The march enroute to Mumbai for the rally on March 15
Church workers and rights activists in Maharashtra have welcomed a decision by the western Indian state to restore forest land to tribal people for cultivation.
“A massive protest rally last month forced the government to concede to our demands,” Father Elias Gonsalves, who directs Bombay archdiocese’s Centre for Social Action, said today.
On March 15, over 25,000 tribal people and their supporters from several districts marched barefoot to Mumbai to demand the restoration of their land. They called off the protest after state Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan agreed their demands.
Father Gonsalves said the tribal groups were protesting the government’s refusal to let them cultivate forest land in Raigad district, a right granted to them in the 19th century.
The priest also said archdiocese social workers had educated tribal people on their rights and fought for them in Thane and Raigad districts for many years.
Brian Lobo, co-convener of an umbrella organization of 40 tribal groups and NGOs that organized last month’s march, said the administration has begun the process of recognizing the tribal groups’ “legitimate rights.”
He said the discontent began after a new law, the 2006 Forests Rights Act, failed to recognize the rights of tribal people and other forest dwellers.
Lobo, a Catholic, said activists were shocked when district officials rejected 170,000 out of 288,000 land claims from tribal people.
Lobo, who works with a farm workers movement started by a former Jesuit priest 30 years ago, said last month’s rally had forced the government to democratize the governance of forests as per the new law.
“We will carry on with the struggle until the last tribal in the state get access to his land and forest under this act,” he added.
Ulka Maharaj, another activist, also welcomed the government move and said tribal people’s struggle for justice had begun to pay off.
“But we are still waiting and watching,” she said.
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