The fear in the forests

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST

As the Supreme Court is scheduled to decide on a petition seeking the protection of all forests in the country, Adivasi organisations highlight the fact that environmental legislation has largely ignored the interdependence between Adivasis and forests.

The frog does not drink up the pond in which he lives.

- Native American proverb

THE collective fate of almost one crore people belonging to Adivasi and small farming communities hangs on the Supreme Court's decision in a landmark public interest case filed by T.N. Godavarman seeking a directive to the government to protect all forests, and not just those currently under official control.

The petition, interestingly, was prompted by encroachment and other illegal practices and the corruption in the forest bureaucracy. With the 1996 interim order in the Godavarman case and subsequent directives to specific States, the Supreme Court substantively enlarged the powers of the forest authorities. However, in a classic case of good intentions yielding bad results, this has led to forest officials going virtually on the rampage across the country, rendering close to a crore of the poorest people uprooted and bereft of their lands and livelihoods.

To protest against the mass evictions of tribals and forest dwellers, a jan sunvai (public hearing) was organised in Delhi by Adivasi organisations and by people's federations all over the country. The hearing raised several crucial questions about the control of resources and sustainable development.

Ironically, in the name of a conservation agenda, Adivasis (literally meaning original inhabitants) are asked to justify their existence on their own land. This is part of a long developmental tradition that systematically alienates indigenous people from their holistic links with their environment. In his riveting book, Seeing Like a State - How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, James C. Scott examines the origins and impulses of forest management as it evolved in Europe a couple of centuries ago. In colonial times, forests were viewed purely through an exploitative commercial lens, which turned nature into natural resources and trees into timber. Adivasis were perceived as a threat to this arrangement and the British Raj systematically acquired Adivasi landholdings and relocated them from the forest. By 1865, the state had restricted access to the forest in order to continue its unimpeded harvest of teak, its single largest cash crop.

Unfortunately, since Independence, the Government of India has continued to exploit national resources while erecting barbed wires and boundaries for the marginalised Adivasis. The regions with substantial tribal populations are also among the most resource-rich areas, and Adivasis have picked up the tab for the rest of the country's industrial growth. Efforts at conservation by a ham-handed bureaucracy have also centred around locking in forests and locking out Adivasis from their habitats.

The Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980 froze approximately 22 per cent of the country's land for forest conservation, including areas recorded as forest in any government record. However, as the saying goes, the map is never the territory and this process was a clumsy one. Many of these forests did not even exist and in several cases, for the sake of bureaucratic legibility, revenue lands that had been supporting livelihoods locally were arbitrarily sealed off as forests. The unclear demarcation of forest and revenue lands was further complicated by the Supreme Court's definition of a forest in the dictionary sense as " an extensive area covered by trees and bushes with no agriculture." This meant that areas like chote jhaar ka jangal and bade jhaar ka jungal, which were revenue classifications that existed for years as service commons of the local population, were suddenly handed over to the forest department and all livelihoods from these lands were disrupted. Claims over this land and community management of village forests were largely ignored. In May 2002, an interim order of the court requested the government to report on the status of encroachments in forest lands. However, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) overstepped this brief by issuing a circular to all States ordering them to evict all `encroachers' immediately.

Besides the confusion over the demarcation of forest land, there are thousands of cases where tribal people and forest dwellers with genuine land claims (those who occupied notified forest land before the Indian Forest Act came) are treated as `encroachers' because these claims were not properly recorded. The debate has been reduced to a bureaucratic wrangle over land deeds and pattas. Since the revenue departments often did not record land settlements or the conversion of forest villages into revenue villages, the inhabitants are now being evicted by the forest department. As Prabhat Prabhu, advocate of the Kashtkari Sangathana, says, "the burden of non-performance by the state and its departments is also borne by the victims."

An official in Madhya Pradesh recalled that in Jhabua district, when revenue records were demanded, a man simply said: "Our ancestors' tombstones are our records." Unfortunately, these living histories are not authentic enough for the Forest Department. Also, principles of private property and individual titles to land do not apply to many tribal peoples, whose way of life is community-driven, and this fact has gone largely unrecognised. Even when Adivasi rights have been factored in, for instance in the National Forest Policy of 1988, the implementation of the regulations was marked by bureaucratic inaccuracy, apathy and corruption, which ensured that a vast majority of Adivasis had no real legal rights to their own lands.

Indeed, the conservation logic seems rather obscure, considering that almost half of all Adivasis are landless. Even if they do cultivate land, this tends to be subsistence cultivation focused on food crops. Adivasi families supplement this food supply with wage labour and food gathered from the forest. On the other hand, despite the professed intention of evicting "all" encroachers, the activities of timber merchants, land sharks and commercial planters, who have been responsible for ravaging tens of thousands of hectares of forest land across the country, have gone on unhindered.

