Modi Government Cannot Evade Responsibility for the Mass Eviction of Adivasis and Oppression of Sanitation Workers

THE Modi Government and its Tribal Affairs Ministry remained mute spectators as a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court dealt a death blow to the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and ordered the summary eviction of nearly 20 lakh adivasi households across the country.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 is a landmark piece of legislation that made a break with the colonial-era policies of seeing adivasi communities as encroachers on forest lands, and instead recognised their historical claims of these communities over forest lands, and the need to correct the historic injustice done to them by treating them as alien encroachers in their own lands. The constitutionality of this law was challenged in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by some NGOs headed by retired forest officials with a deeply entrenched hostility to forest dwelling communities. The Supreme Court, while it did not find the law to be unconstitutional, exceeded its brief to order the evictions of all those households whose claims under the Forest Rights Act have been rejected by the authorities. The order asked all state governments to comply with this order.

The order, by assuming that every rejected claim under the FRA proves the claimant to be bogus, goes against the spirit of the FRA itself and also contradicts the well-established position of the Supreme Court itself. In fact, it is well documented even in government documents, how the state machinery itself conspires to create daunting hurdles for legitimate claimants. Governments and the bureaucracy have found many ways in which to reject applicants on one pretext or the other and subvert forest rights so as to be able to divert forest lands to corporations. Some states like Gujarat even demanded that the adivasi claimants provide satellite images of the land to back up their claims!

The Modi Government failed even to react to this devastating verdict and provide any explanation for its unforgivable failure to defend the FRA and its beneficiaries. Only after Opposition parties directed state governments led by them to file review petitions challenging the SC verdict, did BJP President Amit Shah also direct BJP-led state governments to file review petitions. But he failed to explain why the Tribal Affairs Ministry of the Modi Government would not file a review petition, and moreover why the Modi Government would not enact an ordinance to protect the FRA and adivasi and non-adivasi forest-dwelling communities. It cannot be forgotten that the BJP Government in Jharkhand has been trying to dilute the Chhotanagpur Tenancy (CNT) and Santhal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) Acts, handing over tribal lands to corporations and unleashing repression on the adivasi movements protesting these moves.

While remaining silent on this imminent calamity for 20 lakh forest-dwelling households, Modi chose instead to pose at the Kumbh Mela washing the feet of sanitation workers. Just as Brahminical patriarchy offers women the gesture of “worship” while withholding rights and equality, Modi’s gesture offers sanitation workers the ritual of foot-washing in place of what they have been demanding - which is accountability from the government towards their abysmal and dehumanising work conditions.

In a book authored by him several years ago, which was withdrawn following outraged protests by Dalits, Narendra Modi had declared that Dalits did manual scavenging as a ‘spiritual activity.’ In another book of his speeches, titled Social Harmony, Modi suggested that the role model for Dalits ought to be a Gujarati Dalit icon ‘Vir Meghmaya’ said to have allowed himself to become a human sacrifice to facilitate rains in the drought-parched land. Modi especially asked Dalits to learn from Meghmaya’s example because in exchange for his sacrifice, he demanded, not land and other material entitlements, but the right to worship the Hindu symbols of tulsi and peepal. Most outrageous of all, Modi declared that Ambedkar too, like Meghmaya, wanted only for Dalits to be integrated with the Hindu cultural “mainstream”! Modi’s claims try to falsify and distort the fact that Ambedkar declared that he was born a Hindu but would not die one, and thus converted to the Buddhist faith. Modi’s gesture of washing the feet of the sanitation workers who are cleaning Allahabad for the Kumbh, also implies he is honouring the Dalit sanitation workers for their supposed ‘spiritual activity’ of cleaning - even as the state and central government wash their hands off their responsibility to end manual scavenging, prevent sewer deaths and ensuring regular and adequate remuneration, as well as basic workplace safety and dignity for sanitation workers.

Even at the Kumbh itself, sanitation workers Unions pointed out that one of them had died due to negligence of the Kumbh administrators, and a few weeks before the Kumbh, protesting sanitation workers had been branded “anti-national” by the UP police and threatened with the draconian National Security Act. In Banaras last year, two manual scavengers died cleaning a sewage treatment plant in a haste for Modi was to inaugurate on his impending visit.

The cold fact is that there is at least one manual scavenging death every five days, according to the last report by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK). An RTI query revealed that in its entire tenure, the Modi government failed to release a single rupee for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers, and spent less than half of the funds released by the previous UPA government! Every year in Delhi, sanitation workers are forced to go on strike to protest non-payment of salaries and arrears and refusal to regularise contractual workers. This situation continues even with the BJP’s victory in Delhi’s municipal corporation elections.

The Sangh Parivar and Modi himself are complicit in perpetuating the atrocity of manual scavenging and the systemic oppression and exploitation of sanitation workers. And the Modi Government is complicit in the unconscionable eviction order seeking to dispossess lakhs of adivasis from their rightful forest lands. Modi’s Swacch Bharat scheme, his foot-washing theatrics, and his election-time boasts cannot be allowed to wash out this shameful reality.