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Woman set ablaze in Guna by illegal occupants of Adivasi lands, hundreds of acres poached

This incident in Guna, Madhya Pradesh, is representative of the situation of poaching of Adivasi land. The people have appealed to the regional administration and up to the Chief Minister for the rightful possession of their lands, but justice has not been done.

Guna/MP— In the first week of July, a video recording from Guna, Madhya Pradesh (MP), showing a 45-year-old woman ablaze in a field went viral. A week later, on July 8, 2022, the woman succumbed to her injuries at Bhopal’s Hamidia Hospital. Three days after the incident, the police arrested a total of five people accused in the case and presented them at Guna District Court. According to news reports, the accused themselves had recorded the video while setting Rampyari on fire.

When Land Conflict Watch [LCW] visited the area, it emerged that Rampyari Bai’swas not an isolated case. In this area, hundreds of acres of land belonging to the Sahariya Adivasis have been poached by illegal occupants from dominant groups. Adivasis have been leased these lands by the government but they are not being able to rightfully till the land.

The Adivasis have submitted letters of complaint to the administration, to the judiciary, even to the Governor and the Chief Minister, but there has been no response or any action taken. The influence of the dominant group of poachers is so strong here, that despite being removed from the land of the Sahariya families several times by the tehsil-level land officials, they have instead each time forced the Adivasis off their own land.

It was against this situation that Rampyari and her husband had tried to raise their voice, for which they have paid dearly.

Why was Rampyari set on fire?

The incident happened in Dhanoria village in the Bamori tehsil of Guna district. Dhanoria is a forest village located 200 km away from the state capital Bhopal and is not easy to reach. The access roads are still dirt tracks and most of the houses are made of mud.

Dhanoria has a population of about 1,000, and about 50% belong to the Sahariya community. There are no opportunities for employment here and the villagers remain dependent on agriculture.

In fact, Arjun Sahariya (husband of the deceased Rampyari), who belongs to this village, was given a lease for 1.35 hectares of government land exactly 22 years ago, on the orders of the Naib Tehsildarunder a state government land distribution scheme. This scheme for allocating land to the still-landless Dalit and Adivasi communities in the state. The Tehsildar’s order states that 700 hectares of land would be distributed to the landless people of Dhanoria and other nearby villages.

According to the FIR [first information report] registered with the police (complainant Arjun Sahariya) on July 2, 2022, Pratap Dhakad, Hanumat Dhakad and Shyam Dhakad of the Dhakad caste (OBC category) had poached his tenure land.

Copy of the Tehsildar’s order [Photo Credits - Satish Bhartiya]
Copy of the Tehsildar’s order [Photo Credits – Satish Bhartiya]

According to the FIR, the accused were booked under sections 307 (punishment for attempt to murder) and 34 (when an act is committed by several persons with a common intention) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The accused were also booked under section 3(2)(v) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

In 2021, the tehsil administration helped Arjun to repossess the land twice (on June 16 and 28). But the accused still did not vacate the land. At that time, Arjun once again attempted to have the land freed from encroachment by the accused under section 250 of the Madhya Pradesh Land Revenue Code. This section provides the tehsildar the power to remove poachers. Under this section, on March 8, 2022, the administration managed to obtain protection for Arjun’s with the aid of the police, but the accused did not yield.

‘On February 4, 2022, the accused also beat me up over the land,’ said Arjun. Given this situation, when Arjun reached his farmland at around 2.30 pm on July 2, he saw the accused running away and his wife on fire. In the hospital, Rampyari, who had suffered 80% burns, was only able to tell Arjun that the six accused had ‘poured diesel on me and set me on fire.

Arjun also said that MP Panchayat and Rural Minister Mahendra Singh Sisodia had had Rs 4 lakh deposited in his account as compensation.

Pushprag Sharma, a lawyer practicing at the Madhya Pradesh High Court, has the following view regarding the occupation of Adivasi land:  ‘I know many such Adivasis who have moved the court under the land revenue code section 250 on land poaching, and the verdict was also in their favour. But their tehsildars have not able to implement the court’s decision.’

Years of occupation and repression

In the early 2000s, the Digvijay Singh government reduced the state-owned grazing land from 7.5% of the total state land to 5% and then to 2%, and the rest of the land was allocated to the landless Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SC/ST) families. This was also mentioned in the Bhopal Declaration of January 2002.

This has also been documented in the book Bhopal Manifesto published by Action Aid. The book, while providing details of government data, states that about 7 lakh acres (2 lakh 83,000 hectares) of land were allocated to 3.44 lakh landless SC/ST families.

As part of this work during that time, the Sahariya community was also given land leases. But soon after that, the leased lands also began to be poached. Regarding this encroachment, Jagdish Sahariya of Dhanoria alleged, ‘In Dhanoria village, the entire Sahariya community has 365 bighas (40.69 hectares) for grazing cattle, and 16 people were given land leases (pattas) under the scheme of distribution of government land [bhu-dan] but all this has been seized.’

Arjun added, ‘When we demand our land from the poachers who have influence, they say that we will kill you. They can talk like this because they have far more land and wealth (power) than the Sahariyas.’

Guna is included in the category of socially and economically backward aspirational districts in the country. The Aspirational District Programme was launched by the Prime Minister in January 2018, and it aims to evaluate the progress of these districts on the basis of 49 developmental indicators.

