The Scheduled Tribes Tribes and Forest Dwellers bill that was passed by Parliament, has incorporated various amendments proposed by the Left, including acknowledging the rights of non-tribal forest dwellers.
It also provides for a more flexible composition of the gram sabha — as against a specified number proposed in the draft bill — that will implement the law.
The new legislation empowers the gram sabha to take the final call on the rights of forest dwellers.
The bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha on Monday only after Tribal Affairs Minister PR Kyndiah gave a “blanket assurance” to CPI(M) member Brinda Karat that all five amendments moved by her would be incorporated while framing the rules of implementation of the law.
One of the amendments pertained to the definition of “minor forest produce” traditional forest dwellers are entitled to. While the draft bill had not defined it, the amendment suggested that the definition include fuel, wood, stones, fish, weeds and water bodies.
The legislation makes a departure from the original draft that was discussed at the Joint Parliamentary Committee on two other respects. Year 2005 — instead of the earlier proposal of 1980 — has been fixed as the cut-off year for determining which tribals and forest dwellers will get right to own forestland.
Rules framed under the Act will also entitle the use of bicycles and handcarts for tribals and others in the forest areas. The draft bill was opposed to the use of any form of transport in forest areas.
Karat had also demanded a “three-generation norm” for recognising the rights of traditional forest dwellers.
The draft bill was silent on the rights of Sri Lankans and other communities that have been settled in forestlands by the Union government at different points in time. In his reply to the debate in the Rajya Sabha, Kyndiah assured that the rights of these communities would be given a legal stamp.
He said the legislation addressed a historical injustice and provided an instrument for “demolishing the giant iceberg of cruel poverty” that confronts forest dwellers.
The new bill also provides tribals the right to live in the forestland under individual or common occupation. It allows them to exercise community rights, including those used in the erstwhile princely states, zamindari and such intermediary regimes.
The tribal affairs ministry or any officer authorised by the central government will be the nodal agency for implementing the Act.