Tribal forest dwellers may be upbeat, but the ministry of Forest and Environment has chosen to remain silent on the National Forest Commission's comments on the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill.
The Commission said the Bill would be harmful to the interest of the forest and the country's ecology. The panel said encroachment at the rate of 3.60 lakh acres (per annum) has already been removed and the state governments could appoint commissions, headed by a judge, to look into the claims which have not been settled, and it should not be left to the gram sabha to act as the arbiter as stated in the Bill.
In its comments on the commission's recommendations submitted to the Prime Minister's Office, the ministry has been silent on the recommendations 340-345 of the tribal rights bill. "The government ministry is looking into it,” an official explained.
The ministry's neutral stand has helped the Group of Ministers headed by Foreign Minister Pranab Mukerjee to end the stalemate on the recommendations of the Joint Parliamentary Committee's report on the Tribal Bill. “The GoM has agreed to the dilutions suggested by the Tribal Affairs ministry in the JPC report,” said an environment ministry official.
The Joint Parliamentary Committee had recommended that the rights of the forest dwellers, irrespective of whether they are tribal or not, should be recognised. It suggested that the cut-off date to recognise rights should be December 2005 and not October 1980, as stated in the original bill, and the gram sabha should be vested with the power to decide.
But the government does not see eye-to-eye with the JPC. There are a few areas where they differ. The GoM has recommended that only rights of tribals would be recognised and the cut-off date could not be December 2005.
But in a breather to forest dwellers, the GoM recommended financial compensation for relocation, apart from land in lieu of that taken over by the state government. The group of ministers also suggested that all parties should be taken into confidence before rehabilitation. The Tribal Affairs ministry is drafting a new Bill based on GoM recommendations to table in the Cabinet. The legislation is likely to be introduced in the winter session.
The Left Parties and conservation lobby might oppose the Bill. CPI-M politburo member Brinda Karat has been demanding that the JPC report should be accepted in totality. "There is no scope for dilution," she said. PK Sen, former director of Project Tiger, accused politicians of trying to grab forest land by selling plots to tribals and then "transferring them illegally".
"I am sure that the Tribal Rights law will result in devastation of forests as politicians will reap the benefit of their claim to forest land," he said. Vandana Shiva of Navdanya Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, however, takes a middle path. "The government should try to strike a balance between tribal rights and conservation. Both the necessary to save India's huge biodiversity."