Seize the moment
The Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2005 has generated much heat. While tribal activists have welcomed the proposed legislation, environmentalists, wildlife lovers and the Union ministry of environment and forests have denounced it. The controversy is an opportunity to ask a very pertinent question: should the livelihood of the country's tribal people be left entirely on forests? No, forests should be managed as a repository of biodiversity and as a source of water for the country's growing population. There should be a concrete action plan for the development of the 23 per cent of the landmass legally defined as forests. The controversy over the tribal rights bill should be turned into an opportunity to frame such a plan.
It's true that in many places in the past, the forest settlement officer did not settle rights of forest dwellers when forests were earmarked as protected. It is also true that in many places, the land mafia hoodwinked tribal people off the land allotted to them by state governments. And we should also not forget that many states have enacted laws to restore the alienated lands to tribals but they were never implemented due to obvious reasons. But to say that all tribals living in forests have been denied their rights, and that the forest department has usurped these rights, would be an exercise in myth mongering.
The real problem So, what then is the real problem in tribal areas? The major problem is lack of planned development. Of course, crores of rupees are spent on schemes in tribal areas every year. But these are mostly on unproductive programmes. For example, agricultural departments of many states promote shifting cultivation as an attempt to ward off hunger, even though many tribal groups have given up on the practice; in the process more and more forests get destroyed. At the same time, poor tribal youth end up helping poachers plunder forests and kill precious wildlife. They are paid a pittance for their efforts, while precious forest and animal wealth is lost for good: the vicious circle of shrinking forests and increasing dependence on them perpetuates.
The solution is to have a planned vision for the all round development of tribal villages through land settlement processes. Their skills should be honed and their knowledge protected; the tribals should be provided better health and education facilities. The objective should be to assimilate tribals in mainstream society without destroying their culture. All this will require that the issue of tribal rights be settled once and for all, and in a time bound manner. It is necessary to find why the 1990 guidelines of the Union government for settling the disputed tribal claims on forestlands remain unimplemented. The Supreme Court ruling of November 2001 that restrained the Union government from regularising encroachments on forestlands and de-reservation of forest did create a problem. But why blame the court? The inter-departmental committee constituted under the 1990 guidelines did not take any action for 11 years. And, tribal rights also suffered because many states included the ineligible post 1980 encroachers in their lists of claimants; this suspicion invited the judicial intervention.
The tribal bill proposes to overcome this hindrance. However, not much thought has been given to gauge the impact of its proposals on long term interests of the tribal and the country. The bill's provisions concentrate on giving land to each tribal nuclear family based on the advice of gram sabha s. This is a chance that the land mafias are waiting for to wean the tribals off their lands.
But all is not lost The tribal bill should be redrafted. The issue of tribal rights over forestlands should be linked to verifiable records. The land rights should be heritable but not inalienable. There should be development plans for each tribal village. Incomes from forests should be complementary rather than a primary source of livelihood. The ultimate aim of forest management, in the next 50 years, should be to gradually remove the dependency of tribal people on forests.
The author is a member of the Indian Forest Service. For a larger version of this article Click here>>
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