Let's be very clear

Land rights won't benefit tribals, inviolate areas can't secure tigers

By Manoj Misra
Published: Thursday 15 December 2005

Let's be very clear

-- The report of the Tiger Task Force -- appointed by the prime minister -- has stoked the embers of a raging debate on forest dwellers. The debate was bought into the limelight by the tabling of the Scheduled Tribes (Rights to Forest Lands) Bill, in early 2005. Both sides in the debate -- those who advocate inviolate areas for tigers and those who champion land rights for forest-dwelling tribals -- have a blinkered approach.

The ground facts are that many tribal groups have always resided in forests. Yet, these ecosystem people have never had any use of personal land rights on the forest patches they occupied temporarily. Even when they settled within cleared forest patches, they had little use for any land rights as all their sustenance -- and cultural needs -- was primarily derived from the forests around them, and not land.

Let's not forget that, culturally, the forest dwellers are as different from rural communities residing outside -- or away from -- forests, as the latter are from urbanites. Of course, the three often interact and some forest-dwellers settle down in villages or even become urbanites. However, it would be nothing short of 'culture-cide' if advocates of tribal land rights succeed in turning forest dwellers into agriculture-dependent villagers. Vesting tribals with land rights threatens exactly that: force a change in the distinct forest-based culture of the ecosystem people.

What about the tiger? The tiger is a cat; it breeds like one and proliferates fast. It is also highly territorial. It needs to space itself out and disperse as its number increases. So, it is futile to think that the tiger can be protected for perpetuity by providing the so-called 'inviolate' spaces. For, such spaces will prove inadequate with rise in tiger numbers.

The ecosystem people, as well as the tiger, do not need external advocacy, lobbying or pity. They have their own customary laws; evolved over the centuries, these laws respect the nature's norms and ways, including that of the tiger. Researchers have found that while the tribals are today exposed and vulnerable to outside influence, their culture, nevertheless, remains very robust.

The framers of Indian forest policy and laws, both in the pre-and post independence-era unfortunately failed to account for the needs of the ecosystem people. The Indian Forest Act (ifa) is basically an instrument to regulate harvest and transport of forest produce and to prohibit its unauthorised removal . In addition, it creates a forest estate, consolidated by the state for 'public good' in the form of reserved, protected and village forests. Had a right of residence and freedom of traditional forest product usage been provided to the ecosystem people by the ifa and later by the Wildlife Protection Acts, issues such as correcting 'colonial 'injustices' by providing land rights to forest dwellers -- which the tribal forest rights bill seeks -- would never have arisen.

There are numerous problems with the Bill. For, one no one seems to know how many people are to be its beneficiaries. Secondly, provision of land rights would be an open invitation to land sharks. It's another matter that they would mouth righteous objectives such as bringing in 'development to primitive tribals'. Land rights for tribals would also bring in the votaries of 'eco-friendly (tourism included) development'. All this would impinge on the culture of the tribals, and there would also be little elbow space left for the poor tiger.

What's the way out? Add provisions to existing forest and wildlife laws that will provide forest-dwelling tribals with security of residence and assure them use of traditional forest products. The tribals once assured of a dignified and rightful living within forests -- the only 'home' that they have ever known -- would provide good security to forests, and in turn the tigers would also be secure. This would be in sharp contrast to the situation today when perplexed by alien laws and hounded in their own homes, tribals often become a poacher's accomplice for a pittance.

Manoj Kumar Misra is a former member of the Indian Forest Service


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