The forests stand a chance of surviving India's insatiable growth with the Forest Rights Act, says PANKAJ SEKHSARIA
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 3, Dated Jan 24, 2009
http://www.tehelka. com/story_ main41.asp? filename= cr240109tiger_ vs_tribe. asp
IF A list were to be drawn of the most discussed and debated legislations in recent times, The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Rights (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, known popularly as the Forest Rights Act, would surely be amongst the top. The intensity of the discussions and polarised nature of the debates that preceded the enactment of this law and continue even now, after it has been notified, has been noteworthy.
The Act allows:
• A family can own up to four hectares of land that is under occupation or cultivation, subject to meeting other relevant criteria
• A greater role and empowerment of Gram Sabha in determining claims, managing forests it has traditionally conserved, checking processes destructive of forestdwellers' habitats, and protecting traditional knowledge
• Greater livelihood security for traditional forestdwellers who have been denied tenure
• Displacement and relocation only by consent
• Right to development facilities with a limit of 1 ha of maximum 75 trees density per project (in case of which, Forest Conservation Act will not apply)
Photo: AK Varun
The Act seeks its legitimacy when the preamble lays out its purpose as 'correcting the historical injustices meted out to forest-dwelling communities' . A wide spectrum of people including tribal rights groups and activists have welcomed the act. Those opposing the act — a significant section of wildlife protection NGOs, forest bureaucracy and prominent voices in the media, have vehemently argued that the Act and its implementation will drive the final nail into the coffin of India's rapidly shrinking forest cover and beleaguered wildlife. It has been pitched as the ultimate 'tiger vs. tribal' clash — where the tiger (and by extension other wildlife too) will certainly lose and the tribal, in whose name this is being done, will only end up a puppet in the hands of powerful and vested interests.
Those who have taken a relatively neutral position on the Act have also expressed their concerns about certain provisions. For example, December 2005 was made the cut-off date for accepting claims to ownership of lands. They have pointed out that there will be challenges in determining genuine rights. One also can't ignore the possibility of forest areas getting fragmented in the name of development activity such as roads, health centres and transmission lines. The larger fear of vested interests misusing the Act too is justified. Yet, it does seem unfair to put all the causes of India's forest destruction in the basket of this newly-enacted legislation, or at the door of the communities that are expected to benefit from it.
India is a country of more than a billion people of which the tribal population accounts for about 10 percent. These and other similar communities have been displaced, often brutally, from their ancestral forests, fields and livelihoods to make way for one big project after another — dams, mines, urban expansion and infrastructure projects. Time and again, when they resisted, they have been physically assaulted and even killed by state forces meant to protect them. Kashipur, Jagatsinghpur and Nandigram are only few instances.In such a huge country, then, with so many points of views and importantly, so many stakes on resources, it seems strange that many conservationists attribute the problems of forests, conservation of wildlife to impoverished and marginalised tribals.
CONSERVATION IN India appears to have a blind spot when it comes to tribal rights. Thousands of hectares of productive lands are being designated as Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Traditional tribal lands, many of which are thickly forested and home to a range of wildlife, are allocated to mining interests and huge dams that drown pristine forests in the biodiversity hotspots of the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalayas. Across the landscape, infrastructure projects continue to cut through forested areas. This is little more than an indicative list of the kind of pressures and threats faced by some of India's richest forest areas and the people that live there. The laws, courts, politicians, bureaucrats, the media and the wildlife conservationists are unable to help prevent this onslaught. Tribal communities, our forests and wildlife are at the receiving end today of a development paradigm that is rolling on like a juggernaut, brooking no opposition. The most optimistic will argue that the Forest Rights Act indeed shows us a way.
In any case, field results to the implementation of Act have been a mixed bag. According to a Press Release issued by the Central Government in November 2008, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) has released Rs 22.6 crores as a grant to states requiring financial assistance to implement this law. The states of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Tripura and Rajasthan had received large numbers of claims and some had even started distributing title deeds. As of September 30, Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh distributed 5000, 59548 and 4186 pattas respectively. However, the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Daman and Diu are yet to even appoint nodal officers, which is a basic requirement for implementation. There have also been unverified reports of deforestation and encroachment from different parts of Gujurat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh due to misuse of the Act.
It is important to bear in mind that the Forest Rights Act does not give just rights and land to the people, it also empowers them to conserve forests and wildlife. In the Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary, local communities from Orissa, empowered and encouraged by rights accorded to them by the Act, seized three truckloads of timber from the residence Forest Range Officer in September 2008. Earlier, villagers said, they had failed to curb timber smuggling as they didn't have any right or say in the management of resources inside the sanctuary. It provides another handle to battle against some of the hugely destructive so called 'development' projects. The Act has already been used (unsuccessfully so far) in attempting to stop mining of bauxite in the thickly forested and sacred Niyamgiri mountains of Dongaria Kond tribe in Orissa. Maybe there will be success in the future; maybe the Act will help the millions of marginalised feel secure and empowered once again; maybe it will give them the confidence to resist and keep alive the possibilities of parallel worlds and cosmologies.
(Pankaj Sekhsaria is the editor of The Protected Area Update, a wildlife and conservation newsletter from Kalpavriksh)