Two cheers

Published : Jan 12, 2007 00:00 IST

ILLEGALLY CONSTRUCTED HOUSES inside a reserve forest near Guwhati being destroyed by the Assam Forest Department with the help of elephants. - RITU RAJ KONWAR

ILLEGALLY CONSTRUCTED HOUSES inside a reserve forest near Guwhati being destroyed by the Assam Forest Department with the help of elephants. - RITU RAJ KONWAR

The forest rights legislation has been welcomed by tribal people and rights activists, but with reservations.

Doubts on efficacy Sushanta Talukdar in Guwahati

ROHIT BASUMATARY, a Bodo settler of the Jiabari area on a degraded portion of the Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam's Sonitpur district, and thousands of other traditional settlers like him in other parts of the State may not face eviction by the Forest Department now, unlike in 2002, with the Lok Sabha passing the Bill giving rights to forest-dwelling communities.

However, the tribal bodies are doubtful about the efficacy of the new Act in protecting fully the interests of the tribal people as successive governments in Dispur have failed in the past to protect the tribal belt and blocks, leading to the alienation of the tribal people from their ancestral land. Secondly, they fear that non-traditional forest dwellers, such as immigrant settlers, might take advantage of the ambiguity in the nomenclature "other forest dwellers" in the new Act to claim occupancy rights. Thirdly, they say that the new Act has not taken into account tribal customary laws, which are essential to protect both forest and tribal rights.

The tribal leaders also say that settlement of tribal people in reserved forest areas cannot be seen in isolation as it is linked with the protection of tribal belts and blocks. Aditya Khaklari, general secretary of the All Assam Tribal Sangha, an apex body of tribal organisations, pointed out that successive governments had failed to implement Chapter X of the Assam Land and Revenue Regulation, 1886. In contravention of the provisions of Chapter X, revenue officials granted mutation to non-tribal and other non-notified classes of people and allowed registration of sale deeds sought by non-tribal people.

"Because of this administrative failure to protect tribal belts and blocks, vast tracts of land belonging to tribal people were illegally transferred to various non-tribal and immigrant settlers, leading to displacement of tribal people to forest as well as non-forest areas. We must keep in mind that alienation of the tribal people from their land was one of the root causes of the various tribal upsurges in Assam," Khaklari said. The Tribal Sangha has been demanding a White Paper on the status of the tribal belt and blocks and enactment of a new land law to protect the interests of the tribal people.

Forty-seven tribal belts and blocks comprising 85,80,842 bighas (7.5 bigha = 1 hectare) were created. Chapter X was specially incorporated into the Assam Land and Revenue Regulation to prevent alienation of tribal land and to check plains tribal people from retreating farther into the forests. The government initially notified (vide notification No. RD. 69/46/19 dated Shillong, December 5, 1947) plain tribal, hill tribal and tea garden tribal people, Santhals, Scheduled Castes and Nepali cultivator-graziers as classes entitled to protection under Sub-Section (2) of the Section 160 of the Assam Land and Revenue Regulation, 1886. However, Nepalis were excluded from the list of these protected classes through a notification (No RSD/26/64/PT/15 dated Shillong June 27, 1969). In 1985 and 1990, Koch Rajbongshis of Dhubri, Kokrajhar, Goalpara and Bongaigaon were also included in the list of protected classes.

Urkhao Gwra Brahma, Bodo leader and Rajya Sabha member, said that in view of the government's failure to protect the tribal belt and blocks, the tribal people in the State doubted whether the government would initiate proper steps under the new Act to protect their interests. The ambiguity in the nomenclature "other forest dwellers" would have the potential to complicate the problem of loss of tribal land in Assam, he said. Brahma pointed out that a large number of Bodo people and other S.Ts were displaced from their ancestral land to far-flung areas of Assam-Nagaland and Assam-Arunachal Pradesh borders as the government had stopped creating new forest villages after 1980. The forest land on which the tribal people settled had already been degraded and destroyed by the unholy nexus of timber mafia and corrupt forest officials. Brahma pointed out that surveys conducted in 1980 revealed alienation of 79,594 bighas in the tribal belts and blocks. A fresh survey of the 45 tribal belts and blocks may reveal a far greater figure. The monthly progress reports on implementation of Chapter X, available at the Directorate of Land Records in Guwahati, also reveal that large areas of the tribal belts and blocks are under encroachment by non-notified classes of people.

