Indigenous rights in the spotlight as Indian states head to polls

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A tribal woman shows her ink-marked finger after voting at a polling centre during the seventh phase of India's general election, in Rangareddy district in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

Several speeches by India's opposition leader have focused on the rights of indigenous people and farmers

BANGKOK - The rights of farmers and indigenous people have grabbed an unlikely spotlight as three Indian states head to the polls, underlining growing discontent with land policies ahead of crucial national elections, analysts and activists said.

Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh states have elections starting this week, pitting the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against the main opposition Congress Party.

While election rallies typically see grand promises to generate jobs and alleviate poverty, several speeches by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi have focused on the rights of indigenous people and farmers.

"The tribal people must have their rights over land, water and forests," he said in a recent election rally in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

Gandhi vowed to implement a long-delayed law on tribal rights if the party is voted into power, and accused the BJP of diluting the Forest Rights Act (2006) and an earlier law that gave indigenous communities veto power over protected land.

Both laws, as well as the Land Acquisition Act (2013) which required consensus and a social impact assessment for purchases, were enacted by a Congress-led government.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also commented on indigenous communities.

"Rights to jal, jungle, jameen (water, forest, land) has always been a demand of indigenous people," said Madhu Sarin, a researcher who had advised on drafting the FRA.

"That the two biggest leaders are talking about them shows they can no longer ignore the discontent over denial of rights. It is an indication of what's to come in the national election," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

There are about 650 disputes over land across India affecting more than 7 million people, according to the research firm Land Conflict Watch, as demand for land increases to build infrastructure such as highways and airports.

Modi, who faces five state elections and a general election due by May, praised tribal communities in his monthly radio address in October for protecting forests and the environment.

"The nation is indebted to the tribal communities for saving the country's forest land," he said.

The Forest Rights Act aimed to improve the lives of impoverished tribes by recognising their right to inhabit and live off forests where their forefathers settled.

Under the law, at least 150 million people could have their rights recognised to about 40 million hectares (154,400 sq miles) of forest land. But progress has been slow.

About 40 percent of claims have been approved, according to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

Activists say most of these claims are for individual rights rather than for more important community rights.

"For tribal people, these laws have a direct impact on livelihoods," Alok Shukla, president of the advocacy group Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (Save Chhattisgarh Movement).

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