MEF and the law of the jungle

  • 30/10/1994

I AM the law," said Bumble, the parochial beadle in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, terrorising his wards into submission. The ministry of environment and forests' new draft Conservation of Forests and Natural Ecosystems Act is packed with Bumblesian hauteur. Claiming to revise the highly-criticised Indian Forest Act of 1927, it seeks to lay down the law to restrict people's traditional rights over reserved forests, which are owned and managed by the state, and to sharply curtail the area of village forests in which local communities could exercise more independent control. All this, as the very name suggests, at the behest of the conservationist lobby's aesthetics. It is another matter that this lobby has quite a few erstwhile hunters heading it.

This time round, the hunted are human beings - the hundreds of nomads who seasonally roam these forests, and the forest-dependent villagers in nearby settlements. Joint forest management has had its successes in some states: but now the law - rather, the MEF - will lay down the contours of such participation, including participation by withdrawal and extinction. Sections 5 and 34 of the draft act prohibit state governments from granting pattas or occupancy rights to unauthorised encroachers on reserved or protected forests without the Centre's permission. Naturally, the encroachers will be defined by the forest department, never mind if they have been inbabitingthe area long before the forest department's birth in 1864. SUCfA blatant centralisation of power is based on the vague concep of "carrying capacity". The act doesn't try to define the con- cept but arbitrarily leaves it to the discretion of the local forest officer.

The 1927 act was, in fact, more generous. Its vindictivq descendant will whittle down areas for possible conversice into village forests, because the forest departmem has kept the the best land for itself, limited peo. ple's access to it and then handed them meash. alieady- degraded land elsewhere. In India. reserved forests, covering 41.5 million ha, am nearly twice as large as the 23.5 million ha of pro. tected forests. Those highly-despised British had at least put in a clause in their 1927 act by which village forests could be constituted from reserved forests. The Nepalese are just about getting introoduced to democracy, but their Forest Act of 1993 says, "T1w District Forest Officer may hand over any part of a nationd forest to a user's group in the for i of a community forest.

By contrast, the draft act, both in terms of its contents and the manner in which it was drafted, contradicts India's farne at being the world's largest democracy. But then the Foren Department, owning one- fifth of India's total land area, is the country's biggest landlord and the landlord traditionally is dw, law. One hopes it meets Bumble's fate - it perishes.

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