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Roma Malik has worked closely with forest tribes, local authorities, and the judicial system to design a forest governance model for her native India. She is ensuring that the marginalised forest tribes often neglected by the State are included in the policy-making process, and that they benefit from pending legislation. Her work is significant at a time of rapid privatisation of forest land and arbitrary regulation of the use of forest land by the government.

This profile below was prepared when Roma Malik was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.


Roma Malik has worked closely with forest tribes, local authorities, and the judicial system to design a forest governance model for her native India. She is ensuring that the marginalised forest tribes often neglected by the State are included in the policy-making process, and that they benefit from pending legislation. Her work is significant at a time of rapid privatisation of forest land and arbitrary regulation of the use of forest land by the government.


Roma is using her decade-long association with marginalized forest tribes in central India to shape a forest governance model that protects land, livelihood, and human rights. As part of an organization known as the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW), she and her team are creating a national level association of forest workers so that concerned tribal communities can be instrumental in the ongoing policy-making process. Her work is significant given the increasing interest in forest land and other resources by India’s private sector.

The forest tribes in India have had to grapple with land and livelihood related problems for decades. In the past, activists and political parties have made multiple attempts to address these issues through mass protests and political activism. Roma is approaching the problem at the systemic level. Through her organization, she and her team have been collaborating with government authorities to draft the new Forest Bill and orchestrating the recognition of forest tribals as respected forest workers.

Roma is deepening India’s legal infrastructure by linking land and livelihood-related struggles to the National Human Rights program and by uniting the forest dwelling communities into a national apolitical trade union to strengthen their negotiation powers. Roma is arming the tribal communities with training and awareness programs, documenting land records, and educating professional lawyers about forest law. She has established a Human Rights Law Centre in Sonebhadra district and plans to establish many other similar centers.

Roma’s organization contributed to the framing of the Forest Rights Act and is actively creating the ground-level infrastructure to ensure a fair and just flow of benefits to the forest communities. Roma’s work is both critical and timely in the context of the new Forest Rights Act known as The Scheduled Tribe and Other Forest Dweller (recognition of rights) passed in 2006. By arming communities with the appropriate legal tools and techniques she assists them to adopt a superior alternative to the armed insurgency struggles that have led to innumerable human rights abuses in the past.


India’s land disputes continue to be a source of conflict between poor communities, such as the Dalits (untouchables), Adivasi (tribals), and the State. Land-related injustices have often been the cause of inequitable opportunity. To make matters worse, human rights violations are the worst in the Kaimoor region of Uttar Pradesh, bordering Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh.

Currently, only 1.8 percent of ceiling surplus land has been distributed to the landless cultivating population in the country. Production relations continue to be dominated by feudal forces that propagate an antiquated caste system, and years of constant suppression have led to armed struggles in several parts of the country. Numerous peasant communities are demanding radical agrarian reform, implementation of ceiling laws and fighting for freedom from feudal bondage.

The forest worker and forest producer struggles stem from similar issues. The forest is the main livelihood source for a substantial number of the country’s population. In several states, land being cultivated by tribal communities has been transferred to the Forest Department or overtaken by unscrupulous landlords and corrupt land officials. As a result of this struggle for livelihood, some protesting tribals were identified as naxalites and subjected to indignities. Unfortunately, this has perpetuated a cycle of violence that has been extremely difficult to break, despite the best efforts of several organisations. A number of factors are to blame: First, for years there was no legal platform for forest dwellers and this allowed the state and private individuals to appropriate land that was tilled or used previously as pasture land. Since the villagers did not have documentation or adequate knowledge of the law, they were tricked by zealous land sharks and corrupt officials.

A few years after Roma began working with forest tribals, she experienced first-hand just how difficult it is for Dalits to claim their property rights. A group of tribals and other villagers from Uttar Pradesh approached her organisation to help them fight the Forest Department, complaining that it had taken nearly 250 hectares of their land. Roma and her team of lawyers analysed land records and found that the disputed land was indeed originally slated for agricultural use. Unfortunately, the tribals had nothing to back their claim, but after several years of continued efforts, Roma won them their land.

The second problem facing tribal communities are human rights abuses while struggling for their land and livelihood. In India, the Adivasi still do not have a strong voice. Worse still, an Adivasi woman may not be allowed to file a first information report (FIR, considered a basic right for every individual) with the police to report abuse or violence. As a result, human rights violations are commonplace and often go unreported. Dalits and Adivasis are far too often falsely charged and killed in fallacious encounters with the police. The National Human Rights Commission reports that the majority of violation cases occur in Uttar Pradesh—an area of focus to Roma. The state is further hampered by an extremely inequitable distribution of land. According to a study conducted in 1992, castes in the upper strata control 80 percent of arable land while approximately 60 percent of peasants are poor and marginal farmers. Moreover, unrecognized tenants cultivate about one third of the land.

