Rehabilitation only in name

Insight

The plight of the Hakki Pikkis, uprooted from forests, reveals failure on the part of the government

A coercive approach to integrating tribal communities into society has ruined the lives of the Hakki Pikkis, a happy-go-lucky nomadic tribe that migrated from Gujarat to southern India years ago. The tribe is still reeling from the consequences of a so-called rehabilitation by the government over 60 years ago. It has left them vulnerable and unfairly compensated.

The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, (also known as Land Acquisition Act) and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, 2006, (also known as Recognition of Forest Rights Act) formulated for rehabilitation following land acquisition, were grievously ignored in case of this forest community, sections of which still struggle to find a livelihood.

Bereft of traditional sources of livelihood, they are losing control over their lives. Once hunting was criminalized, the community was pushed out of forests, their natural dwelling. The “rehabilitation” of 15,000 Hakki Pikki families in Karnataka in the 1950s and 1960s ended their nomadic way of life.

One site they were moved to was a 350-acre land provided by the government near the Bannerghatta National Park, on the outskirts of Bengaluru. Members of the Hakki Pikki and Iruliga tribes live there. Most have not been able to find jobs or any permanent source of income. Many in the community have taken to begging.

“Our people have made a way of adapting to situations. A few of us have even gone to other countries, and learned the way of life there,” says Division, a member of the Hakki Pikki tribe. The tribesmen once hunted birds and sold trinkets and ornaments made from their feathers in the villages they passed through. Some even travelled abroad, making a living selling medicinal herbs.

UNUSUAL NAMES

Depot, Division, Orange, Japan, Wagon and High Court are the names of some elders of the Hakki Pikki community from north Karnataka. As highlighted in the documentary Sikkidre Shikari Illdidre Bhikari, based on the Hakki Pikkis, these names were a result of the British influence in India in the late 1930s and 1940s. The cheerful Hakki Pikkis have named themselves after commonly heard English words.

“If they are going to move us out of our homes, the least that they can do is provide us means to make a living. We have been taken out of the forest, where we knew how to survive. Hunting or collecting medicinal herbs, we were well versed in what we did,” says Depot, a member of the community. “Either give us work or send us back to our homes. That is all we ask.”

Well versed in the ways of the forest, they quickly adapted to the terrain they lived in. But attempts by the government to resettle the tribe in the fifties and sixties threatened their survival.

History of the Land Acquisition Act

The Land Acquisition Act, which came into force on March 1, 1894, governed all land acquisitions in India till 2013. The Act was mainly meant to help the British acquire land for building railways, roads and canals across the country. It was preceded by much lawmaking by the British. The news website Livemint gives a vivid description of the Land Acquisition Act over the years.

After independence, India continued to use the same law, which prompted the rural development ministry to start the process of amending the Act in 1998. A Bill to amend the Act was introduced in 2007 by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. It called attention to the large-scale displacements that happened in the guise of land acquisition, and asked for a Land Acquisition Compensation Disputes Settlement Authority to be set up at the states and the Centre.

However, the bill fell through in the Rajya Sabha, and had to be later reintroduced in 2011 as the Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill. It focused on compensation to the affected population, outlining rules and regulations within which a fair land acquisition must take place. The concept of rehabilitation as opposed to forceful relocation was emphasized in the Bill. The Bill was finally passed in 2013. It became a law on January 1, 2014.

A dependent community

The Hakki Pikkis who have been relocated to near the Bannerghatta National Park are, in the most part, happy. They are glad they have land to live on, and a roof over their head. They seem to overlook the lack of clean drinking water, the absence of proper livelihood, and the dilapidated condition of their houses.

The sad part is that they have become accustomed to their living conditions, figuring that some intervention from the government is better than none at all. “We get water from two borewells that supply the 300 houses in our colony,” says Manjula Mahaveera, a 24-year-old woman from the colony. “We used to have elephants come in and destroy our houses before, but now that the government has helped construct barricades, we do not face that problem anymore.”

Despite having forests and fields nearby, most of the villagers go work in the city as labourers. The women stay home. The colony has both Hakki Pikkis and Iruligas. “Owing to a shortage of water, the only thing we could cultivate is jowar. Now even that is dying out,” sighs Lingamma, a woman from the Iruliga community.

Pointing at a dilapidated house across her own tiny hut, she says: “The houses for us were built in a hurry. The walls and the roof are extremely weak. Recently, this building, which housed a family of four, collapsed. While the two children survived, the parents passed away.” Though they were forest-dwellers, people of the community are not allowed to graze their cattle in forest land.

Against govt thoughtlessness

“Why should we expect them to adapt to our way of life? They were thriving in the forest, doing what they do best. It is only their resilience that is still sustaining them,” says Madhu Bhushan, a women’s rights activist with Vimochana, who has been helping to rehabilitate the Hakki Pikkis for years.

Madhu Bhushan began her work with the Hakki Pikkis in the late 1980s, when she came with a friend to help ensure that ration cards were given to the relocated community, and to supervise the construction of mud houses for them. In the initial days, the land was still with the forest department, and not handed over to the revenue department.

Over 30 years hence, the government order mandating the release of land to the Hakki Pikkis and Iruligas still remains with the revenue department. It has not been amended yet. “In the earlier days, the community had a confrontational relationship with the forest department and police. The authorities had a preconceived notion that majority of the community were poachers. Adding to the already mounting unrest, in the 1990s, land mafia set its sight on the land,” says Madhu Bhushan.

“Over the years, intervention from NGOs and others has helped the Hakki Pikkis settle down on the promised land. The community at Bannerghatta is in a much better state than it used to be in before, but they still require a push to sustain themselves. They still do not have proper ownership of the land,” she adds.

It has taken years for the community to reach the position it currently is in, owing to the support from NGOs and individuals. However, their living conditions are still poor, with there being no proper water reservoirs or employment opportunities. They still struggle to make ends meet. The condition of their houses and muddy roads is a testament to this.

Failure of ‘rehabilitation’ laws

The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act has provisions to provide fair compensation to those whose land has been taken away. In principle, the Act is supposed to ensure rehabilitation of the people by the body responsible — be it the government or a private company. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act secures the rights of forest dwellers to the land, minor forest produce and community resources they have historically enjoyed.

The ruined lives of the Hakki Pikkis are a testament to the failure of these laws, and the vulnerability of many such nomadic communities living on the edges of the modern world. Many of these communities, such as the one in Belur taluk in Hassan district, have been protesting for years, demanding suitable land for rehabilitation. The situation has also forced many from the community to move to unauthorized government land, leading to forced evictions.

“They have a simple request: Either formulate a law that permits them to stay in the forest and sustain themselves in a manner they are well versed in. Or else teach them to survive the urban way of life,” says cinematographer Vinod Raja, who worked on the documentary Sikkidre Shikari, Ildidre Bhikari, which is based on the life of the Hakki Pikkis.

The plight of the Hakki Pikkis reflects a corrupt approach to infuse tribal communities into a larger, heterogeneous society. In the absence of suitable rehabilitation policies or enforcement of laws designed to protect them, the Hakki Pikkis have, for all practical purposes, been abandoned. The question remains as to why the community is still unable to reap the benefits of a law passed for them many years ago. Official agencies brush aside their demands and tries to hush them. The state has clearly failed the Hakki Pikkis.

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