`Fatwa raj is over'

Published : Jan 12, 2007 00:00 IST



Interview with Brinda Karat, CPI(M) leader and Member of the Rajya Sabha.

One of the most vociferous proponents of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, Brinda Karat feels that it is a major step in the spirit of social justice. A strong votary for the inclusion of the rights of other forest-dwellers, too, the Rajya Sabha member of the CPI(M) is of the opinion that the legislation has sounded the death knell for the "Fatwa Raj" of Forest Department officials. In this interview to Frontline, Brinda Karat spoke about the controversies that emerged in the context of the Bill. Excerpts.

What were the compelling reasons behind this legislation safeguarding the rights of forest-dwellers? Should this not have happened earlier, considering the rampant exploitation of tribal people and the absolute lack of livelihood options for them?

The first thing is that there have been several cases of litigation in court on the issue of the rights of forest-dwellers. In a very important case, the Supreme Court held that the rights to the forests, including the wealth of the forests, belong to the tribal people and that the government would have to discuss with the tribal people to get their consent.

There were other judgments where some so-called environmentalists, disregarding world experience that underscored the role of local communities in the preservation of the environment, went to the Supreme Court and demanded eviction of the encroaching forest-dwellers. On encroachers, the Court held that all encroachers after 1980 had to be removed. Now, how does one decided who is an encroacher and who is not? The tribal people had never been given any pattas that could prove their existence as traditional forest-dwellers.

In 2002, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government mandated that all "encroachers" would have to be removed. Within one year, 1.68 lakh families were evicted. When the United Progressive Alliance [UPA] formed the government in 2004, one very important point that was raised in the discussions on the Common Minimum Programme [CMP] with the Left parties was the issue of evictions. In the CMP, there is a provision to end all evictions of tribal people.

But then this was a peculiar, anomalous situation. There was the Supreme Court judgment on the one side and on the other a government that felt that evictions had to be stopped. What this Bill essentially does is, it recognises the rights of tribal people, both to land and on minor forest produce. Simultaneously, a huge struggle by tribal people was taking place all across the country against evictions. The demand for such a Bill comes in this context.

What is going to be the impact of the Bill on the livelihood options of forest-dwellers? What else do you think is required by way of entitlements, apart from giving them land rights and rights over forest produce?

At present, there is a Fatwa Raj of the Forest Department. This Bill at least provides a legal instrument to end this Fatwa Raj. To give an example, in Orissa there were over 11,000 cases against tribal people for picking minor forest produce, the value of which was less than Rs.100. This Bill ensures their right to minor forest produce.

One major problem that the Bill addresses is the harassment faced by tribal people in forests. The Bill guarantees their rights and untrammelled access to minor forest produce. Even the term "forest" is contentious. Any land can be described as forest land by the Forest Department. At least now the Bill will recognise the rights of all those who, up to 2005, have been existing on or cultivating forest land. Their traditional rights have been recognised. The land that they were cultivating would also be given to them.

As far as the protected areas are concerned, the designation of areas as protected had been done without any consultation. There is a framework now where any area can be declared a bird sanctuary and so on. There may be legitimate reasons in such declarations, but what happens to the local communities? This law opens up the process of discussion on the demarcation of such areas as protected. It has opened this to consultation. Why it is important to bring it in law is that even international experience and understanding is that conservation cannot be achieved by excluding local communities, as the best conservers of environment are the local communities and the worst encroachers are the state agencies and timber mafias. But in spite of this overwhelming evidence, here in India there is a body of opinion, including the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which is determined to remove local communities.

There was a lot of debate over the initial draft of the Bill. There were contentious issues such as the cut-off date and the inclusion of the rights of other forest-dwellers apart from tribal communities.

When we discussed the original Bill within our organisation and among tribal organisations, where many of our people work, all of us were horrified. We felt that the Bill was an instrument to evict tribal people. They were concerned mainly with the cut-off date, the non-inclusion of non-tribal people, the absence of the gram sabhas and the ceiling of 2.5 hectares.

If the Bill was to go in this form, we knew there would be lots of problems. We made it clear that it was better not to have a Bill at all rather than to have one that legally sanctioned the eviction of tribal people.

