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A Bill that takes away more than it gives

Saturday 2 July 2005, by BARSE*Sheela

Keeping the tribals in forests on the terms envisaged by the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill 2005 is archaic, extremist and unconstitutional.

EXPULSION IS traumatic, dislocation stressful. Displacement under compulsion is rarely without agony and extensive violation of human rights. In this country where thousands of square kilometres have been cleared of impoverished human beings to set up mostly eco-system damaging infrastructures, uprooting is akin to amputations without anaesthesia, left untreated, open-fleshed and festering hidden inner deformities. If the haemorrhaging stops, gangrene sets in. Millions of the `project-affected’ tribals have suffered so. Hence no matter how precious the cause, responsible citizens cannot but be hostile to the removal of peoples as if they were dispensable pawns cluttering a chessboard.

But the opposition to deracination does not imply vote for status quo. Indeed, keeping the tribals in forests on the terms envisaged by the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill 2005 is, I believe, archaic, extremist and unconstitutional. In the name of correcting `historic injustice’ the proposed law gives forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes the right to 2.5 hectares of forestland per nuclear family "for self cultivation for bona fide livelihood and not for exclusive commercial use", provided the family undertakes "the responsibility of protection, conservation and regeneration of forests" and ensures that no one carries out any "activity that adversely affects the wildlife, forest and the biodiversity in the area." This onus is thrust on them invoking their symbiotic relationship with the nature, and their traditional knowledge of environment conservation. Thus the nodal Tribal Ministry in partnership with the Environment and Forest Ministry proposes to re-introduce begaar, a system of slavery the British imposed on forest-dwellers to tether them as the sahebs’ personal coolies and menials and labour to augment the wood wealth for the colonials to exploit. The present and all the future generations of forest-dwelling tribals must henceforth slave for the Ministries and the whole nation.

The tribals’ penury is further guaranteed by restrictions on their development and productivity. Their only other activity must be to use and depend on "the forests and forest-based products for subsistence or for their own consumption." They lose their ancestral roots and along with it basic security of shelter and survival place, if they cannot fight fellow tribals, prot?g?s of politics and the Government to protect wildlife, or if their youngsters get jobs outside the forest or become entrepreneurs, writers or software engineers. It is obvious that the drafters either have not heard of the right to life or they believe that the tribals need not have it.

The proponents of this Bill, it seems to me, are living in distant past, believe in extremism and have forgotten the existence of the Constitution of India. To begin with, they do not know the reality of tribal life today. The beliefs that all tribal communities know all there is to know about nurturing Nature, that they are interested in doing nothing else in life, and that only born tribals can practise traditional conservation are fallacious romanticism. The stress of survival, school syllabi and the domination of forest and revenue departments in their lives and practices have caused significant if not extensive loss of traditional knowledge. This I found among the Korku-s (in Melghat, Amaravati District, Maharashtra) and the Warli-s (in Thane District). In any case, if the Government assesses tribals’ knowledge as priceless, why does it not ask the forest and revenue officials to imbibe it? In fact folk wisdom can be acquired by anyone - indeed, all Indians must acquire it in the context of their immediate environs - from hundreds of other communities who have traditional knowledge of nature and also the numerous old/ancient structures, for example the concealed water canals built by the Peshwa-s at the Golkonda fort.

What is most unsettling is that the Bill seeks to deny the tribals many freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution - the right against exploitation (Article 23), right to freedom of expression (the right to choose ideas of life and living implicit in Article 19(1)(a)), freedom to practise a profession of one’s preference (Art 19(1)(g)) and the freedom to reside and settle in any part of India (Art 19(1)(e)). The tribals and their future generations cannot be torn apart from the mainstream and placed in an archaic world where the Constitutional law does not operate. They have the fundamental right to reject bondage (to the various Ministries and the nation), to choose lifestyles and careers, and to move out of the forests to settle anywhere in the country or emigrate. The Bill’s brutal audacity in taking away choices from the future generations is infuriating. There should be no compulsion for anyone to carry forward the ancestor’s commitments and live a marginalised existence or to serve the nation full time, no matter what the personal cost.

The Bill claims to authorise the tribals to take all necessary steps to protect the forests, wildlife, and bio-diversity but does not do so without reference to the complex context. What if those who harm environment, wildlife etc., are violent political groups operating out of forests or the ubiquitous VVIP or forest officials implementing a `programme,’ another forest-dwelling group or even another sect of the tribe? Will the tribals be able to oppose them? How? Would they want to?

A Korku folk song advises the youth to ignore the negative forces and focus on what is possible. I have in my possession Forest Department documents that contain instructions to destroy everything, including the medicinal creepers, in the vicinity of a teak tree in the Melghat Tiger Sanctuary. I could not persuade any forest official to save magnificent old Vat trees by the winding roads, in danger of collapsing because of soil erosion around its roots. The giant palm size spiders that weave webs across the top branches of the 30-plus feet tall trees do not interest them. What powers and tools does the Bill offer to the tribals to confront the forest department itself? Are they in a position to take a stand against anyone? The Melghat tribals were so totally subjugated that not only did they work for severely deprivational wages but paid penalty to the employer for taking a day or two off. They could not afford to stay away from work to take critically ill children to hospital. I found that there were only preventive arrest cases against tribals. Obviously, the police arrested a tribal if he dared to oppose the powers that be.

The Bill does not address many life and death issues. Thousands of children die of malnutrition and medical neglect every year. Governments have failed to deliver genuine health and nutrition programmes. Lack of ante-natal care, absence of safe delivery systems, and penury take a toll of women’s lives and health. Studies by the National Institute of Nutrition reveals that tribal women and children are severely anaemic.

There are numerous other irrationalities including the promise of 2.5 hectares per nuclear family without any reference to total forestland available, the future generations and the free areas needed for proper conservation. It would be saner therefore to focus on the resolution of the imbroglio.

Redefine forest-tribal relationship

Both the perpetuation of all forest-dwelling tribals’ vested interests in forests and sanctuaries, and the en masse coercive transfer of population from forests must be rejected as damaging processes for tribals, animals and forests. We should reinvent the displacement - re-conceptualise its nature and the strategies for translating the proposals - and recharge the relationship between tribals and the forests.

I suggest that the Government, the environmentalists, town planners and tribal rights NGOs come together to envision alternative settlements that are so designed that families would want to shift. Incorporation of three elements in the project should interest people - they should be able to stay connected with their roots at the new site, they should experience a few familiar elements of their previous habitat, and they should get a sense of upward mobility. Job- and career-oriented training, self-employment project loans and education sponsorship should be part of the package. All families of a forest need be settled in one resettlement township. Numerous manageable habitats may be scattered all over the State. Tribal families should be invited to shift there. Even if 20 per cent of them move out or 50 per cent stay back, the population pressure on forestland would ease.

From among those who stay back, the younger people may be trained as foresters, environment conservators or water protectors and posted at other sites including cities. One of my pleasantest memories of Melghat is of a youngster singing about the joy of taking his girl for a ride in a boat, a car, etc., her hair flowing in the breeze. My computer hardware engineer who owns a showroom belongs to the nomadic shepherd tribe.

(The writer is a lawyer and social activist.)

See online : The Hindu

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