In fact, both the FCA and the Supreme Court's interim orders have been used by the MoEF and State forest departments to stake their claims to lands under revenue departments. The attempt to `clear' forests is blatantly one-sided, as it overlooks the provisions protecting Advasi rights, including those laid down in the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, the Fifth Schedule and Article 244(1) of the Constitution.

In 1990, the 29th report of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission under B.D. Sharma had drawn out a clear, unambiguous framework to settle the encroachment issue, keeping in mind both conservation interests and livelihood security for Adivasis and other forest dwellers. In a set of six guidelines, it suggested that all encroachments made prior to the FCA be settled and those made after that be carefully examined, distinguishing the claims of the tribal people from those of encroachers. Besides making it mandatory for the States to come up with schemes to provide alternative means of livelihood to those affected, the recommendations also sought to involve village communities in settling disputes and ensuring lasting solutions. The report covered disputes regarding pattas, leases and grants involving forest land and suggested that centrally sponsored schemes involve members of the Scheduled Tribes and the rural poor in afforestation projects for degraded forests.

However, the progressive spirit of this report has been consistently ignored by policy-makers, who have chosen to publicise only one of the six circulars included in the report, which deals with the encroachment issue. According to the Central Empowered Committee set up by the Supreme Court, only the First Information Report (FIR) under the relevant Forest Act shall be the basis for deciding whether an encroachment took place before or after October 25, 1980 - effectively making the forest bureaucracy's decision the last word in settling the issue.

This process blatantly violates the constitutional protection for tribal welfare. According to Article 338 (9) of the Constitution, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes should be consulted in all such matters. However, the Central Empowered Committee has not bothered to involve even State tribal welfare departments or the Ministry of Tribal Welfare in a campaign that systematically displaces close to a crore of people. How can such a conflict be resolved without consulting the people whose lives and livelihoods are vitally dependent on the outcome?

As James Scott explains, nomadic bands do not fit in high modernist maps or even those of less hubristic administrators. Therefore, they must be settled. Rooted communities can also pose problems with their inscrutable customs, mysterious languages and opaque forms of property ownership. So they must be invaded, homogenised and, if necessary, resettled.

Bijoy Panda, who has been agitating for tribal rights in Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, calls the tribal people "azaad desh ke gulaam log", the slaves of a free nation. Adivasis constitute a mere 7 per cent of the national population and unfortunately, their cause is championed more by social movements and non-governmental organisations, and an authentic Adivasi political movememnt is yet to emerge. Beyond the crucial human rights issue at stake, there are several compelling reasons for the state to recognise the Adivasi agenda for development.

Unfortunately, environmental legislation is largely dominated by Western and urban concepts of forests as pristine wilderness and human beings as marauders and show strong disregard for an age-old system of interdependence.

Conservation programmes initiated by international institutions such as the World Bank fail to recognise this symbiotic blood-link between forests and people. Adivasis and all other indigenous peoples follow environmentally sound practices such as shifting cultivation and agro-forestry, which incorporate processes such as the recycling of the land. These traditional methods, evolved from centuries of intelligent adjustment to local circumstances, depend on minimal disturbance of the ecology. Even slash- and- burn-cultivation, described as primitive and nave, contributes to preserving the soil, reducing pests and enhancing nutrients in the soil and helps attain higher crop yields. "Conservation is built into tribal culture," says Prabhat Prabhu. "Whether it is forest spirits, totems and taboos that surround hunting or their agricultural practices - caring for the environment comes naturally to them."

According to B.D. Sharma who drafted the comprehensive set of guidelines in the 29th report of the group, this issue cannot be resolved without a complete paradigm transformation. Using surplus labour of the tribal people to improve degraded land makes eminent economic sense - schemes like Grain for Green, for instance, would ensure environmental action along with productivity and growth. Also, the process of including the most dispossessed and disenfranchised people in the country would naturally quell violent popular movements that threaten state legitimacy. The FCA, which is for clamping down on any change in forest patterns, was a crisis-driven response to large-scale degradation of the environment. A win-win situation could be ensured by recognising tribal stewardship of forests and involving the tribal people in conservation efforts. Instead of assuming a direct trade-off between sustainable development and tribal rights, a rational and humane policy should realise that empowering indigenous communities to conserve their own livelihoods will contribute tremendously to environmental conservation. As the rallying call of the jan sunwai in Delhi suggested, "we and the forests are one".

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