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"Will I get rights to my ancestral land inside the forests?" asks Sur Suti from Sonebhadra district in eastern Uttar Pradesh. The second convention of the National Forum of Forests People and Forest Workers (nffpfw), held from October 31 to November 3 in Ranchi, tried to answer this question while addressing the issue of granting forest-dwellers their rights over local resources.
A yes would ensure the survival of Sur, and a 100 million like her, who are dependent on forests. For the 1,000-odd forest-dwellers and workers from 19 participating states, the decision was clear enact the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill 2005 in the forthcoming winter session of parliament incorporating amendments suggested by a joint parliamentary committee. If the bill is not passed in the winter session, the convention has decided to step up its campaign (see box Strict action). "The demand is not just another slogan.This is a decisive action for our rights," says Suryamani, a tribal activist. But whether or not land should be given to individuals or to the community is something that has still not been answered yet.
After two years of debate, however, many feel that communities should be the owners of resources like forests. They argue that individual rights would lead to land alienation because it would facilitate land acquisition and consequently, fragmentation. "Rights should be with the community as a whole with the local institution playing a major role in its management," says Ashok Chaudhury, the national convener of nffpfw . "The bill is fundamentally flawed as it doesn't treat forest as a common property resource for survival. Individual rights are acceptable only if the management of resources is common," says Gautam Bandopadhya, a forest activist from Chhattisgarh. For activists like Madhuri of Madhya Pradesh's Jan Sangharsh Morcha, the bill's objective is dubious.
Others concur. "According to the 73rd amendment (Panchayati Raj Act), forest ownership should be given to the dwellers (community) and not to individuals," says Ram Dayal Munda, a tribal activist and former vice-chancellor of Ranchi University. "Even the government admits that individual ownership will lead to land alienation. Why then add to the problem?" asks Souporno Lahiri, a steering committee member of nffpfw. Shankar Gopalkrishnan, a forest activist campaigning on the bill, calls the debate valid.
The convention has rejected any attempt to hand over forestland to corporate houses for plantation. This has come after the Union ministry of environment and forests and the Confederation of Indian Industry's initiative to involve industry to enhance green cover. The convention demands that all forest-related issues are negotiated between the government and forest communities only and has set in motion a campaign to build alternative community forest management practices as a strategy to increase community's space in legislation on forests.
"The fight is political and the goal is survival," says Chaudhury.