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Governance reform for India's forests

Mihir Shah

The Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill 2005 reaches out to the Adivasi communities and seeks to make them active protectors of the forest, while strengthening their livelihood possibilities.

EVER SINCE the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill 2005 was drafted, it has faced fierce opposition. It seems truly ironic that most of the heat has been generated by a complete misreading of a provision (on the rights of tribes to occupied forest land) that is not a novel feature of the Bill at all. I believe that these provisions constitute the most significant response of the Government of India to the plight of our Adivasis and forest regions since independence.

Adivasis in all regions of India (barring the North-East) live in enclaves. This very distinctive enclavement is a result of a long-drawn-out historical encounter, which led to the aboriginal inhabitants of India being driven, over centuries, further and further away from the alluvial plains and fertile river basins into what have been described as the `refuge zones'— hills, forests and dry areas. What is worse, recent studies indicate that economic development in India has aggravated inter-regional disparities and concentrated poverty and distress, especially in Adivasi pockets. These report the highest rates of migration, indebtedness and corruption. They have also been flashpoints of violent protest, a reflection of the Adivasis' intense disenchantment with the national mainstream.

A key to understanding this violence is the adversarial relationship between Adivasi communities and the Forest Department. As many experienced forest officials concede, its field officers are not equipped to be protectors of the forest in either orientation or capacity. At the same time, there are instances of Adivasis, deprived of their traditional rights of access and forced by compulsions of endangered livelihoods, trying and clearing the forest. The result — violent encounters that only deepen the distance between the adversaries. Times of relative peace see the operation of a licence-quota-permit raj of the forest guard, disallowing access for even rudimentary needs of Adivasis such as fodder, fuel and housing timber. Wildlife protection or prevention of poaching/smuggling is thrown to the winds. What suffers is the forest as also the livelihoods of the poor.

This completely ineffective, fratricidal system of governing the forest is clearly crying out for change. Especially when there are new challenges on the horizon — unprecedented pressures to open up Adivasi hinterlands for commercial exploitation, abrogating many of the special provisions for their protection enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

Will the proposed Bill address these problems? Or will it open up the floodgates to destruction of wildlife as its critics allege? The main charge against the Bill is that it will "hand over 74 per cent of India's forest to 8 per cent of India's population (the Adivasis) in 2005 and the remaining 26 per cent by 2013"! Opponents of the Bill have succeeded in creating such a big alarm with this canard that the sooner it is nailed the better.

The Bill recognises "the right of forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes to forest land under their occupation for habitation or for self-cultivation for livelihood needs . . . provided further that the rights to forest land in no case would exceed 2.5 ha per nuclear family" [clause 3(4)]. Rule 3 (1) of the Bill further states that this right is "subject to the condition that such forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes have occupied forest land or acquired forest rights before 25.10.1980." The critics have taken this to mean that 2.5 hectares of forest land are going to be parcelled out to each of India's 20 million tribal nuclear families, making it a total of 50 million hectares out of the 68 million hectares of forest land in India.

This is simply not what the Bill says. It is not about handing out any forest land whatsoever to anyone. It is only about regularising tribal "encroachments," which according to the Ministry of Environment and Forests are hardly about 2 per cent of all forest land. Obviously not all Adivasis are encroachers, not all of them occupy 2.5 hectares of land. And in this respect the Bill says nothing new at all. 1980 as a date for regularising tribal encroachments has been recognised ever since the National Forest Policy of 1988. The Bill, in fact, represents a going back on the order of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (dated February 5, 2004) that sought to regularise tribal encroachments up to 1993.

The Ministry had itself stated in its affidavit to the Supreme Court in July 2004 that its order of February 5, 2004 was "based on the recognition that the historical injustice done to the tribal forest dwellers through non-recognition of their traditional rights must be finally rectified. It should be understood clearly that the lands occupied by the tribals in forest areas do not have any forest vegetation." This is precisely what the Tribal Bill says. So the question of decimating forests by recognising this right just does not arise.

What every wildlife conservationist in India would do well to realise is that this Bill represents perhaps India's last hope of saving whatever little remains of our forest resources. It recognises what sensitive conservationists have always emphasised — that India's forests can only be saved if we involve the Adivasis in their governance; when they become secure and empowered stakeholders in the process.

Conservation has been most successful in India where Adivasis feel this sense of ownership. This is precisely what the Bill sets out to provide them. It secures 13 rights for the Adivasis that include access to and ownership of minor forest produce, grazing rights, habitat and habitation for Primitive Tribes, settlement of old habitation and un-surveyed villages, and the community right to intellectual and traditional knowledge relating to forest and cultural diversity. The vested forest rights are heritable but not alienable or transferable.

Significantly, they are to be registered jointly in the names of husband and wife. A key provision is for the conversion of forest villages to revenue villages, a long-standing demand of those familiar with the problems of carrying out any development activity whatsoever in forest villages. The right to protect, regenerate or conserve community forest resources that Adivasis have traditionally managed is also recognised.

Rights and responsibilities

Clearly, the Bill is not just about rights. It is also about responsibilities. Hunting is not permitted. It is clearly said that the rights may be exercised only for bona fide livelihood needs and not for commercial purposes. Rights include the responsibility of protection, conservation, and regeneration of forests. It is further elaborated that the forest right holders will ensure that no activity is carried out that adversely affects wildlife, forest and biodiversity in the local area. They will also ensure that the catchment areas, water sources and other ecologically sensitive areas are adequately protected and that their habitat is preserved from any destructive practice affecting their cultural and natural heritage. Any violation of these provisions will be punishable. And just two offences will lead to derecognition of these rights.

There is thus a powerful combination of livelihood and conservationist perspectives in the Bill. It reaches out to the Adivasi communities and seeks to make them active protectors of the forest, while strengthening their livelihood possibilities. And it proposes a major reform in the system of governance of India's forests by bringing the gram sabha centre stage. For it is the gram sabha that will be the authority for recognition and vesting of the 13 rights provided to forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes under the Bill. It will constitute a committee especially for this purpose. This committee, along with local revenue officials, will prepare a map clearly delineating the areas for exercise of these rights. Once the mapping process is completed, it will be presented in a meeting of the gram sabha specially called for this purpose. Traditional methods of publicity in local languages will be used to adequately inform all stakeholders about the entire process.

The biggest weakness of the Bill is that it takes 1980 as the cut-off date for recognition of tribal land rights. This is a potentially dangerous step, bewildering in view of the Ministry of Environment and Forests' own adoption of 1993 as the cut-off date. It could spark off a fresh round of contention and confrontation in forest areas that would completely defeat the entire purport of the Bill. As also the commitment in the Common Minimum Programme of the UPA that "eviction of tribal communities and other forest dwelling communities from forest areas will be discontinued." Both the Adivasis and the Government must realise that without charting a middle path for a full and final settlement of the encroachment issue, peace will not return to the jungle.

(The writer, an economist by training, lives and works among the Adivasis of the Narmada Valley in Madhya Pradesh.)

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