Print edition : October 25, 2002

The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests seeks to clear 12.5 lakh hectares of forest land by evicting its 10-million strong tribal population.

THE Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), which has forever been unwilling to settle the large number of disputes over tribal land and turned a blind eye to the nefarious activities of the timber lobby, has now found a speedy way to clear 12.5 lakh hectares of forest land. It is removing 10 million tribal people from their natural habitats, confident in the knowledge that they are as economically weak and politically unorganised as ever. A circular issued by the Ministry in May and the recommendations sent by its Centrally Empowered Committee (CEC) to the Supreme Court reveal a modus operandi that includes the forcible eviction of the hapless tribal population, which has been denied the right to go on appeal on the decision, as an aggrieved party.

On May 3, the MoEF sent circulars to all State governments ordering them to remove encroachments that are ineligible for regularisation. The deadline set for the task was September 2002. The circular delegated powers to forest officers for the trial of encroachers and called for "adequate steps'' to complete the eviction process through summary trials in a time-bound manner. To implement this plan, it called for the setting up of monitoring committees at the State level under the Chief Secretary and a second committee, at the forest administration level, including the Conservator of Forests, the Superintendent of Police and the District Collector.

The circular sees all tribal people living in any type of forest land as `encroachers'. It ignores the symbiotic relationship between tribal people and forests. It also seeks to reverse the MoEF's unimplemented but comprehensive programme of September 1990, which was based on the 29th Report of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission.

The effect of the circular was nowhere as apparent as in Andhra Pradesh. A few months ago, 32,000 hectares of land was reclaimed by the Forest Department of the State government through a World Bank project. A local non-governmental organisation (NGO), Samata, took up the case, and subsequently the State government had to give a promise that the tribal people would not be evicted from the forest land. It was at that juncture that the MoEF circular came, as a green signal to the State government to evict tribal people. Said Samata member K. Bhanumathi: "Now we have moved the court to fight this issue legally.''

To give a broader framework to its policy of terrorising tribal people, the Union government has augmented the circular with the recommendations of its CEC. The Supreme Court had constituted the CEC in June 2002 to look into the issue of encroachments. The recommendations of the committee, formed under the chairmanship of P.V. Jayakrishnan of the MoEF (the CEC consists of five members representing the Environment Ministry), also bypass the September 1990 guidelines, which dealt with the problem of encroachments in a holistic manner and came up with workable solutions. It had no tribal representation. All commitments made earlier for tribal welfare have been ignored by this committee. Before the passing of the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, a number of promises had been made to the tribal people. The forest policy of 1988 also laid special emphasis on the symbiotic relationship between the tribal people and forests. The most tribal-friendly document came from the S.C. and S.T. Commission.

The main contribution of the S.C. and S.T. Commission was that it drew up a clear framework for dealing with encroachments made before and after the passage of the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. The Commission came up with the pragmatic solution that all encroachments made prior to 1980 should be settled and those made after 1980 should be carefully examined. The recommendations distinguished the claims of the tribal people from that of other encroachers. Besides making it mandatory for the States to come up with schemes to provide alternative means of livelihood to those rendered resourceless, the recommendations also sought to involve the village communities in settling disputes and ensuring lasting solutions.

Subsequently the MoEF issued six circulars on September 18, 1990, based on the Commission's guidelines, for regularisation in respect of leases held by tribal people before October 25, 1980. The circulars dealt with the regularisation of tribal settlements, forests and deemed forests, and pattas and leases. Says Bhanumathi: "These were comprehensive guidelines. Unfortunately, no State Forest Department followed up on them. Now all of a sudden the government is mindlessly seeking to reverse, through its May circular, a policy that should have been implemented years ago.''

While the May circular calls for the immediate eviction of all tribal people from forest land, the recommendations of the Jayakrishnan Committee read like a rule book against the tribal people. The Committee, which has taken a "a strong and effective'' approach for the "speedy'' removal of encroachments, has come up with 16 recommendations.