Environment protection groups, on the other hand, fear that if the rights enshrined in the new Act are granted without responsibility, they will prove to be detrimental to the existence of the forest cover and result in increasing human pressure on the remaining forest land. They point out that encroachment of forest land in many areas of the State received political patronage, and express the apprehension that some politicians may now take advantage of the provisions of the new Act to encourage more organised encroachment. "The tribal organisations should come forward to shoulder the responsibility to ensure that the rights provided in the new Act are not misused to degrade forest land," said Dr. Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, secretary-general of Aranyak, a leading organisation in the field of biodiversity conservation in northeastern India.

As of 2005, of the 1,399,264 ha of reserved forest land in Assam, 342,650 ha has been encroached, of which 205,770 ha was encroached before 1980.

Similarly, of the 1,594,065 ha of land under the 10 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in the State, 355,980 ha has been encroached. He said tribal leaders should realise that when the forest cover vanishes, it will pose greater livelihood risks for the tribal people.

A front-ranking tribal leader and former chief executive member of Karbi-Anglong Autonomous Council, Dr. Jayanta Rongpi, is of the opinion that tribal rights can be ensured by reinforcing the customary laws of various tribes. These laws ensured the protection of both forests and the tribal people and scientific management of the forests, he said. Instead of reinforcing these laws and vesting the authority to customary bodies, the new Act has vested the power to government officials, leaving room for its misuse, he said.

Padma Maibongsha, a leader of the Dimasa tribe in Karbi-Anglong, feels that landless tribal villagers who have been cultivating inside degraded forests should be given settlement rights and their villages should be recognised as forest villages. Simultaneously, if these villagers are educated on the need to protect the forests then it would serve the twin purposes of protecting tribal people from further alienation from their land and protecting forest land. He, however, feels that the ambiguity in the nomenclature "other forest-dwellers" should be removed so that non-traditional forest-dwellers cannot take advantage of the new Act. The tribal bodies in Assam feel that the State needs comprehensive and well-defined land laws to address the problem of loss of tribal land and forests.

R&R success Lyla Bavadam in Mumbai

FIVE years ago, in the tribal village of Bori located in the heart of the Melghat Tiger Reserve in Amravati district, only seven of its 22 families owned land. After they were relocated outside the reserve, all 22 families were given arable land with full rights. Giving land to the landless and providing them livelihood options is just a part of the success story of sanctuary-related relief and rehabilitation in Maharashtra. Also, the tribal people suddenly had access to clean water, education and medical facilities, metalled roads, power supply, transportation and grazing lands. They were given top priority whenever any government scheme was implemented in the district.

Bori, Koha and Kund are the first of the 58 villages in the reserve to be resettled successfully. The R&R plan, conceived in coordination with the tribal people, had a firm starting point; there would be no forcible eviction. The villagers would be shown a variety of sites and allowed to choose the one that suited their needs. Open dialogue has been the key to the progress in R&R here; the effort has left both sides satisfied. The majority of the tribal population in the reserve are Korkus. The other tribes include Gonds, Balais and Gawalis. The Korkus came to live in the reserve a century ago, brought in as forest labour by the British. They were given land pattas and encouraged to grow their own food. The Gawalis were primarily herders but also practised agriculture.

Kishor Rithe of the Nature Conservation Society, Amravati, which was actively involved in the resettlement plan, says, "Given the geographical characteristics of the area, the British chose flat lands and meadows near rivers to settle these villages. These were also ideal herbivore habitats, frequented by gaur, chital, sambar. Over the years, the human and cattle populations of the villages increased. More agricultural and grazing land was required to sustain the growing populations. The situation led to cases of illegal encroachments on forest land and illegal grazing in the reserve. As a result, the tribal populations and the tiger reserve authorities frequently came into conflict. The increasing biotic pressure on the wildlife reserve led to an increase in crop degradation incidents as well, with some villages suffering heavy losses when wildlife entered their fields. The residents also started demanding black-topped roads, power supply, hospitals and schools in their village. However, it was not possible to create new rights in the sanctuary area and conduct developmental works." He says the cattle population (approximately 1,15,575) is 15 times the wild ungulates population (7,874) in Melghat.

