[Reader-list] Green devolution

sridevi panikkar sridevi.panikkar at gmail.com
Fri Aug 25 16:23:36 IST 2006

Green devolution | Bahar Dutt

August 24, 2006

The Congress had it as part of its election promises. The BJP wants to see
it through since most states where it's ruling are dominated by adivasis.
The Left's been pushing for it. Then why hasn't the Tribal Bill been cleared
by Parliament?
It's perhaps the most controversial Bill put forward by the UPA coalition.
The Recognition of Forest Dwellers Rights Bill will, after all, impact the
fate of millions of forest dwellers — people for whom the State has no
numbers. As per existing forest laws, they are encroachers. And the Bill has
created a simplistic divide — between tiger and tribal supporters. Enough
has been said for and against the Bill. I intend to raise only two issues:
the role the urban/English language media have played, and the complexities
of some issues the Bill has raised.
The urban media have shown a clear bias against the Bill. This is not
surprising, given that they and their readers/viewers share a disconnect
with forest issues. When does an urban city dweller encounter forests?
Usually on weekend holidays to, say, Corbett National Park, when they drive
down quaint country lanes to see tigers. The media have happily propagated
the belief that people shouldn't be living in forests. That's what our laws
say and that's what we would like to believe on our weekend breaks. Forget
the fact that nearly 200 million people in this country depend on forests.
The debate in the national media has stuck to one silly point: should
tribals live in forests or should they be moved out and given access to
development? It's suddenly upto a handful of individuals in New Delhi to
decide where the tribals should live. Writer-ecologist Ramachandra Guha has
rightly remarked that the influence the wildlife conservation lobby is able
to exercise over policy makers is no surprise considering their ideological
and physical proximity to the people in power. And yet, the same urban elite
does not protest as vociferously when forests are diverted for the
construction of roads, dams or mining. Between 1951 and 1981, forest
authorities diverted 4.2 million hectare of forest land for non-forest use —
three times the area currently under 'encroachment'. Yet, no one from these
elite sections protested.
Moving beyond the simplistic point of whether tribals should live in forests
or not, the Bill raises more complex issues that warrant attention. More so,
with the recommendations of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) that was
appointed to look into the Bill. The JPC has made three vital
recommendations. First, the Bill should deal with all forest dweller groups,
and not just Scheduled Tribes as the original Bill had envisaged. In India,
it's not just adivasis who live in forests, but also others like the Van
Taungiyas in Uttaranchal or Scheduled Caste communities in Tamil Nadu. The
JPC has thus expanded the scope of the Bill to all communities that have
been living in forests for more than three generations.
Second, the cut-off date for deciding who can be vested with rights for
living in forests has been pushed forward to December 2005, when the Bill
was first tabled. Third, forest dwellers can claim rights to any amount of
land they have been cultivating, provided they can prove it to the
authorities. The power to resolve these conflicts is vested with gram sabhas
and not the forest department.
But there are problems with the JPC recommendations. The most predominant is
that the Bill must reinstate its commitment to conservation. The original
Bill has Sections 4(7) and 7, which specifies the responsibilities and
duties of forest dwellers to conserve nature and natural resources. The
JPC's version has removed these sections, and in their place put the onus on
ensuring conservation on the gram sabha (Section 5[1]). The JPC version does
not even place responsibility on the gram sabha, but only gives it the
powers to achieve conservation. And what of situations in which the gram
sabha allows for unsustainable use of resources? For instance, who will be
responsible if a rights holder allows for stone quarrying on his land, which
can cause damage to the ecology of the place? Will the forest department
step in or the gram sabha? The Bill does not specify who is the enforcement
authority in case of violations. Even earlier penalties for imposition of
fines in case of violations have been removed.
Perhaps the most troubling part of the JPC recommendations is Section 3(2),
which allows for forest land to be developed. Roads have been scientifically
documented to have a direct impact on breeding and survival patterns of wild
animals. Animals die in collisions with vehicles; they change behaviour;
roads consume land so there is less range for animals to use. The JPC has
suggested cutting down of no more than 75 trees for bringing development to
forest areas where forest dwellers reside. Why this magical number of 75?
Some forest areas are so patchy that even the cutting down of two trees
could wreak ecological havoc.
If India is truly committed to community-based conservation, it must look
beyond the Tribal Bill. India is not the only country where indigenous
people have lost traditional land to wildlife conservation. The Kakadu
National Park in Australia was set up on Maori indigenous land through a
system of contracts with indigenous people. National parks in South Africa,
too, were declared after contractual agreements with local communities. The
money from visiting tourists was used for community development and their
ancestral lands were set aside for conservation. These are the schemes we
must turn to.
The Tribal Bill has brought to the forefront the chaos that prevails in
India's forests. The management of India's forests may be poised for a
revolutionary change. But in this, communities and the proponents of the
Bill have a far greater responsibility to play. They can do a better job
than the State-led forest department in protecting India's natural wealth.
And if they do not, the tiger lobby is ready with their lines — communities
cannot conserve. In the meantime, Parliament must discuss the Bill and
resolve these conflicts rather than abdicating its responsibility to one
committee after another.

The writer is a wildlife conservationist and does special reports on the
environment for CNN-IBN
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