Saving forests and people

Published : Jul 01, 2005 00:00 IST

The UPA government should ensure the passage of the Bill on protecting forests and forest dwellers, brushing aside efforts to dilute or subvert it.


THE proposed new law to recognise and protect the rights of tribal peoples living in so-called "forests" is an important step in the right direction.

One of the most important and progressive new laws that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government proposes to enact is also one of the most misrepresented and, therefore, misunderstood. In much of the mainstream media today, the concerns of environmentalists and "nature lovers" are shown to be opposed to those of people who live in and around forest areas, whether it be in terms of protecting animal wildlife or preserving tree cover.

Typically, it is local communities who are blamed for deforestation or for the destruction of natural habitats, despite the overwhelming evidence of the negative role played by commercial logging and mining interests. But this is really a major misrepresentation, since the local communities who live in and around forests are usually those who are most concerned with preserving them. And where there has been more evidence of devastation, it has more often than not been the result of a nexus between business interests and local officialdom and politicians.

The problem is that even those who are officially in charge of dealing with these issues, say, for example, the Forest Department, are not adequately informed of the ground realities with respect to what is forest and what is not. The official data on forest cover in India is in a state of utter confusion, which actually dates from the colonial period. At Independence, 26 million hectares of land was declared as "forest", but without any proper survey. Now the forested land is estimated to be as much as 78 million hectares, again without proper survey, partly because in 1952 all wastelands were also declared to be "forests".

Within all this supposedly "forest" or "jungle" area, there were substantial swathes of land which were actually being cultivated even then, and continue to be cultivated today. This included not just areas of shifting cultivation, but also perennially cultivated tracts. Some "forests" were no more than patches of trees situated within the cultivated area of villages. There was some ongoing survey work, but it was very unsatisfactory because it was haphazard, had no mechanisms for cross-checking and was completely non-transparent.

These contradictions were made even more acute in 1980 when the Forest Conservation Act stopped even the limited and inadequate official surveys. The current official description of the extent of encroachment is, therefore, based on extremely problematic and unsubstantiated guesstimates.

According to the Forest Survey of India, in 2001 the total forest cover of the country was only 67.53 million hectares, and this even includes plantations, groves, and so on. Even if all this forest cover is inside state forests, which it patently is not, at least 12 per cent of the land classified as "state forests" has no forest at all. In some States, the percentage is remarkably high. In Himachal Pradesh, for example, 61 per cent of the area that is described as "state forest" has no forest cover, while in Rajasthan the percentage is 49 per cent.

This is largely because waste lands are being classified as forests, but it also reflects the inadequate nature of the data collection. Even official data show that 83 per cent of the forest blocks in undivided Madhya Pradesh were never surveyed. Indeed, the confusion is such that, for India as a whole, the area under "non-forest forest" is seven times larger than the area under so-called "encroachment".

What all this means, of course, is that the traditional land rights of many peoples who have for generations lived and tilled the land in some of these official "forest" areas are not being recognised. These are mostly tribal groups, but also include some non-tribal communities. The absence of proper surveys even in the past makes it easier to declare such people to be "encroachers" even when they have been traditionally involved in cultivation in these areas.

Legal judgments have not helped to reduce the confusion: the Supreme Court stayed the regularisation of land and stopped recognition of pre-1980 settlers who were thereby classified as "encroachers". Worse still, in May 2002 the government misinterpreted a Supreme Court ruling to issue a directive to all State governments to evict "encroachers" from all forests immediately.

A massive eviction drive ensued, which targeted forest communities rather than the commercial and mafia interests which have actually led to the destruction of forests. This has led to huge dislocation and suffering among already impoverished people. Lakhs of families have been rendered homeless - as many as 40,000 families in Assam alone - and there are many recorded cases of excessive violence. There have been mass burnings of forest dwellers' homes in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. Elephants have been used to demolish entire villages in Maharashtra and Assam. As recently as April this year, the Forest Department killed one Adivasi protester and burned 180 Adivasi dwellings in Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh. In the Nilgiris, there have been civil disobedience movements by Dalit forest dwellers.

That is why many progressive groups and mass organisations have been demanding an immediate stop to mass evictions and recognition of the traditional rights of those people dwelling in or near these supposedly "forested" areas. Public pressure has forced this to be recognised at the governmental level as well. Even the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, just before the April 2004 elections, issued an order that the issue of tribal land rights should be settled within a year. The UPA government made the recognition of tribal land rights one of its commitments in the Common Minimum Programme (CMP).

THE resulting bill is The Scheduled Tribes and Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Bill 2005, which is extremely important not only for providing justice to forest dwellers, but also for conserving the forests themselves. There are two critically important aspects of this Bill: it recognises communities' rights and it also democratises the system of forest conservation. Both are vital to the health of forests and forest communities.

Essentially, all that the proposed law requires is that the Forest Department update its land records to recognise what already exists on the ground. At the same time, it also requires forest rights holders to refrain from any activity that would adversely affect the forest and the biodiversity in the local area, and also enjoins the local community to stop any activity which adversely affects wildlife, forests and biodiversity, whoever might be responsible for that activity, rather than officialdom.

It is true that this Bill is still limited since it recognises only the rights of Adivasis, or tribal communities, rather than all forest dwellers. But it is still an important step in the right direction for those who have been effectively denied their basic rights. And it is also crucial for ensuring the preservation and conservation of the forests themselves.

However, since the Bill was introduced , there has been a systematic and aggressive campaign of disinformation designed to dilute and even subvert the Bill and ensure that the law that is eventually passed does not contain important provisions. It is being argued, falsely, that the new law will distribute land to each tribal family and allow new generations to claim land. In reality, all that will happen is the legal recognition of existing claims based on actual farming since before 1980, and that too only up to a maximum of 2.5 hectares per family. Further, these rights can only be passed on through inheritance, and cannot be sold.

The more pernicious falsehood that is being widely propagated in the media relates to the concerns of environmentalists. It is being suggested that the new law will eliminate legal protection for forest cover in the country, but as already noted, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if local communities are allowed to protect the forests, they are also likely to save them not only from commercial interests but also from official depredation, of which there are more than enough instances in the past.

Clearly, there is urgent need for this law to be passed and implemented fully as soon as possible, to allow both forests and forest peoples to survive.

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