Yet the pace of development for the Adivasis here is slow. They have to deal with existential struggles and are also victims of exploitation. Giving a glimpse of the situation, Narendra Singh Bhadauria, district coordinator of Bandhua Mukti Morcha, a non-profit organization said, ‘There are large numbers of people of the Sahariya community in Guna district. There are many also in Bamori tehsil… The Adivasis who have land in Bamori, all have leased the land from the government, but they are not able to till this land. It is the dominant groups who are tilling it instead.’

Narendra Bhadauria, District Convenor of Bandhua Mukti Morcha [Photo Credits - Satish Bhartiya]
Narendra Bhadauria, District Convenor of Bandhua Mukti Morcha [Photo Credits – Satish Bhartiya]

According to Bhadauria, most of the land is captured by ensuring people as bonded labourers.

A survey by the Guna Kendra of the country-wide organization Ekta Parishad (which works on land rights) shows that the poaching of Adivasi land is not limited to Dhanoria. An analysis of documents collected by the Ekta Parishad from 2018 to 2022 shows that complaints have been made regarding land grabbing of about 100 hectares across seven villages (out of a total of 223 villages) in Bamori tehsil. The documents include the written complaint by the Ekta Parishad and Sahariya villagers submitted to the Madhya Pradesh governor and district magistrate as well as the order of the Naib Tehsildar (Land Revenue Code, Section 250).

In the last five years, according to Ekta Parishad Guna, 25 memorandums have been submitted to the administration regarding land encroachment, but the issue has not been resolved.

The letter to the Governor also included a list of disputed revenue lands (which was based on the complaints made by and documents provided by the villagers). According to this list, the land grab includes 53.189 hectares of land for which 36 Sahariya people from 10 villages in Bamori tehsil have leases, and13.376 hectares of revenue land for which nine Bhilala Adivasi people of Panheti village have leases.

In an application dated July 23, 2021 to the Guna District Collector, more than 80 bighas (8.91 hectares) of land belonging to 11 people from the Scheduled Tribes in Panheti village is illegally occupied.

The letter notes that with some coercion and the connivance and apathy of the Forest and Revenue departments, there is a relentless drive to push out the poor and uneducated villagers belonging to the Scheduled Tribes from our rightful land and village.’ At the end of the letter, the villagers also make a demand for security in the village.

Convener of Ekta Parishad Guna, Suraj Sahariya, holds out the land possession papers [Photo Credits - Satish Bhartiya]
Convener of Ekta Parishad Guna, Suraj Sahariya, holds out the land possession papers [Photo Credits – Satish Bhartiya]

Another complaint, dated March 4, 2020, was submitted to Guna District Collector, Guna Sub-Divisional Officer and Bamori Tehsildar. The letter recorded the complaint of poaching 18.227 hectares of land leased to nine Sahariya people from Paronda, Johri and Bamuria villages.

In the letter, the complainants stated that “We have informed the patwari[village-level official who maintains land and revenue records] several times regarding the land [poaching], but, due to corruption, the patwari is on the side of the influential encroachers and is not getting them off our land.”

The LCW also spoke to two Sahariya Adivasis from Baghri and Paranth villages. They alleged that their 4.55 hectares of land had been poached. Two of these are brothers Amar (whose both legs are disabled) and Lakshman (who is visually challenged) Sahariya of Paranth village. They together possess a total of 4 hectares of land.

The memorandum to the CM submitted by Amar Singh Sahariya to the collector [Photo Credits - Satish Bhartiya]
The memorandum to the CM submitted by Amar Singh Sahariya to the collector [Photo Credits – Satish Bhartiya]

Amar explains: ‘Our land has been occupied by DasarathKiraar [who belongs to the Other Backward Classes]. About whom I have complained six times to the Collector. But there has been no hearing. When we ask Dasharathto return our land, he threatens that they will dig a pit in the land and bury us in it, and if you try to take action then we will set you ablaze just like the woman in Dhanoria was dealt with. I am disabled, for how long will I beg to eat?’

When LCW spoke to Ramesh Sharma, the national general secretary of Ekta Parishad about the occupation of land belonging to the Sahariya and other Adivasi communities, he said, “The Sahariyas, the Adivasis are landless all over Madhya Pradesh. Where they are given land as per the land laws, they do not have access to adequate resources. That is why their lands get taken over.’

‘The Adivasis are resource-poor and also lack security. This is because they are on the lowest rung of society,’ Sharma adds.

The LCW called the District Collector Frank Noble A. on the phone in regard toRampyari’s case in Guna, where she had been set ablaze, and the poaching of the lands belonging to the Adivasi community. But he declined to comment.

When the matter was taken to the Guna Sub-Divisional Officer of Police (SDOP) Yuvraj Singh Chauhan, he said, ‘Six accused persons have been arrested in connection with the burning of Rampyari Sahariya of Dhanoria village. The bereaved party has demanded a CID investigation. If an order is received from above, then an inquiry will be conducted.’

In regard to land poaching, Chauhan said, ‘Many cases of land poaching happen in this area. When we received the orders to take action, we do so.’

[Story Translated By Lotika Singha]

Satish Bhartiya
Satish Bhartiya
Satish is an intern at Indian Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change and natural resources in India.

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