Conservationists began to think of alternatives. In October 1999, forest and district administration officials held a meeting with the residents of Bori. The objective was simple: resettle villages that were within the sanctuary to a nearby area where there was enough agricultural and grazing land for every family as well as the potential to create necessary infrastructure. The first step in this process was to ask the villagers whether they were amenable to being relocated. The answer was an unwavering `yes'. Bori villagers chose a site about 15 km from their village. A total of 188 hectares of land was available at the new place, of which Bori required 35 ha to 40 ha. As 95 ha of the total land selected was forest land, the Forest Department prepared a proposal under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, to get permission to clear the land. The Centre cleared the proposal within three months. A district resettlement committee comprising villagers and administrators was set up to ensure that the R&R process was smooth.

The financial allocation came in July 2000. For the implementation of the R&R package, the Tiger Project Directorate demanded Rs.92 lakhs (one lakh/ family as per the Centrally sponsored scheme of tribal villages) from the Centre for the 92 families of the three villages. An additional Rs.93.64 lakhs came from the State fund for R&R.

While the Forest Department cleared the new land, the villagers started work on the actual construction.

Meanwhile, the school and the primary health care centre were staffed. The zilla parishad brought in earthmovers to the new site to prepare the fields for the next season for which the Agriculture Department had distributed seeds. On March 26, 2001, the actual shifting of Bori began. By July the resettlement was complete, and Bori villagers started their agricultural practices in their new home.

Despite this success, sanctuary-related R&R has hit a roadblock in Maharashtra. Initially the State government supported all moves made by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the local administration. In fact, the Maharashtra Project-Affected Persons (PAP) Rehabilitation Act, 1986, was the first to be amended in order to categorise parks and sanctuaries as projects so that the affected people would get the same benefits as other PAPs. Unfortunately, the follow-up by the State government has been sluggish.

From the point of view of the tribal families, the R&R has been smooth, but the move has not entirely benefited the sanctuary because grazing areas are yet to be created, and cattle graze in the sanctuary area.

Considering that the entire R&R was perfect, it is not clear why it failed on the crucial aspect of grazing lands. This nagging point resulted in an evaluation of the process, which threw up some answers and some valuable lessons for future R&R.

The Department of Environment and Forest had framed a scheme in 1989-90 called "Centrally sponsored beneficiary-oriented scheme for tribal villages of Project Tiger areas, National Parks and wildlife sanctuaries". The State government gets a financial assistance of Rs.1 lakh a family from the Centre under the R&R scheme, of which Rs.36,000 is towards the development of 2 ha of agricultural land. Naturally, that means the Centre expects an allotment of a minimum of 2 ha for the landless. The Maharashtra government policy mentions only 1 ha of non-irrigated or 1 acre (1 acre = 0.4 ha) of irrigated land to a landless person. This needs to be rectified. Similarly, 50 ha of land for grazing or wood lots and fuel wood reserve must be allocated to every village under the same scheme, for which the State government receives money from the Centre at the rate of Rs.8,000 a family. The State receives a similar sum for pasture and fodder plantation. And yet, no such land has been allotted to the villages of Bori, Koha and Kund, which has resulted in cattle-grazing within the reserve.

It is crucial to start the actual rehabilitation work before the onset of the monsoon season so that villagers can start agricultural practices in their new land. Misjudging this had delayed the resettlement of Koha and Kund by a year.

Understanding the sociology of the people and the need to involve experts in every aspect is crucial for any R&R project. Bureaucrats avoid this because they feel that it will show them up as incompetent.

While allocating land at the new site, the Revenue Department should first complete the land demarcation work for housing and cultivation. It is only after this is done that the Forest Department should cut trees and that too, only on the agricultural land. This will protect trees in the vicinity of the village, the grazing area, and along the boundary of agricultural fields. This was not followed in the case of Bori, Koha and Kund.

Every year vast funds are earmarked under "rural development". Linking R&R with rural development funds is perhaps the best livelihood option given to the tribal people. Because of this Bori, Koha and Kund received more economic benefits than predicted.

Nature vs people T.K. Rajalakshmi in Sariska

FOR Radha and Kailash Gujjar, inhabitants of Karath hamlet in Kankwari village located in the area designated as Core I in the Sariska Tiger Reserve, the passage of the new Bill recognising their forest rights means little. Ever since the disappearance of the tiger population from Sariska, almost all the forest-dwelling Gujjar families have come under pressure to move out of the forest. Radha, who is in her forties, says she has never seen a tiger in the reserve all her life.

