Callous forest law

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Friday 15 June 2001

April 2, 2001 will go down as a sad day in the history of India's environmental movement. Four tribals were shot dead by the police in Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh ( mp ). Their crime: cutting trees for beams to support the roof of their house. The firing took place when officials along with local police raided villages to confiscate "illegal" timber. Tribals of Mehnidikheda village, fed up with paying bribes to forest officials for cutting wood to meet basic needs fought back. As it happens in all such conflicts, the administration was quick to dub the protest as "Naxalite" violence and arrested social activist, Rahul Banerjee who they say is inciting tribals. Needless to say, the incident needs to be condemned and the officials involved taken to task quickly (Read: Trouble in Dewas ', Down To Earth, May 31, 2001).

But action must not stop there. Dewas is not just a case of administrators failing. It is a case of a callous forest law that makes people criminals in their land. The entire approach of forest and wildlife management in our country has been to keep people out and to protect forests with guns and guards. This will not work, as we have said often in this very column. Forests are not wilderness areas but habitats of poor people. The law leads to alienation of poor people living in the vicinity of these natural reserves, turns them into poachers and supporters of timber smugglers like sandalwood smuggler Veerappan.

A few years ago, in a similar incident, in forested Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra the villagers of Mendha village were also provoked. A ghotul -- the traditional dormitory -- made by young tribals of 'illegal' wood was demolished by the forest department, the tribals dubbed as Naxalites. But the residents of Mendha took an oath that before sunset they would build another ghotul at the same spot. And sure enough, overnight new wood was cut or stolen and the building constructed. This rebellion spread like wildfire and within a week as many as 12 different villages had defied the forest department and built 'unlicensed' ghotul . The law and its enforcers turned villagers into militants.

The Forest Conservation Act, which makes it mandatory for state governments to seek permission from the Union ministry of environment and forests to transfer forestland for "non-forest" purposes, has been important in checking deforestation. But its application for poor communities has been nothing short of repressive with every activity -- from building a school in a forest area to cutting a tree for cooking or making a house -- being illegal. All this gives extraordinary powers to the bureaucracy and makes 'unofficial payments' or bribes the way of life. Called by different names and paid in different modes and rates -- from chickens, milk to cash -- poor villagers have to regularly pay for their daily subsistence to state functionaries. In the case of Dewas, the going rate was Rs 1,000 for each chasma (log) and it takes roughly 5 chasma -- or Rs 5,000 -- as bribes to the protectors of forests to make a poor tribal house.

In the last 50 years the forest bureaucracy's only innovation for involving people in managing forests has been the much touted Joint Forest Management ( jfm ) programme in which villagers are given usufruct rights over grasses and minor forest produce in return for their labour to protect the forests. Unfortunately, as is always the case in our country, the bureaucracy has ensured its power and control remains intact. People's participation is as usual within the 'you participate in my programme' mode with the forest functionaries controlling the local institution set up to 'manage' the forests. In the case of Dewas, as the correspondent for Down To Earth found, jfm had added to the problem. The villagers were divided between those who belonged to the van vikas samitis -- forest committees of jfm and those who did not. The forest department used the committee members as labourers to load the confiscated timber into vehicles; to become members of the raiding party in the villages and generally to pit the poor against the poor. The mp government has responded to the Dewas incident by wisely focussing on the need to change the rules of the samitis to make them more participatory -- to bring them under the gram sabha and reduce the role of the forest department.

It is important for us to review the framework of jfm . It allows the forest department to remain in control of decision-making and indeed, as Dewas shows, a key actor in the village institution. Very little real income from the forests has been shared with the village communities, till date. And even where benefits were accruing to the communities, the department has worked hard to steal it back -- this time in the name of taxes. In the jfm villages of Haryana, the forest has imposed innovative taxes so that the villagers are left with less than 40 per cent of what they earn from the bhabbar grass harvest -- a harvest that is possible only because of their effort.

We must change our laws to allow people to participate in the management of their resources -- land, water and forests. There is a lot said about the impact of liberalisation on the lives of the poor. But what is really needed is to undertake liberalisation from the point of view of the poor. This is the true message of Dewas.

-- Anil Agarwal

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