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``Tribal Rights Bill could lead to societal division’’

Monday 2 May 2005, by DHAR*Aarti

Environmentalists fear access to forest would harm fauna and flora The Ministry of Environment and Forest too has been quietly opposing the draft by saying that 16 per cent of the country’s forest cover would be lost.

NEW DELHI: The Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2005 has drawn criticism from various quarters.

Social groups and environmentalists believe that the Bill, if implemented in the present form, could lead to social division while wildlife enthusiasts fear that access to the forest would harm wildlife.

"The draft Act drops forest-dwellers, including tribes not scheduled in some areas, Dalits and other backward communities who are linked to the forest, for livelihood needs".

``This can create conflict among the forest people," says Souparno Lahiri of the Delhi Forum. How can you give rights to one community in a forest village and ask the other to leave, if it fails to verify it’s claim of being forest-dwellers, asks Sanjay Bosu Mullick of the Jharkhand-based Jungle Bachao Andolan.

It will create a social division in a village where different communities have been living in peace for decades. "The Government would take away the right to food and work from the people who would be asked to leave their habitat," he adds.

Gram Sabha

For Soumitra Ghosh, an activist from North Bengal, by conferring all rights to the Gram Sabha, it makes the draft Act almost impossible to implement in all non-scheduled areas and even in the scheduled areas where the Gram Sabha has not been constituted properly or not formed.

The draft is also not clear on how common property resources like pastures and forests suitable for "jhum" cultivation would be recorded, and protected within the framework of 2.5 hectares per family, Mr. Ghosh says.

"In fact, the biggest drawback of the draft is that it confuses Scheduled Tribes with adivasis and forest-dwelling populations of traditional communities that include large number of non-scheduled populations as well. The end result would be that the Bill, in its present form, would be thoroughly unacceptable to a large section of India’s forest communities, and unimplementable in other areas".

The wildlife activists have been opposing the Bill on the ground that access deep into the forests would not be in the interest of the wildlife that have already been displaced from their habitats due to urbanisation.

"We will have to study the Bill and will take it up at the relevant platform, if it is endangers wildlife,’’ says Sunita Narain, chairperson of the Task Force on Tigers.

The Ministry of Environment and Forest, on the other hand, has been quietly opposing the draft by saying that 16 per cent of the country’s forest cover would be lost.

However, this is being contested by the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, saying that the Ministry was suppressing the basic truth that no one could encroach on or damage forest without forest authority knowledge and that 60 per cent of the forest under Ministry’s charge has been reduced to wastelands.

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