Eleven villages in the reserve area will be relocated in order to restore the tiger habitat. There are 28 villages within Sariska's 881-square-kilometre area and nearly 200 more in the general vicinity of the reserve.

There are plans to reintroduce tigers from the Ranthambore National Park within a year. These and other details are not known to the Gujjars. Other tribal communities such as the Meenas, the Bawarias and the Bhils live in the buffer zone of the reserve. The Gujjar villages cannot be shifted to the buffer zone as it is already heavily populated.

There is a growing consensus in favour of removing the Gujjars out of the core areas. The land to relocate the 11 villages has been identified. In the first phase, some 125 families of Kankwari and Bhagani villages are to be relocated in Behror-Rund, followed by those living in Kiraska and Umri. Forest officials and "well-wishers" of wildlife conservation have been trying to persuade the Gujjars to accept the relocation package. The Gujjars do not want to move out, though they feared to say that in front of the forest guard who accompanied the Frontline team.

The pastoral community has lived in the reserve for generations, content with its frugal lifestyle. The Gujjars are now being accused of indiscriminate felling of trees and depletion of forest land, and of indulging in commercial activity by selling milk and milk products outside the reserve. Radha denies her people are making money by selling thickened milk or maava to the townspeople. "If that was the case, why would I live in this mud house?" she asks.

"They cut trees, and do it in such a way that the trees do not regenerate. The tiger has gone and that is why they are happy - their livestock can graze freely without any fear. The cattle return home on their own," says forest guard R.P. Sharma. According to him, "they have made a fortune out of selling maava. The Gujjars have `big houses' outside the reserve and yet continue to stay inside the forest area as they get everything free, including fodder for their livestock." Sunda, who drives a government vehicle inside the reserve, calls the Gujjars enemies of the jungle.

In another hamlet of Kankwari, Jabbur Gujjar bristles at these allegations. "If we give ghee and maava to these forest officials, then there is no problem with us staying on." A heated argument ensues between Jabbur and R.P. Sharma over this statement. "May be Sharma has not taken ghee from us, but others have," Jabbur asserted.

Radhakrishan Gujjar, in a less confrontational mode, said the Van Suraksha Samitis, which involved local inhabitants along with forest officials in protecting the forest, ceased to exist, resulting in open conflict and the breakdown of trust between the Gujjars and the government machinery. He denied that the Gujjars resorted to wanton destruction of trees. "Why should we do that? We are not fools. We know that if a tree is destroyed, it cannot be regenerated. Only the dried-up trees are used as firewood. We do occasionally chop dried branches. If we are not allowed even that, how do you think our children will survive?"

If the Gujjars have benefited from tiger poaching, as is insinuated, there is no evidence of the resulting prosperity in their homes. A vegetarian community, they do not hunt. Two successive drought years wreaked havoc on the ecology of the reserve. Much of the Gujjar livestock perished in that period. Contrary to reports that each family has a hundred buffaloes, not more than three or four buffaloes per family was visible.

Some forest officials and wildlife experts argue that the relocation package for the Gujjars is reasonable. The package includes six bighas (2.4 acres or .96 hectares) of unirrigated land or three bighas of irrigated land, the cost of shifting from the reserve, and Rs.40,000 for the construction of a homestead on the land. For the purpose of identifying family units, the government decided that each male member in a family over the age of 21, with 2003 as the cut-off year, would be considered a family unit and be entitled to the package. The Gujjars feel the package is not sufficient as they would have no access to grazing land and their entire lifestyle would change. Jabbur Gujjar asked: "There are some 22 families where the boys will turn 21 this year, what of them?" The Gujjars want permanent habitation rights within the reserve and some education and health facilities.

Radhakrishan said the compensation amount should be raised to Rs.2 lakhs. "In Delhi also people raise buffaloes but it is not the same here. In the new location, we will not be able to keep more than two or three animals. We can reduce the size of the house but there will not be enough land for grazing. If they make it difficult for us to live here, then we will have to go. But it is not right. We had nothing to do with the disappearance of the tiger. Our people have lived with the tiger for centuries," Jabbur said.

Rajesh Gupta, Deputy Conservator of Forests and Deputy Field Director of Project Tiger, said the reserve received more attention than necessary following the disappearance of the tiger. As per the recommendations of the 206-page report of the National Task Force on Tigers, "Joining the Dots", and the State Empowered Committee, relocation of the villages from the core area was the top priority. "If you ask me for a vision statement, I would say that the core area should serve as a core natal area, as a breeding ground for tigers and other predator species. Owing to the biotic disturbance, the breeding grounds have been affected," he said.

