My first visit to Bastar, Chhattisgarh (then in Madhya Pradesh), was in the summer of 1999. The region had/has the country’s best forests ---- the canopy is so thick in some areas that you can’t even see the ground ---- but the summer can be dreadfully warm and humid.
However, the beautiful landscape and the distinct smell of pale-green, bulbous mahua flowers --- used for making country liquor, food items and medicines --- made the tough journey through India’s beautiful tribal land a pleasure.
The reason for my Bastar trip was an interesting project started by a young and enterprising district collector, Pravir Krishn along with Bastar’s senior-most forest officer.
The two officers were trying to break the hold of non-tribal middlemen (mostly outsiders) had on the lucrative trade in forest products such as tamarind, mahua, tora seeds, chironji, kosa and honey and hand it over to the poor, forest-dependent tribal communities so that they could earn from what was rightfully theirs.
The project started off well but collapsed after the two officers were transferred out of the district.
“I was going on a routine inspection when I caught a non-tribal trader bartering salt for tamarind. The salt bag was marked unfit for human and animal consumption. That was the worst form of exploitation of tribals I had ever seen,” Krishn told me when I asked him what prompted him to start the project.
It’s been 17 years since my first visit to the region, yet even today the living conditions of a majority of tribals in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere in India have not changed significantly though the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA), 2006, provides for the restitution of deprived forest rights to tribal communities, including both individual rights to cultivated land in forest areas and community rights over common property resources.
DILUTING THE ACT
In the last few months, the NDA government has allowed several states to take away the forest rights of tribals over their traditional lands to facilitate development projects though the FRA does not provide for revocation of either community or individual land rights once granted under the law.
The law and the attendant regulations provide only for the government diverting the forest land for some other purpose after prior informed consent of the tribals through their gram sabha.
But in most cases the decisions have been unilateral.
In its observations on a high-level-committee report of the government, reviewed by HT using the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the government’s think-tank, the Niti Aayog, said that all the key features of FRA “have
been undermined by a combination of apathy and sabotage during the process of implementation”.
It added that the central and the state governments have pursued policies that violate of the spirit and letter of the Act.
“Unless immediate remedial measures are taken, instead of undoing the historical injustice to tribals and other traditional forest dwellers, the act will have the opposite outcome of making them even more vulnerable to eviction and denial of their customary access to forests,” said the Niti Aayog.
TURNING THE CLOCK BACK
While the world over now the trend is to handover forests to communities, India is going the other way.
According to a report by the Rights and Resources Initiative, a global coalition of organisations engaged in forest and land policy reform in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, land ownership has been shifting out of the public domain into the hands of local communities and households, with nearly 60% of China’s forests now legally owned by collectives.
Since China has implemented these reforms, farmers’ incomes have steadily increased and the government has invested more than $50bn in programmes supporting farmers and households for environmental restoration, helping to ease poverty and mitigate the effects of climate change.
Global evidence, including the Chinese experience, the report added, indicates that communities manage forests more sustainably than governments or private entities.
But the Indian government seems to think otherwise. Other than diluting the FRA, it also does not want the money collected from diverting forests lands for industry to go to the communities that live in or are dependent on forests but to the corrupt and inefficient forest bureaucracy.
According to report in Hindustan Times, under a 1980 law, when forest land is diverted for industrial use, the project developer has to pay for compensatory afforestation and the Net Present Value of the forest, to make up for the loss in ecosystem.
India’s forests are worth as much as the combined market value of BSE-listed companies with a notional value of Rs 115 trillion.
In fact, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2016, which was recently passed in Rajya Sabha, gives a carte blanche to forest officials to spend gigantic amounts of money (Rs 40,000 crore) without any accountability to the people whose forests, lands and lives will be damaged or destroyed by their activities.
But several reports including one by the Comptroller and Auditor General has exposed gross mismanagement of CAMPA funds meant for compensatory afforestation.
A report by HT found that massive plantation drives by states over the past decade have not translated into any significant increase in India’s green cover, raising concerns over the efficacy of money-guzzling schemes.
So if the government has been unable utilise the existing funds meant for afforestation, then what is point of evaluating the notional value of the forests and charging more from industrial groups?
If anything, this increase in forest value would make sense only if it deters industry from using forest land and forces them to look elsewhere and the money, which is collected from industrial houses that still take forest land, is used for forest-dependent communities.
Bastar of 2016 is not the Bastar of 1999. Today, it is a hotbed of Maoists with tribals, still desperately poor, unwilling to help the security forces against the Red Army.
This stand does not surprise me; the NDA’s forests policies are bound to alienate them further.