ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Forests and Tribals: Restoring Rights

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill 2006 (or the forest bill) was passed by Parliament in the winter session. An earlier avatar of the bill had been shelved owing to opposition from wildlife activists and conservationists even as there was criticism from scheduled tribe activists that the draft did little to provide them with meaningful rights. Within the government, there had been differences between the ministries of environment and forest and tribal affairs. While a group of ministers (GoM) looked into the bill’s contradictions with the wildlife bill (which has since been legislated), a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) was set up to sort out the more contentious provisions of the forest bill. The present bill incorporates several of the amendments proposed by the JPC. Some of the more significant of these changes extend the bill’s provisions to other traditional forest dwellers, whose residency rights on such land extend to three generations of a family. The cut-off date for recognition has also been brought forward from October 25, 1980 to December 13, 2005; the land ceiling has also been increased to four hectares, while gram sabhas will now have the power to determine rights to land.

The bill’s intentions were always laudable, in that it sought to right historical injustices meted out to forest dwellers, vesting in them inheritable rights on land, that were not alienable or transferable. The Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD), a federation of tribal and forest dweller organisations across 11 states, has been instrumental in shaping several of the key provisions of the bill. However, it now sees the bill in its amended version as a “betrayal”. The CSD contends that the bill excludes the vast majority of both tribal and non-tribal forest dwellers by requiring that they should live “in” forests. This could be interpreted to mean living in areas recorded as forest land while most forest dwellers live in areas recorded as revenue lands cultivating forest land and using forest resources. Investing gram sabhas with the power to decide rights and grant ‘pattas’ on land also opens the door to corruption and abuse of power, for very often “rights” in land do not exist on paper. In effect, the purpose of the bill in safeguarding the dweller from the mafia and the contractormining lobby could well be lost. Instead of freeing the forest dweller by allowing him access to land, the CSD fears that many of the bill’s provisions are disputatious and could invite interference from courts and authorities.

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