Kankwari, situated 22 km from the entry point to Sariska, is a potential habitat for the tiger, says Rajesh Gupta. In addition to being a watershed area, the village has a perennial lake.

The forester said he was hopeful that one village would serve as a model for the other 10. He said the Central government had sanctioned Rs.1 lakh in cash compensation apart from the six bighas. He felt the compensation was not sufficient. The Gujjars, he said, were attached to the land but they needed to realise that they were under great hardship, their children were malnourished and they were deprived of education facilities. The Wildlife Act of India did not permit the construction of pucca houses or buildings in the vicinity of the forest. The Gujjars have not availed themselves of electricity supplies too as their homesteads are in the core area. "Under the Act, they have no rights in the core areas," Rajesh Gupta said.

Echoing a regional aphorism, Sanjiv Kharadwal of Jungle Watch, an Alwar-based wildlife protection group that emerged after the disappearance of the tiger from Sariska, says the Gujjars as a community can spread destruction up to 12 miles. According to Jungle Watch, the solutions lie in relocating the Gujjar villages from the core area and the Bhil and Bawaria villages far from the buffer area.

The five-member Tiger Task Force, which submitted its report to the Prime Minister in August 2005, observed that a particular problem that dogged Project Tiger was the manner in which relocation of persons in the core and buffer areas was done. Secondly, the failure of the eco-development programme in the 1990s pitted the people living in the reserves against the protectors of the parks. The report said that the rights of these people, an estimated four million, living in enclaved villages all over the country, were never settled. Relocation occurred sporadically and they lived an illegal existence. The Task Force report noted that the 11 villages in the core area were denied any form of development. The rehabilitation of one village in the 1970s was done so shoddily that the residents returned to their original village in the sanctuary. The report recommended that conservation efforts must share the benefits with local communities if the tiger had to be safeguarded.

Livelihood woes Prafulla Das in Bhubaneswar

THE new Act seeking to recognise forest rights, with December 2005 instead of 1980 as the cut-off date, has eased feelings of insecurity among the tribal people of Orissa, who constitute 23 per cent of the State's population. But the declining forest cover and the priority given to industrial development could endanger the livelihood options available to them.

The allotment of large tracts of land to set up steel plants, alumina refineries and thermal power stations and increasing mining activity have been adding to the woes of forest dwellers. It has been estimated that Orissa will hand over 1.40 lakh acres of land to make space for industrial projects. A vast portion of this land will be inside the forests or in their vicinity. Thousands of acres of additional forest land will be required for mining in the coming years. Nearly 2.5 lakh acres of mineral-bearing land has already been leased out.

The size of the mining zones is set to expand, with the government preparing to recommend to the Centre the proposals of various corporate houses. The companies that are waiting for grant of mining leases include POSCO-India and Mittal Steel. Over 60 memoranda of understanding have been signed for steel mills, power generation units, alumina refineries and cement plants.

The two districts of Keonjhar and Sundargarh have been witnessing mindless mining for several decades. The Rourkela Steel Plant in Sundargarh produces less than two million tonnes of steel a year. There is no other big industry in the district. Keonjhar has 80 mines covering 50,000-odd acres, most of which are located in forest belts.

Mining activity has not provided employment to even 1 per cent of the district's people, the majority of whom live below the poverty line. The region's ecology has been disturbed with increasing human-elephant conflicts. The district, which helps the State earn huge revenues by way of mining cess, has got very little in return. Faster degradation of forests has not only hit the traditional livelihood sources of the tribal people but also resulted in the spread of diseases such as malaria.

The worst is about to happen. In its latest report, the Orissa State Pollution Control Board has said that the situation in five of the 10 mining zones is alarming. The natural drainage system and groundwater table in these zones are disturbed, affecting people living near by, it said.

Although the new Act promises that tribal people will not be forcibly evicted from the 9,000 sq km of sanctuary area, one is not sure about their rights over forest resources.

The tribal people of Orissa are the worst victims of displacement caused by development projects. In the initial stage of project construction, they are employed as daily wage workers; they are not considered for further employment under these projects because of lack of education.

