Abhujmarh, located in the dense and undulated terrain of the Dandakaranya forests, is the only region of the country without a revenue map, even seven decades after independence. Considered as one of the only remaining strongholds of Left-wing Extremism in India, the demand for the habitat rights of some forty thousand Abhujmarias residing in this region seems both the reason as well as the solution for its current isolation. This demand has recently made a visual appearance under the name of the ‘Pen-Patta’ movement, which is also being currently backed by the Chhattisgarh Government. What change would this movement bring, if or when successful, in the current local situations, as well as in force and expanse of the Maoist presence, leaves a number of questions worth analyses.
Who are the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs)?
Of the 705 Scheduled Tribes listed by the Indian Constitution, owing to the critically vulnerable means of livelihood and sustenance of some of these groups, the Ministry of Home Affairs has recognised 75 of them, spread across 18 states (along with the Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands) as ‘Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups’ (PVTGs). The PVTGs are generally identified with their primitive means and distinct geographical isolation; dependency on hunting and gathering for food; practice of a pre-agricultural level of technology; living in a subsistence-level of economy; having a declining or stagnant population growth; and an extremely low literacy rate, among others. It is interesting to note that over 75% of these PVTGs reside within India’s Red Corridor.[i]
Why are Habitat Rights relevant?
These PVTGs, especially, along with other STs, are entitled to habitat rights of the region of their habitation, defined as “rights including community tenures of habitat and habitation for the primitive tribal groups and pre-agricultural communities” under the Forest Rights Act of 2006. Yet, till date, only two claims of the grant of habitat rights (the Kadar Community in Kerala in 2014, and partly the Baiga Community in Madhya Pradesh in 2015)[ii] have been implemented.
Section 2(h) of the FRA defines ‘habitat’ as the ‘area comprising the customary habitat and such other habitats in reserved and protected forests of primitive tribal groups and pre-agricultural communities, and other forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes’.
A letter was circulated by the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs to the Chief Secretaries of all concerned state governments in April 2015, to make an “all-out effort” to initiate the process of recognising the habitat rights of all the PVTGs in their states.[iii] The District Level Committees were directly held responsible for this task.
The primary hurdle in conferring these rights exist in the lack of clarity regarding them, both with the applicants, and the implementing authorities. Unlike the community rights and individual rights, habitat rights cover a wider landscape, going way beyond the administrative units of household and village. These instead recognise bio-cultural units and territories for conferring rights. Considerations of customary rights, which in turn form an inseparable part of the cultural, religious, economic and other requirements of the concerned group, and subsequently vary from region to region, form an essential part of the demarcation of these rights. It is precisely due to its exceedingly flexible and changing nature, unlike community rights and individual rights, that the FRA does not clearly define ‘habitat rights’. Consequentially, it is the District Level Committees, which are therefore expected to examine situations on a case-to-case basis that shoulder the most crucial role in the process of ensuring its timely provision.
The ‘Pen-Patta’ Movement : Contextually Examining Possibilities
Abhujmarh is an extremely resource-rich region due to its abundantly dense forests and biodiversity. It is spread across an area of 4000 sq km, and is currently home to approximately 237 villages with 36 Panchayats. Over forty thousand Abhujmarias living in this region are demanding for their rights over the resources they have historically owned. The ‘Pen-Patta’ movement, literally indicating that the right to ownership (‘Patta’) of the habitat be given to their gods (‘Pen’), and that the locally chosen representatives be allowed to traditionally govern their habitat (‘Ilaka’) on their behalf.[iv]
But, due to extensive Maoist presence, any commercial exploitation of the region has yet not taken place. Most of the local cadres of the Maoists in Abhujmarh comprise local tribals who are fighting for their ancestral rights.[v] Most activists working closely with the movement of ensuring the tribals their rights believe that a grant of their customary rights over the area of their habitation might drastically impact the security situations in the region. While on one hand this might help eliminate the Maoist threat that India faces, the increased legal importance of acquiring the consent of the Abhujmarias to undertake any such exploitative activity is expected to complicate the process for the concerned authorities and other ambitious commercial players. This is one fact that might act as a deterrent in the absolute realisation of these rights.
Apart from that, while the restoration of the habitat rights of the Baiga community gives hope for a repeat of the same in Abhujmarh, the fact that the expanse of land and the number of villages demanding their rights in Abhujmarh more than 237 (as opposed to only 7 Baiga villages that have been issued their habitat rights), the destination seems yet too far.
[i] Data from Ministry of Tribal Affairs [ii] Asavari Raj Sharma, “Maharashtra Denies Habitat Rights to the Most Backward Tribal Communities”, July 2018. Accessed in July 2019 at https://thewire.in/environment/maharashtra-denies-habitat-rights-to-the-most-backward-tribal-communities [iii] Ibid. [iv] Subhranshu Choudhary, “Abhujmariyon Ko Abhujmarh Ka Adhikaar”, Patrika, July 2019. Accessed in July 2019. [v] Personal interview with author and activist, Mr Subhranshu Choudhary