Nature Talk

    No concern for environment shall pass as genuine without recognition of the inalienable rights of the tribals over their forest habitation. To treat them as encroachers and consider them as the cause of deforestation and depletion of wild life resources is to deny the nature’s arrangement of co-existence. One wonders as to how the subscribers of such view explain the preservation of the forest and conservation of the wild life resources for ages prior to any official act came into operation. Even the recent statistics runs counter to such view; while only 1.9% of the total forest area is declared to be encroached as per the report in 2002 by the Ministry of Environment and Forest, 60% of the total forest area is found to be degraded as per the report in 1999 by the Forest Survey of India. Yet the Ministry of Environment and Forest issued a circular to all the States and Union Territories to summarily evict all the forest dwellers as encroachers. That the people who have been living for ages and enjoying the customary rights on their land be finally declared as encroachers of their land by the State which came into being much later certainly makes one sit up and ask who really is the encroacher? Unless the flow of time is reversed when past becomes present and present becomes past, age old tribals can not be called encroachers within the dictionary meaning of the word. In this context, the situation of the forest dwellers as against the State appears similar to that of the proverbial lamb drinking water down stream, yet accused by the tiger of polluting water with which he was quenching his thirst upstream.

    History reveals a colonial legacy behind such outlook. It was only with the enactment of Indian Forest Act in 1865 that the State’s exclusive control was established and consequently customary rights of the tribals did not receive the official recognition. Unfortunately this outlook continues despite the fact that the National Forest Policy of 1988 for the first time recognized the customary rights of the tribal people and subsequently many circulars have been released which are favourable to the tribal interest. It is an irony that when such policies and circulars are in abundance the tribals face increasing threat of losing their land, which manifest in tribal uprisings.

    The State requires eviction of the tribals in the name of environment protection, yet allows in the lands so vacated establishment of big industries which cause destruction of forest, pollution of water resources, and depletion of biodiversity. If the environment is the real concern of the State and conservation of the forest is its genuine priority, then the forest dwellers should be protected and a sense should not be created in them that the forest does not belong to them. Rather the State should take notice of the wide spread network of sacred groves as the evidence of forest dwellers commitment to protect forest and hence justification for their protection. On the other hand no impression should be allowed to germinate that forests are evacuated of human population to be handed over for commercial purposes to the big business.

    The basic premise is one does not destroy its source of living. Forest dwellers derive their sustenance from the forest and they have been doing so for ages. Forest belongs to them as much as they belong to the forest. Forest is as sacred as mother. So they can not destroy the forest. On the other hand if the State recognises their right they can be the real deterrent to destroyers of the forest.