limit has been reduced to 1.5 hectares. Even then, the government is seeking to escape its responsibility and trying to shelve the act altogether by fixing a deadline date for the submission of forms. Earlier it was fixed for 31 January, 2009; now its been extended to 15 March, 2009 under pressure from the Himachal Kisan Sabha (HKS). The HKS has taken up the cause and is demanding an extension of the date to June 30, 2009, as at present many of the areas are covered with snow and it is not feasible to measure such lands there till March 15. In fact, this act of the HP government is illegal as, under the Forest Tribes Act 2006, no final dates can be fixed for submission of forms.
In the recent past, the HKS has conducted a massive campaign against these policies and a demonstration was organised on about half a dozen demands. The demands were:
1) Extension of the date to June 30, 2009 and strict implementation of the Forest Tribes Act.
2) Employment on priority basis for the local youth.
3) Restoration of the TD rights.
4) Alternate passage for the JP transmission line. It needs to be mentioned that while the government is not prepared to give the peasantry its due TD rights, it is allowing the felling of thousands of trees for the laying of the JP transmission line.
5) Raising the price of milk to Rs 18 per litre.
6) Declaration of Nathpa village as unsafe and rehabilitation of the villagers in the adjoining area.
More than 24 village panchayats were covered in a period of 20 days after the call was given by a mass meeting at Bhawanagar. Hundreds of people thronged the venue on February 16. After the meeting, the government felt compelled to fix the milk price at Rs 18. Later, another rally further gave the call for a bigger mobilisation for March 13 at the same venue. The HKS has also resolved to enter the forests en masse after March 13 for lopping the trees. Preparations are undergoing to make both the calls a success.