The first recommendation, placed by the Ministry before the Supreme Court, says that further regularisation of encroachments on forest land in any form is strictly prohibited. It makes an exception in the case of encroachments that are eligible for regularisation in conformity with the September 1990 circulars. The CEC has conveniently overlooked the fact that the September 1990 guidelines have remained largely unimplemented even after 10 years.

The CEC has said that 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. The Ministry has overruled the recommendations of the Commissioner for S.C. and S.T. who had said that this option was detrimental to tribal welfare. The S.C./S.T. Commissioner said: "If the claims of the tribal people are to be determined on the basis of the record of the Forest Department or at best the record of other government departments, their claims are as good as lost.'' The Commissioner came to this conclusion on the basis of the ground reality that in most cases "common knowledge'' in the village is the basis of possession of land by tribal people. In most cases these facts may not have been brought to the notice of the forest officer, the reason for which can be that the forest officer would never have visited the place.

Another recommendation of the Jayakrishnan Committee is: "All encroachments other than those eligible for regularisation shall be evicted from the forest lands.'' Forest Departments have already begun evicting hundreds of tribal people before their claims for regularisation have been considered.

For redress of grievances, most of which will no doubt come from the displaced tribal people, the CEC has set the procedure. This says that the aggrieved parties should approach the CEC, which in turn will approach the Supreme Court for appropriate orders. This procedure takes away the right of the aggrieved party to use the option of a trial before a court of law.

As regards rehabilitation, the CEC has given a one-line recommendation: "Any concerned State government shall be at liberty to provide suitable rehabilitation package to the encroachers, particularly to the tribals.'' The fact is that the eviction of tribal people has already started in most States without the respective governments framing rehabilitation packages for the displaced people. Another recommendation seeks to make the Chief Secretary of the State concerned "personally responsible'' for the compliance of this order. It is another matter altogether that nothing of this sort has been undertaken to stop the alienation of tribal land or the restoration of land to the tribal population.

In order to inform the tribal people concerned about an eviction procedure, the Committee recommends publication of notices in local and other Indian language newspapers "at least seven days before the actual removal is undertaken, specifying, to the extent feasible, the compartment/survey number, the forest range, forest division and district from where the encroachments are being removed in compliance of this order''. In this, the CEC has overlooked the fact that tribal people residing deep in the forest will never know of such an advertisement as they have no access to newspapers. The CEC has not thought of using a more tribal-friendly means of communication.

The committee placed the recommendations before the Supreme Court on September 9, 2002. The court deferred the passing of orders to October 22. What is clear is that if these recommendations are implemented, they will sound the death knell for 1.5 million tribal families who depend on forest land.

The "speedy'' pace of implementation of the recommendations of the MoEF has also placed the Union Ministry in charge of tribal affairs in a difficult spot. The National Tribal Commission (NTC) was set up in July 2002 under the chairmanship of Dilip Singh Bhuria. One of its tasks was to look into tribal and forest conflicts. The MoEF framed its circular as also the recommendations without consulting the Ministry in charge of tribal affairs or the NTC.

In response to the coercive measures adopted by the government, some civil rights groups have taken up the task of fighting for tribal rights. Given the all-India nature of the problem, these voices remain diffused.

In an effort to bring the displaced people under a common forum, a jan panchayat and a rally were organised in Madhya Pradesh on October 3. The rally, which was held under the joint forum of the Jan Sangharsh Morcha, had various organisations, including the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the Kisan Adivasi Sangathan and the Shramik Adivasi Sangathan, reaffirming that the tribal people would "never give up lands and forests''.

Samata has approached the MoEF with a request to provide work to people rendered resourceless in the process of eviction. It has asked for the resolution of disputes in the manner in which they were worked out in 1990, besides a resolution in consultation with gram sabhas. Given the "evict all'' approach adopted by the present Union government, it remains to be seen how far it would be willing to roll back its policies against the tribal people.

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