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After officialdom

 
By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015 | 11:04:44 AM

I would love to write a handbook on the Indian bureaucracy. But for now let me focus on a favourite, the yes-minister technique. Do nothing, and then when pushed, unleash chaos. Nothing succeeds as much as failure. Every solution has a problem.

Take the issue of encroachments in forests. The Supreme Court (sc)is listening to a case on forests and has directed for strong action on illegal timber smuggling, cutting trees and mining in forest areas. The court has also appointed a committee of experts to advice it in the matter -- stocked, unfortunately, with the forest bureaucracy species. In late 2001, amicus curiae -- friend of the court -- filed the committee's recommendation, arguing that forest encroachments were growing, and asked to direct state governments to take steps and clear encroachments which had occurred after 1980 (the year the Forest Conservation Act was enacted, taking away state government power to regularise encroachments). Listening to the matter, in early 2002, the court simply directed state governments to report on the actions taken, and passed an interim stay on regularisation without the permission of the court. In so doing, the sc effectively took away powers from the Central government on this issue.

So what does the forest bureaucracy do? Note that the court's advisers are also officials in the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef). In May 2002, the bureaucracy issues a directive, clearly misusing the Supreme Court's authority -- it glibly says that the court is concerned with this "pernicious practice" of encroachments. It demands that all encroachments, that do not qualify for regularisation under a specific guideline issued by the ministry as early as 1990, should be summarily evicted, not later than September 30, 2002.

Amazing. These guidelines were the very ones this ministry had issued way back in 1990. Why on earth had it waited till 2002 for the notification to be adhered to? The notification deadline has been breached for the past 12 years; so why did the new deadline have to be a draconian four-month one? All of us knew what would happen next. Utter state mayhem. State governments instantly issued orders to evict thousands and thousands of families living on forest fringes. Harassment of the poor, the weaker and the most defenceless. Easy targets. Good game.

This isn't a new problem. It has festered away in the backyards of all government departments for the last 30-40 years. These very agencies estimate that about 0.26 million ha of forest land was diverted between 1950 and 1980 to settle people. Another 0.27 million ha, so-called encroached before 1980, has been sent to the Central government to regularise. The latter's hung fire; decision has been pending for the last 20 years. In the meantime, more occupations occurred. The situation is such that everyone agrees encroachments made after 1980 should be removed. But nobody knows how to identify who occupied before, and who after. Nobody even knows who an occupier is. This is because the land records are completely lousy. The rights of thousands living in these areas are not recorded, and today they are called encroachers in their own homes. So, they will be evicted and forced to scrounge off the land outside the forest fringe -- making their way into the "protected" land again. Truly brilliant policy making.

How is this issue to be addressed? In 1990, the moef had issued a series of circulars, with specific instructions on how state governments should review disputes over forest lands, settle claims and resolve conflicts. Nothing happened. Perhaps it is time to take up these circulars again. But that would mean careful and sensitive review, scrutiny and resolution of each case.

I suggest we also change mindsets, so that what is illegal becomes legal. Let me explain. First, the real encroachers -- big, powerful and with political lineage -- must be hauled up and smashed. Then begin to look at the forest-settlers in a new light: not as forest encroachers or destroyers, but as protectors. What is illegal will become legal. This does not mean that forest land is distributed away -- that's something our politicians have been doing, in any case. What it means is that we find a way to protect our last remaining commons. It needs redrawing the forest boundaries so that each village, every settlement is given its share of forests. What we need is not summary eviction, or a re-settlement policy. What we need is a real forest settlement policy. Settle the forests with the people. The matter, I promise, will be settled.

Then we need ways to ensure that these forests are best protected as forests, and not as desperately poor cultivated lands. For this we will need serious efforts to build viable forest economies. Of course, we need ways to make sure that further encroachments are stopped. One case where encroachments of public lands were vacated and never occurred again is in Seed, where the village community is in charge of village records and any regularisation of land within the village boundary, including forest land, must have its permission. Only it can make the necessary changes in land records. This is crucial. Encroachments cannot be stopped, unless villagers are given rights over the corrupt patwari, politician and bureaucrat nexus. Let us be clear about this.

Decentralisation needs democratisation as well. Not hamhanded officialdom. Need I say more?

-- Sunita Narain

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