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Green devolution

The Tribal Bill must reinstate its commitment to conservation. In this, forest-dwelling communities have a far greater responsibility than the Bill envisages for them at present, writes Bahar Dutt.

india Updated: Aug 24, 2006 03:55 IST

The Congress had it as part of its election promises. The BJP wants to see it through since most states where it’s ruling are dominated by adivasis. The Left’s been pushing for it. Then why hasn’t the Tribal Bill been cleared by Parliament?

It’s perhaps the most controversial Bill put forward by the UPA coalition. The Recognition of Forest Dwellers Rights Bill will, after all, impact the fate of millions of forest dwellers — people for whom the State has no numbers. As per existing forest laws, they are encroachers. And the Bill has created a simplistic divide — between tiger and tribal supporters. Enough has been said for and against the Bill. I intend to raise only two issues: the role the urban/English language media have played, and the complexities of some issues the Bill has raised.

The urban media have shown a clear bias against the Bill. This is not surprising, given that they and their readers/viewers share a disconnect with forest issues. When does an urban city dweller encounter forests? Usually on weekend holidays to, say, Corbett National Park, when they drive down quaint country lanes to see tigers. The media have happily propagated the belief that people shouldn’t be living in forests. That’s what our laws say and that’s what we would like to believe on our weekend breaks. Forget the fact that nearly 200 million people in this country depend on forests.

The debate in the national media has stuck to one silly point: should tribals live in forests or should they be moved out and given access to development? It’s suddenly upto a handful of individuals in New Delhi to decide where the tribals should live. Writer-ecologist Ramachandra Guha has rightly remarked that the influence the wildlife conservation lobby is able to exercise over policy makers is no surprise considering their ideological and physical proximity to the people in power. And yet, the same urban elite does not protest as vociferously when forests are diverted for the construction of roads, dams or mining. Between 1951 and 1981, forest authorities diverted 4.2 million hectare of forest land for non-forest use — three times the area currently under ‘encroachment’. Yet, no one from these elite sections protested.

Moving beyond the simplistic point of whether tribals should live in forests or not, the Bill raises more complex issues that warrant attention. More so, with the recommendations of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) that was appointed to look into the Bill. The JPC has made three vital recommendations. First, the Bill should deal with all forest dweller groups, and not just Scheduled Tribes as the original Bill had envisaged. In India, it’s not just adivasis who live in forests, but also others like the Van Taungiyas in Uttaranchal or Scheduled Caste communities in Tamil Nadu. The JPC has thus expanded the scope of the Bill to all communities that have been living in forests for more than three generations.

Second, the cut-off date for deciding who can be vested with rights for living in forests has been pushed forward to December 2005, when the Bill was first tabled. Third, forest dwellers can claim rights to any amount of land they have been cultivating, provided they can prove it to the authorities. The power to resolve these conflicts is vested with gram sabhas and not the forest department.

But there are problems with the JPC recommendations. The most predominant is that the Bill must reinstate its commitment to conservation. The original Bill has Sections 4(7) and 7, which specifies the responsibilities and duties of forest dwellers to conserve nature and natural resources. The JPC’s version has removed these sections, and in their place put the onus on ensuring conservation on the gram sabha (Section 5[1]). The JPC version does not even place responsibility on the gram sabha, but only gives it the powers to achieve conservation. And what of situations in which the gram sabha allows for unsustainable use of resources? For instance, who will be responsible if a rights holder allows for stone quarrying on his land, which can cause damage to the ecology of the place? Will the forest department step in or the gram sabha? The Bill does not specify who is the enforcement authority in case of violations. Even earlier penalties for imposition of fines in case of violations have been removed.

Perhaps the most troubling part of the JPC recommendations is Section 3(2), which allows for forest land to be developed. Roads have been scientifically documented to have a direct impact on breeding and survival patterns of wild animals. Animals die in collisions with vehicles; they change behaviour; roads consume land so there is less range for animals to use. The JPC has suggested cutting down of no more than 75 trees for bringing development to forest areas where forest dwellers reside. Why this magical number of 75? Some forest areas are so patchy that even the cutting down of two trees could wreak ecological havoc.

If India is truly committed to community-based conservation, it must look beyond the Tribal Bill. India is not the only country where indigenous people have lost traditional land to wildlife conservation. The Kakadu National Park in Australia was set up on Maori indigenous land through a system of contracts with indigenous people. National parks in South Africa, too, were declared after contractual agreements with local communities. The money from visiting tourists was used for community development and their ancestral lands were set aside for conservation. These are the schemes we must turn to.

The Tribal Bill has brought to the forefront the chaos that prevails in India’s forests. The management of India’s forests may be poised for a revolutionary change. But in this, communities and the proponents of the Bill have a far greater responsibility to play. They can do a better job than the State-led forest department in protecting India’s natural wealth. And if they do not, the tiger lobby is ready with their lines — communities cannot conserve. In the meantime, Parliament must discuss the Bill and resolve these conflicts rather than abdicating its responsibility to one committee after another.

The writer is a wildlife conservationist and does special reports on the environment for CNN-IBN