A lack of national representation is a third aspect to the problem, whereby tribal communities are denied fundamental rights and kept out of policy-making processes. This was the case after independence when the government nationalized the country’s forests. Most tribal villagers suffered due to the lack of ceiling law implementation, forceful land acquisition by the forest department, and denial of the rights to earn their livelihood from forests.


Roma’s strategies aim to provide an alternative to violent conflict in the country’s forest zones and to create a platform for the increased participation of forest dwellers in the country’s policy-making process. Roma demonstrated her ability to do this through her work in the Kaimur region in Uttar Pradesh. The Naxal (violent insurgency) movement was gaining ground due to extensive land disputes, leaving the livelihood of forest dwellers under constant threat. To establish the right to livelihood even when the land ownership was disputed, Roma used women’s groups to form collectives that could successfully use its produce. In 2004, she organized collectives in Kaimur with poor and illiterate Adivasi women and helped them to till the land, use its produce, and eventually procure rights over the land. The last two years have witnessed the women’s harvest around 100 quintal of pulses, even amidst a year of drought. This also aided in bringing conflict experience to an all-time low.

Roma also set up a Human Rights Law Centre in Sonebhadra in 2004 with help from the Human Rights Law Network, and Colin Gonzalves. Its team of four lawyers has accepted many cases representing victims of gross human rights violations.

When the Human Rights Law Centre receives a case from a particular village, it appoints a representative to follow-up in close collaboration with the family, village, or individual. Together they create a local centre that follows the case to the district courts. This ensures that the accused are not further victimized and that they are aware of their civil and political rights. The centre expands gradually as more and more people in the local and neighbouring villages come forward with their complaints. Some of the victims have become leading activists of the local organization. Roma plans to set up many such centres and link land and livelihood-related abuses with human rights violations.

The Human Rights Law Centre also acts as a documentation hub by gathering evidence about land rights and records of the tribals. This detailed exercise is coordinated by Roma and a team of lawyers to strengthen the hand of tribal communities in land ownership-related cases in the future. Apart from land disputes, the centre also reviews matters of encounters, false arrests, detention cases, intimidation, rape, child abuse, Dalit atrocity, starvation deaths, workers rights, environmental issues, revenue matters, civil, and all other criminal matters.

For the centres to work to their optimal potential, Roma has developed a more comprehensive legal framework for forest tribal communities. Thus, the Human Rights Law Centre not only formulates and co-ordinates legal strategies it also educates and trains lawyers to work on such cases at the district level. In three years, Roma has added a third dimension to the centre and is training representatives from the tribal communities as paralegals.

Essentially, Roma strives to create a network of human rights cells. As a first step she wants to expand to four districts (Sonebhadra, Chandauli, Mirzapur, and Varanasi) in Uttar Pradesh but eventually aims to coordinate with the districts and villages across the country. Currently, she works in eight blocks of the Sonebhadra district and wants to reach out to four more. She has identified lawyers to run the centres and to research and document the various human rights violations. Roma also empowers women’s groups to manage the centres and to spread awareness throughout the villages.

To provide a national platform for the tribal communities, with the network of the NFFPFW, Roma works in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Jammu, and Kashmir. Roma would like to align the NFFPFW with the National Trade Union movement to attain greater bargaining power with government agencies and private companies.


Roma understands how to reach out to people and make a difference in their lives. Her work is a clear sign of her ability to think creatively, take on the most difficult of tasks and follow through. Without hesitation, Roma explores new avenues for conflict resolution. She is compassionate and empathetic to the underprivileged, demonstrated by her determination to take on the authorities at Rajaji National Park—the Asiatic elephant corridor. This was her first significant association with forest worker issues and occurred soon after she joined the social organization, Vikalp, in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh. Roma learned the government had shut the tap on forest related livelihood opportunities because elephants had begun to attack villages and destroy crops. The community with whom Roma worked depended on the forest to make ropes out of wild grass and used it to construct furniture in combination with wood. Additionally, if the grass was not cut regularly the forest could easily catch fire. Roma mobilized individuals, mainly women, who eventually forced the government to allow communities living inside national parks the rights to minor forest products throughout Uttar Pradesh. Her impressive work spread to other areas and at the National Convention of NFFPFW (1997), her organization established forest workers as people working in the “unorganized sector” and linked them to the national movement on labour perspectives in the “organized sector.” Soon after, 3 million forest workers were identified in seventeen states as self-employed people whose livelihoods were linked with the forest. Amazingly, the 2nd National Labour Commission accepted this novel definition.

Inspired by her father, a police officer who worked with the tribals, Roma trained as a social worker and began her career with a citizen organization (CO). However, within months she was disillusioned and felt the COs were too far removed from the concerns of the people they professed to serve. She decided to live among the people to better understand their problems and to work with them to find sustainable solutions.

Roma spends most of her time travelling between her homes in Sonebhadra, Delhi, and other villages in the districts where she works. She will soon complete her law degree and hopes to establish a national network of lawyers and paralegals to further assist tribal communities in their fight against human rights violations.