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Protecting forests and people’s rights

Monday 18 December 2006

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2006 adopted by the Lok Sabha is a landmark legislation that seeks to empower traditional forest-dwelling communities by giving them security of tenure, access to minor forest produce, and a big stake in the preservation of natural spaces. Over the years, the political consensus on the need for such a law has grown stronger because of the perverse manner in which conservation laws, notably the Forest Conservation Act 1980, are being implemented. The United Progressive Alliance Government has acted to redress the grievances of tribal communities declared encroachers in their own traditional lands. The new law, an electoral promise of the UPA and one for which the Left parties campaigned actively, will provide heritable but not alienable or transferable tenures for Scheduled Tribes and other forest dwellers if they have occupied the lands (up to a maximum of four hectares per family or community) for three generations from 1930, with December 13, 2005 as the cut-off date. The beneficiaries will be primarily identified by gram sabhas, and they can lawfully extract minor forest produce to pursue their low-consumption lifestyle but with hunting specifically ruled out.

The Bill to provide forest rights has come at the end of a long and polarising national debate on how to reconcile the needs of the traditional occupants of forests and the imperative of preserving the rich biodiversity and wildlife of the land. The legislation recognises the inviolate status of national parks and sanctuaries; the caveat is that transparent and democratic resettlement of the communities must precede this privileging of nature. Scientific evidence makes it clear that full habitat protection is essential for charismatic species such as tigers and elephants, which sit at the apex of the ecosystem, to survive. It is also vital for containing and eventually resolving conflicts between tribal forest dwellers and wild animals. International conservation efforts today are highly cognisant of tribal concerns and rely on well-funded, inclusive resettlement measures. This science-mediated approach is working well in some Indian forests (Karnataka is an example). Tribal folk are wholeheartedly partnering in such schemes. The Forest Rights Bill goes a long way towards meeting tribal aspirations; it can be improved through some fine-tuned amendments like the ones to be proposed in the Rajya Sabha. These deal with appropriate access to water bodies and fish, wood for fuel, forest-compatible transport such as handcarts and bicycles, a stronger role for gram sabhas in decision-making committees, and clearer guidelines for identification of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

See online : The Hindu

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