The tribal people have also experienced multiple displacements. Koraput district abounds with such instances. On many occasions, their consent is not taken before they are asked to vacate their dwelling units. They ultimately land up in urban slums to begin a fresh round of struggle for survival.

Official records show that people displaced from their land decades ago have still not been provided relief and rehabilitation.

Most forest-dwellers are not covered by welfare schemes as they do not figure in revenue records. It is two years since the government announced that forest-dwellers would have the right to collect 68 different kinds of non-timber forest produce (NTFP), but there is no proper mechanism in place to help them get the right price for the produce. One-fourth of the State's population is dependent on forest produce to eke out a living for four to six months in a year.

The present arrangement only facilitates the sale of kendu and sal leaves. For the sale of other forest produce, the tribal people are at the mercy of traders.

"Whenever there is a crop failure, the government declares it a drought period, but when NTFP crops fail no effort is made to redress our problems. The primary gatherers should be compensated to overcome the crisis period," said Rekha Panigrahi, a researcher.

"The new Act is no doubt a good step towards recognising the rights of the tribal people and other traditional forest-dwellers over forest land and resources, but for it to be beneficial the State government should take pro-active steps to have the rules implemented. Livelihoods of forest-dwellers should be accorded priority," she said.

Tribal people engaged in jhum, or shifting cultivation, in forest regions are a worried lot. Hounded by revenue and forest officials for encroachment of revenue or forest land, they have never been able to connect themselves to the land they till. Cases of minor forest offences, involving materials worth even Rs.2, take decades to be settled. "Forest rights may remain a dream for the tribal people until the government implements the existing laws and the new Act. Their suffering will never end until they are given the record of rights over the land they have been living on or cultivating for generations," social activist Vidya Das said.

Another major problem relates to the State government's data on forest-dwellers of the pre-1980 period, which indicated that only 5,113 families lived in forest villages. According to the data, the tribal-dominated backward Malkangiri district did not have a single family living in reserved forest areas in the enumerated period. Only a detailed survey will save the tribal people and other traditional forest-dwellers from displacement.

Conflicts feared K. Venkateshwarlu in Hyderabad

THE Forest Rights Bill may not mean much for Andhra Pradesh, a State that already has strong pro-tribal laws, such as the Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Area Land Transfer Regulation Act, 1959, in place.

Home to some of the most colourful and primitive tribal groups in the country, the State has the usual tribal-non-tribal, tribal-wildlife conflicts and more, the additional dimension being the way tribal people are often caught in the crossfire between the Maoists and the police.

"Andhra Pradesh has been a pioneer in bringing about stringent laws to protect tribal rights that have been upheld by the Supreme Court and included in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution, but their implementation has not been up to the mark. So another law may not make much of a difference to the State. The new Bill may help States where there is virtually no law in place," said Sivaramakrishna of Sakti, an NGO that was in the forefront of the struggle to restore to the tribal people their land rights snatched away by non-tribal plains people in West Godavari and Khammam districts.

The tribal-non-tribal conflicts often reach a flashpoint in the tribal-dominated Agency areas of West Godavari, East Godavari and Visakhapatnam districts. With no clear-cut demarcation of the Scheduled areas, an elaborate survey having been shelved midway, large tracts of tribal land are in the possession of non-tribal people, and most of it is locked in litigation. Civil society groups fighting for tribal rights estimate that about 50 per cent of tribal land could be under illegal occupation by non-tribal people. In all such disputes, the Revenue Department and the police invariably take the side of the non-tribal people.

Revolts and long struggles by tribal people, dating back to the British era, ensured that sound protective laws were in place. The Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Area Land Transfer Regulation Act of 1959, amended in 1970, prohibits the transfer of land in Scheduled areas to non-tribal people. Statistics available until 2003 showed that the government had booked 69,119 cases relating to this law, covering 3,40,491 acres. Of the 59,849 cases that were disposed of, 27,461 went in favour of the Scheduled Tribes, restoring to them 94,823 acres.

In Khammam, Sakti's efforts resulted in the Forest Department giving away over 3,000 acres to Koya tribal people for raising cashew plantations. "We have a long way to go and unless the government takes pro-active steps, tribal people will continue to be exploited," said Sivaramakrishna. Large-scale violations of the land transfer regulation came to light recently in the tribal-dominated revenue division of Utnoor in Adilabad district. Of the 154 beneficiaries of a housing scheme in Chanduri village, 100 were non-tribal people. They bought the land, 600-square-feet plots, from tribal people for getting a house sanctioned under the "Indiramma" programme and a possession certificate by claiming that the land was with them for the period specified in the regulation. In another village, 800 of the 1,000 beneficiaries were non-tribal people.

