BJP Government in HP Working to Destroy Small Apple Farmers
The long standing issue of the small apple farmers has yet again assumed alarming proportions. Himachal Kisan Sabha which has been organizing the apple farmers in the state under the banner of ‘Seb Utpadak Sangh’ (Apple growers association) and has fought continuous battles on the issues is again at the forefront. The production of apple in the state has been dwindling in last few years first due to ecological reasons and later due to the manmade disasters like demonetization and GST. The non-seriousness of state governments in creating infrastructure for research on apple farming and for storage and transportation of apples has also affected the production drastically.
Rakesh Singha, the MLA from Theog constituency and secretary of Himachal Kisan Sabha has alleged that the government is working to destroy the horticulture farmers in the garb of court ruling. He also raised serious on the functioning of the SIT formed by the High Court.
“Apple farmers are being targeted and being made landless. The felling of apple trees in the state and the legality of the ownership has been a long standing issue in the state. The governments in the state have changed; however, both Congress and BJP have failed to keep the position of apple farmers in the court”, said Singha. He called upon the chief minister to call an all Party meeting on the issue. He also said that if the government fails to do anything then Kisan Sabha will not hesitate in even taking legal route to step up the fight.
The 163 land revenue act was amended in the state assembly in the year 2000. 1, 69,339 apple farmers applied for regularization until 15 August 2002. However, at this point an appeal was made in the court that has put a stay on the amendment made by the assembly. A court order by the bench of Justice Kamlesh ordered to continue the process of regularization, while no new leases were to be given. This whole issue was raised recently in the assembly too, yet the government has failed to take any step. Kuldip Singh Tanwar, the state president of HKS said that “While on one hand the forest department and the state government are hell bent in making the apple farmers landless and pushing them towards precarity, land is being given to big corporate, private educational institutions and thugs like Ramdev at cheap prices.” Kisan Sabha has suggested that until the issue is solved, forest department can be handed over the responsibility of the apple trees, instead of cutting them down.
The root of the issue lies in the refusal of the then Congress government of the state in implementing the Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA). This act was formed by the UPA 1 government in centre due to the pressure of the left parties which were supporting the government from outside. FRA was instrumental in giving the rights of forest and its resources to the dweller community instead of evicting people after declaring them encroachers. The tribals and other forest dwellers have been struggling over the last decade for the correct implementation of the FRA. This struggle has ensured that lakhs of hectares of ‘encroached land’ was regularized across India. Surprisingly, the Himachal Pradesh Government didn’t implement it, saying the state doesn’t need it. The state government was informed regarding the shortcoming of not adopting the new regulations, but it didn’t bother to implement it. Now the BJP government at centre is hell-bent in diluting these progressive provisions of the FRA and instead put forth a new draft National Forest Policy 2018. This draft policy eliminates rights of tribals and tribal communities and traditional forest dwellers (TFDs) in ownership and control of non-timber forest produce (NTFP) as also in community resources. It snatches away the rights of gram sabhas for management of forests and instead hands it over to proposed centrally controlled corporations.
Apple farmers in the state have been struggling for the implementation of the FRA. Virbhadra Singh, the then chief minister himself had disagreed with HP High Court’s orders and, repeatedly promised small farmers that policy would be introduced to regularize land encroached by small, poor farmers. In fact, the communities have filed claims for their rights and according to the FRA 2006; no farmer can be evicted until all claims are disposed.
In April 2014, The Himachal Pradesh High Court had ordered eviction of farmers from encroached forest land after which the forest department had started felling green apple trees laden with season’s crop. Electricity and water supply to homes of ‘encroachers’ were also suspended. It is quite obvious that the forest department didn’t dare to touch the farm houses of VIPs built on hundreds of bighas of forest land.
In August 2015, the CM had constituted a high-power committee to look after the matter and had assured formulation of a policy to safeguard interests of small, poor farmers as soon as possible. Small farmers were told that their encroached land would be regularized. However, nothing was done. The BJP government’s record hasn’t been any different. In fact, BJP represents the anti-apple farmer political force in the state and for majority of people in the apple belt of the state BJP is a traitor, an enemy. The reason was being, the horrific incident of police firing on a protest of apple farmers in early 90s that had killed at least half a dozen farmers. The slain farmers are remembered with respect by the people of this belt as martyrs.
The approach of BJP seems to be clear given the policy direction it is taking in the form of draft national policy on forests. However, one more thing is for certain- the apple farmers of the hill state too aren’t going to leave the battlefield.