When the JPC [Joint Parliamentary Committee] was constituted, we were fortunate that it was headed by a person who has a lot of experience in working with tribal people. The committee took on board all our concerns and many of our MPs also raised these issues. Had the JPC report been accepted in toto, it would have done a great deal of justice to the tribal people. The government then set up a Group of Ministers to look into the JPC report and the Left was told that there was no agreement on accepting the recommendations of the JPC. We said it was unacceptable. There was a proposal to have another Bill, which would have been disastrous.

The Left and many other tribal organisations, and the big mobilisation of the tribal people themselves, ensured that the JPC's recommendations were not ignored totally. If one compares the final Bill with the original Bill, the changes are fairly visible. In that sense, it is a big step forward.

Do you believe that this Bill comprehensively covers all the problems faced by forest-dwellers and that the safeguards built into it will put an end to the historical exploitation faced by these communities?

There are some grey areas. One of the major problems in the Bill is the use of the term "traditional forest-dweller". The JPC had suggested that the traditional forest-dweller should be defined as one who has been in the forest for three generations. No time frame was specified. The understanding was that the adult claimant, his or her parents, and at least one set of grandparents ought to have lived in the forest. This was imperative to ensure that the real encroachers were removed. However, what the government has done is to quantify the term of three generations to mean 25 years for one generation. A total of three generations would take it back to 1930. There were strong protests from the CPI(M) and some Congress MPs. Now the government has agreed to bring in an amendment in the next session.

Another problem was the manner in which the Bill was placed and passed. The Parliament session was to end on Tuesday, December 19. But it was brought to Parliament only on the afternoon of December 15. The official amendments to the Bill, incorporating the major changes, were given to the Lok Sabha MPs only 15 minutes before the discussion began. Clearly, this was undemocratic and did not give the MPs enough time to study the changes.

There is a school of thought that believes that this Bill will sound the death knell for wildlife and forest cover. Are these fears exaggerated?

There are many strong lobbies against the Bill. The day the Bill was passed, I saw some people on television threatening to go to the Supreme Court as the cut-off [date] had been changed. We have seen such reactions whenever any kind of legislation dealing with social justice is concerned. There are very strong grounds to put such legislation in the Ninth Schedule. We have seen it happen in West Bengal, where, after the land reforms, we found huge tracts of land that were locked up earlier were given to the landless. If there is a choice between the Constitution and institutions created by the Constitution and the latter go beyond their jurisdiction and start legislating, there is bound to be a problem.

We have seen the scare stories, scare-mongering and panic being created by these so-called environmentalists and wildlife experts that this Bill is going to destroy the forests. These same people are not the least concerned about what is happening in the era of globalisation. According to the data provided by the Ministry [of Environment and Forests] to the Supreme Court, in the last three years, 5.75 lakh hectares of forest land, including dense forest cover, has been handed over for non-forestry purposes like projects and mining.

There are more than 100 MoUs [memoranda of understanding] signed with companies. It is amazing that those who are making such a fuss over tribal people being given their rights by undoing a historical injustice are silent about this. If there is any encroacher today, it is the state. These well-wishers need to get their perspective right.

Today, 65 per cent of the forest cover is in 187 tribal-dominated districts. And of the 50 districts where there is dense forest cover, 49 are tribal districts. So the question is who is the encroacher, who is the destroyer?

One of the aspects that the JPC recommended strongly, and which was vociferously articulated by you, was the role of gram sabhas in implementing the Bill. What are the positive benefits of involving the gram sabha?

In the initial Bill, there was no role for gram sabhas, except in preparing a map. The JPC had made some very important recommendations. The Minister has accepted that the list of beneficiaries will also be prepared by the gram sabha, and more importantly, at all levels there would be adequate representation of panchayati raj representatives in the committee that will include the gram sabha.

The gram sabha will certainly be a core unit playing an important role, and along with other panchayati raj representatives where all these things will be finalised.

There is no question of automatic relocation from a protected area. The Fatwa Raj, both in the identification of a protected area and on the issue of relocation, is over. What has been accepted in the Bill is an agreed rehabilitation package.

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