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Out of the wilderness

india Updated: Jan 01, 2008 00:32 IST
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The dust over the Gujarat elections has begun to settle and the post-mortems have begun. The pundits have zeroed in on three or four reasons for the Congress’ defeat. One of them is the stalling of the Forest Rights Act, which apparently cost the Congress a large number of potential tribal supporters and which — belatedly — will be notified today. Is this diagnosis correct? Why should what seems to be an arcane welfare scheme make such a difference to a state election?

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, is not a welfare scheme. Rather, it aims at correcting the century-long State takeover of resources belonging to the country’s tribal and forest communities. Contrary to allegations, this Act does not ‘hand out’ or distribute land to anyone. It addresses one basic problem: what are called ‘forests’ in Indian law, presumed by many to be ‘pristine wilderness’, are nothing of the kind; crores of people live inside these forests.

Why do many of them not have rights to the land they live on? The reason is India’s forest laws. The forest Acts aimed to bring all forests under a centralised Forest Department’s control and to take over the lands and rights of forest-dwellers. At first, this was justified in the name of easier timber extraction; then, post-Independence, for the nation’s industrial requirements; and finally, for conservation. Whatever the justification, the policy has remained the same.

Thus, according to the law, at the time of declaring a ‘forest’, a settlement officer surveys and settles the rights of people. Unsurprisingly, these settlement officers either did nothing or only recorded the rights of those who were powerful. Millions of people, mostly tribals, lost their rights and were deemed ‘encroachers’ in their own homes. To this day, 82 per cent of Madhya Pradesh’s forest blocks have not been surveyed, while 40 per cent of Orissa’s forests and 60 per cent of our national parks have not completed settlement of rights. In Gujarat, a survey found that even when the government claimed to recognise land titles, only 5 per cent of the eligible claimants actually got pattas.

As a result of this, neither forests nor the people gained. Those deemed ‘illegal’ are subjected to extortion, assault, jail or arbitrary eviction. It is no accident that tribals are the poorest communities in the country today.
Forests, in turn, came under the highly centralised control of the bureaucracy, which treats them as property to be sold to the highest bidder. This happens through corruption and legal diversion of forests for industrial, mining and development purposes, which has already destroyed five lakh hectares of forest between 2001 and 2006. Forest dwellers who oppose destruction of their homelands find themselves facing criminal cases, arrest and eviction.
The Forest Rights Act aims to address this through two steps. First, it recognises the tribals’ rights to land and forest resources that they were using as of 2005 (non-tribals have to prove 75 years of residence). No land is ‘given’; no one receives title to land that they are not already cultivating. Second, it gives communities the right to protect forests, empowering them to be partners in conservation rather than its victims.

So why has the government delayed the Act? Such change is not liked by the forest bureaucracy, by the industrial groups that currently enjoy easy access to forest land, or by a few conservationists who now equate the forest bureaucracy with conservation. The firestorm of opposition to this Act has taken place in the name of tiger conservation, but its essential theme has been that all power should remain with the bureaucracy. Anything else, we are told, will lead to catastrophe for tigers, forests, or both. This is despite the fact that the Act itself provides safeguards against land-grabbing and a procedure for how people can be resettled where necessary for wildlife, a procedure supported by environmental organisations.

Given such powerful opposition, even when passing the Act, the government modified some key clauses, severely weakening the law’s provisions. For a full year after its passage, the government stalled the law’s implementation. Today, according to the minister, the Act will be notified into force. But even this may not end the charade, for the rules to the Act will likely again be heavily diluted.

Meanwhile, ten days ago, more than 100 families were evicted in Madhya Pradesh and their homes demolished; forest guards opened fire twice, seriously injuring six people. Forest destruction also continues, with the ministry hastily clearing new industrial and mining projects. The notification today will be a step forward. But if the rules are diluted further, it will only show that mere electoral defeat is insufficient to shake the government's commitment to vested interests. It is a commitment that has already extracted a heavy price.

Shankar Gopalakrishnan is an activist for Campaign for Survival and Dignity