News Clippings

Govt. Of Orissa Activities Report 2004-05

Warrant For Indian Forests
Nanditha Krishna (Director, CPR. Environmental Education Center)
The New Indian Express, 26 Jun 2005

    The Ministry of Tribal Affairs tabled a Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill 2005 at the end of the last session of Parliament. No politician would prefer the environment to a voter and the Marxists are rooting for it, so the bill will sail through, unless civil society objects and raises the issues that will affect our survival.

    The proposed Bill contravenes the Indian Forest Act of 1927, Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 and Forest Conservation Act of 1980 and debars the application of these Acts, This means that there will be no more statutory protection for forests and wildlife.

    The rights given by the Bill are vast and endless, including the right to grazing and to dispute lands; conversion of pattas, leases and grants on forestlands to titles; and conversion of forest villages into revenue villages. The Bill provides for settlement of land rights on forestlands in perpetuity. There are already several court cases over pattas granted by former rulers. Under Chapter 3 (4) (j), the tribals are given access to bio-diversity. This is totally against the provisions of the Bio-diversity Act of 2002 and would permit the felling of trees or even hunting of animals, including the tiger.

    The biggest problem is the proposed distribution of 2.5 hectares of forestland per nuclear family, according to Chapter 3 (4). The concept of a nuclear family is non-existent among tribes. The Bill also permits the land to be used for habitation or self-cultivation for livelihood needs. This means that it can be cleared for agriculture or house construction. How long would it take an enterprising businessman to build a resort in the tribal's name, claiming both habitation, and livelihood needs? It has been done elsewhere in the country.

    Forests constitute only 20 percent or 68 million hectares of India's land, of which less than 17 percent has thick forest, cover. India's stated policy is to increase forest cover to 33 percent. This Bill will do the opposite. India's tribal population is about 83 million. Thus about 60 percent of India's forestland will be lost. Forests are the subject of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs can only frame laws for tribals and has no authority to give rights on forest land. Several tribes are not forest-dwellers, but will still be eligible for 2.5 hectares of forestland. Land is a fixed commodity in a country with a growing population. This meager natural resource should not be distributed to one section of society.

    The large-scale destruction of forests would lead to the disruption of the nutrient cycle and water-harvesting regime, risking the food and water security of the country. The rivers of India originate in the forest. The forest is also the water shed for our wetland systems. Destruction of the forests will only deepen India's water crisis.

    The role of forests in checking pollution and protecting the environment in this era of industrialization will be completely eroded. This principle has been completely ignored.

    The Bill is in total contravention of the universally recognised principle of ecological integrity. Several non-tribal communities live in the forests, but the Bill is silent about them, hence discriminatory. The Bill is also silent about landless tribals occupying forestlands. Distribution of forestlands does not necessarily mean development. West Bengal has an excellent record of land distribution, but very poor social and economic indices.

    Certain duties to protect wildlife, forests and biodiversity have been enjoined on the tribals. But, like the Indian Constitution, these duties are merely guidelines, not obligatory. Working extensively with the tribes of the Nilgiris — the Kurumbas, Kotas, Irulas, Paniyas and Todas — for over 20 years, I am happy that their existence is finally being recognised. They need help to get out of poverty and improve their lives. They also have great knowledge of the forests. But we must not romanticize tribals. After all, India was once all forest, and all her habitants were tribals. Over the centuries, tribal communities became food producers — farmers, traders, priests, warriors and more. Many of our so-called Scheduled Tribes are no longer tribals: they do not live in social groups of families who share their resources and possessions, an essential attribute of a tribe. Do either Ajit Jogi of the Congress or Babulal Marandi of the BJP live in tribal communities?

    To believe that all tribes are equally caring of the forests is naive. The deforestation of the North East is going on with the active connivance of the local tribes. After their conversion to Christianity, they lost their bonding with the forests, the sacred groves once occupied by the spirits of their ancestors and their ancient gods of Nature. The lands leased out to the Todas were sub-leased to tea estates and timber and land contractors. Many tribes are known to be guides for poachers, for they know the forests intimately like people anywhere, there are good tribals and bad tribals.

    Tribals need livelihoods, not a license to be exploited by the land and timber mafia and corrupt officials who alone will benefit by this Bill. Distribution of land to tribals would result in land mafias coming into play to grab the land for commercial ventures. It would be appropriate to study the fate of the people to whom land has been allotted by the Government in the past. It will be a perfect set up for unimaginable corruption and an opportunity for the exploitation of natural resources by powerful killers and crooks.

    There are better methods to fulfill tribal needs. The Joint Forest Management should be strengthened and tribals should have equal access to benefits accruing from the forests, now enjoyed exclusively by the State Forest Departments, There should be reservation for tribals in certain categories of jobs like watchers, forest guards, VAOs, etc, which require more skill and less education. Preference should be given to tribals in those categories of jobs which require higher educational levels, such as forest officers. While no tribal must be forced out of forest land, those tribals who would prefer to move out of forest areas (and believe me, many do) must be rehabilitated on good, productive revenue land.

    The regulatory authority, according to the Bill, will be a Gram Sabha to be set up among the tribals. But the Gram Sabha is a political body and cannot take cognizance of an offence.

    India no longer has the luxury of vast forests. Encroaching villagers poison tigers and kill elephants. They conduct ex-Nawabs and film stars on shikars, grab lands for farm houses and resorts and fell trees for money. The meagre 20 percent must be protected at any cost, even if it means cordoning off forests from human interference.

    This Bill will be catastrophic for Indian forests. It will endanger wildlife and give a free license to the timber and land mafia. It will make a mockery of the Wildlife Crime Bureau proposed by the prime minister. If there are no forests, where will the tiger and other wildlife live? We are already suffering from poor rainfall, water shortage, low soil fertility, pollution and depletion of natural resources. Our children are taught that we need forests to survive. The Tribal Bill gives the license to destroy the environment in one stroke. It is up to society to speak out, to demand the Prime Minister's protection for India's forests and wildlife, which he swore to defend when he took the oath of office.


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