Create long-term plans to ensure tribal livelihoods
Seize the moment
The Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2005 has generated much heat. While tribal activists have welcomed the proposed legislation, environmentalists, wildlife lovers and the Union ministry of environment and forests have denounced it. The controversy is an opportunity to ask a very pertinent question: should the livelihood of the country's tribal people be left entirely on forests? No, forests should be managed as a repository of biodiversity and as a source of water for the country's growing population. There should be a concrete action plan for the development of the 23 per cent of the landmass legally defined as forests. The controversy over the tribal rights bill should be turned into an opportunity to frame such a plan.
It's true that in many places in the past, the forest settlement officer did not settle rights of forest dwellers when forests were earmarked as protected. It is also true that in many places, the land mafia hoodwinked tribal people off the land allotted to them by state governments. And we should also not forget that many states have enacted laws to restore the alienated lands to tribals but they were never implemented due to obvious reasons. But to say that all tribals living in forests have been denied their rights, and that the forest department has usurped these rights, would be an exercise in myth mongering.
The solution is to have a planned vision for the all round development of tribal villages through land settlement processes. Their skills should be honed and their knowledge protected; the tribals should be provided better health and education facilities. The objective should be to assimilate tribals in mainstream society without destroying their culture. All this will require that the issue of tribal rights be settled once and for all, and in a time bound manner. It is necessary to find why the 1990 guidelines of the Union government for settling the disputed tribal claims on forestlands remain unimplemented. The Supreme Court ruling of November 2001 that restrained the Union government from regularising encroachments on forestlands and de-reservation of forest did create a problem. But why blame the court? The inter-departmental committee constituted under the 1990 guidelines did not take any action for 11 years. And, tribal rights also suffered because many states included the ineligible post 1980 encroachers in their lists of claimants; this suspicion invited the judicial intervention.
The tribal bill proposes to overcome this hindrance. However, not much thought has been given to gauge the impact of its proposals on long term interests of the tribal and the country. The bill's provisions concentrate on giving land to each tribal nuclear family based on the advice of gram sabha s. This is a chance that the land mafias are waiting for to wean the tribals off their lands.
The author is a member of the Indian Forest Service. For a larger version of this article Click here>>
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