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Forest Act comes into force, green activists cry foul

Amid strong opposition from environmentalists, the government grants tribals and forest dwellers rights over land and forest produce, reports Chetan Chauhan.

india Updated: Jan 02, 2008 03:14 IST
Chetan Chauhan
Chetan Chauhan
Hindustan Times

Amid strong opposition from environmentalists, the government on Tuesday notified the rules enforcing the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, giving tribals and forest dwellers rights over land and forest produce.

Almost 80 years after "historic injustice" was done via Indian Forest Act, 1927 taking away all forest rights of tribals and dwellers, the Central government took about two years in implementing the law once it was introduced in Parliament.

But, the law will not be applicable in the critical tiger habitats notified by Environment and Forest ministry on Monday. This will allow the government to relocate about 10,000 villages living in 27 tiger reserves for which the government has provided about Rs 4,000 crore.

The move is aimed at pacifying the strong tiger lobby, which had claimed that Forest Rights law would be a death trap for the already dwindling tiger population, and Congress high command, which had expressed similar concerns.

The Forest Rights law allows gram sabha, the elected village body, to restore traditional, land and community rights to tribals and forest dwellers, provided they have been living there for the last 25 years. The period will be calculated from December 2005.

The proviso, environmentalists claim, would be a death knell for Indian forests. "See what has happened to 250-square kilometre of forests near Ranchi, which was declared 'munda kodkhati'(area for locals to use forest). There is not even a single tree left there," said P.K. Sen, former Project Tiger, Director. Environmentalists like he and Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India believe that the government has put the country's fragile wildlife into grave danger by implementing the law in the present form. But, Valmik Thapar, a wildlife activist, was a little more cautious. He said, "In my opinion the law will have serious repercussions on wildlife in India. But for the time being I will keep my fingers crossed."

The Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a federation of tribal and forest dwellers' organisations from eleven states, welcomed the government decision and termed it a victory for all tribals and forest dwellers. In the same vein, the federation also accused the government of watering down the primary Act in the rules, notified on Tuesday. "The rule 3(1) defines the gram sabha as the gram sabha of the panchayat, which would include

numerous actual villages. This will make democratic functioning impossible (as the number will simply be too large); further, in many areas forest dwellers will be the minority. This contradicts both the Forest Rights Act — section 2(p) of which clearly states that, in Scheduled Areas at least, the gram sabha should be that of the hamlet — as well as the

panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996. The rule will make the law impossible to implement," said Shankar, convenor of the federation.

The tribal affairs ministry officials, however, said that the district administered would be trained on implementing the law as desired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a recent meeting of National Wildlife Board.