Sceptical of the new law, tribal rights activists argue that there is a distinct possibility of a similar situation emerging after the new law comes into force, with the provision "other traditional forest-dwellers" coming in handy. They fear it could lead to unequal competition between advanced and primitive tribal groups on the one hand and tribal people and the "other traditional forest-dwellers" on the other.

"Far from correcting a historic injustice, it could lead to further marginalisation of the primitive tribal groups, as the better-placed, advanced tribal people and other forest-dwellers could take advantage of the law. It could fuel and add to the existing conflicts as non-tribal people now occupying tribal land could claim rights in the garb of other forest-dwellers," said Ravi Rebbapragada of Samata, the NGO whose fight for tribal rights led to the "Samata judgment". The Supreme Court passed the historic judgment in 1997, declaring null and void the leasing of land in Scheduled areas to private mining companies. Samata filed the case against the State government's decision to lease out tribal land to private companies. Citing the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution, the apex court held that the gram sabha would be competent to safeguard and conserve community resources. Minerals would be exploited by the tribal people, either individually or through cooperative societies, with financial assistance from the State, it said. It took Samata a 12-year-long legal battle to restore land holdings to tribal people in 10 villages of the Borra caves area in Anantagiri mandal of Visakhapatnam district.

Ravi cited the example of how people of the Lambada tribe cornered most of the benefits doled out in Integrated Tribal Development Agency areas, leaving in the lurch some primitive tribal groups such as the Chenchus inhabiting the Nallamala hill ranges. Every time the Greyhounds, the anti-naxalite police squad, go on combing operations in the Nallamala forests, the Chenchus, who live by collecting minor forest produce and whose population now stands at about 40,000, are thrown out, for months together at times.

"The law hardly makes a difference in such situations. They may have rights, but their lifeline is cut by throwing them out lock, stock and barrel, sometimes permanently," said M. Sambasiva Rao of the Banjara Development Society, which works among the Chenchus.

For the same reason, activists express doubts over the efficacy of the new Bill in situations where there is large-scale displacement of tribal people. It is estimated that nearly two lakh tribal people will be displaced by the construction of the Polavaram multipurpose project, thousands by the proposed bauxite-mining project in Visakhapatnam and hundreds by the uranium extraction plant near Nagarjuna Sagar. "Time and again even the toughest pro-tribal land laws have been flouted with impunity for the sake of projects that hardly benefit tribal people. They will be left with rights but no land," said Ravi. "Building dams and alumina plants form part of an economic agenda to achieve a 10 per cent growth rate by pushing up the Gross Displacement Product of the tribal people."

Instead of the new Bill, amendments to the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 would have served the purpose, according to Sivaramakrishna. It would have put to an end the harassment by Forest Department officials, who brand the tribal people encroachers. Merely ensuring land rights would not be enough. These rights would have to be tempered with sound land-management practices relevant to podu (shifting) or slope cultivation.

When it comes to wildlife, Forest Department officials and enthusiasts see the Bill as sounding the death-knell for sanctuaries and national parks, especially tiger reserves. Their refrain is that if rights are bestowed on tribal people over large stretches of reserve forests, legalising encroachers, nothing will be left for wildlife. The immediate threat would be to the Rajiv Gandhi Tiger Sanctuary in Srisailam. Much of the forest cover could be lost.

"In its present shape, the Bill helps neither tribal people nor wildlife. Both would get a raw deal. With other traditional forest-dwellers too getting land rights, forests could become anyman's land for encroaching and plundering," said Farida Tampal, director, State Office of World Wide Fund for Nature-India.

Other wildlife enthusiasts felt that by throwing open the forests to all, the Centre was playing to the gallery. Wildlife could be harmed as anyone in the guise of tribal people or `other forest-dwellers' could get free access. The Forest Conservation Act of 1980, the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 and the National Forest Policy of 1988, which suggested that one-third of the geographical area of the country be under forest and tree cover, would lose their meaning, they felt. But tribal rights activists counter the argument and point to the successful models of involving tribal people in the protection of wildlife.

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