It’s the green brigade on one side and forest dwellers on the other. And caught in between is a Bill that seeks to give powers to tribals who have been living in and around forests for years, possibly centuries.
The revised forest dwellers Bill is unlikely to be introduced in the monsoon session of Parliament, beginning July 24. The question now is who will introduce the Bill in Parliament. The Tribal Affairs Ministry says that with the revised Bill including the right of forest dwellers, it does not have the mandate to introduce the bill as it deals with tribals, not forest dwellers. That, they say, is the Environment and Forest Ministry’s domain.
The Forest Ministry has never been keen on the bill. Their stand -- also the environmentalists’ -- is that giving forest dwellers such powers will sound the death knell of forests. Sources say the issue will now be decided by a group of ministers headed by Defence Minister Pranab Mukerjee. “The matter has not been sorted out as the two ministries will present their case before the GoM, slated to meet sometime in July,” a government official said.
The Tribal Affairs Ministry and the Environment Ministry have never agreed on the Bill. While the former wanted the interests of tribals to be protected in the bill, the environment ministry felt giving tribals absolute rights would jeopardise conservation efforts.
Matters had reached such a head that a meeting was called at the Prime Minister’s Office last year to sort out the issue. It was then decided that national parks and sanctuaries would be exempted from the Bill.
The Bill was introduced in Parliament in December 2005 and was referred to Joint Parliamentary Committee. The committee submitted its report in the budget session and recommended a large number of changes in Tribal Bill, converting it into a Forest Dwellers Rights Bill.
Both the Environment Ministry and conservationists were again up in the arms against the Parliamentary panel report. “The recommendations will result in the death of forests and the wildlife. Overriding powers have been granted to gram sabha for protecting rights of forest dwellers without any accountability. Only forest mafia will gain from the revised bill,” said PK Sen, former Director of Project Tiger.