Hanging in balance

A revised version of a bill to right historical wrongs of those dependent on forests is the centre of a controversy between people and conservationistsMamta Sharma DelhiChandrama, a Dhurwa tribal from Dantewara, Madhya Pradesh, is in Delhi. The 60-year-old woman, along with others from her community, was here to fight for her livelihood rights, which are not safeguarded by the provisions of the Scheduled Tribe (Recognition of Rights) Bill 2005. The indigenous people were participants in a grand rally on December 7 organised in Delhi by Lok Sangarsh Morcha to oppose the changes in the bill approved by the cabinet recently. Activists believe that all existing habitation in forests should be covered and that the process of recording should be transparent, with all potential right holders being represented in it. Presently, not all rights are recorded or recognised. The bill specifies the grant of land rights only to those scheduled tribes living in forest areas on or prior to October 25, 1980 (the date of the passage of Forest Conservation Act). "A cut off date of 25 years ago implies that even the rights of those who have occupied their present lands for more than a generation would still be treated as illegal. Moreover, it opens a possibility for fabricating evidence, since even community members may not be able to remember so back in time," advocates Pratibha Shinde of the Lok Sangarsh Morcha. Further the current bill recognises the rights of only forest dwelling scheduled tribes, whereas there is a need to safeguard the rights of all people who are actually dependent on the forest. A federation of tribal and forest dwelling community organisation from 10 states have called for a nationwide "Jail bharo andolan" where tens of thousands of people have courted arrest to protest against the sections of the bill that threaten the legal recognition of rights. Sections 4(7), 6(3), 6(7) and 6(11) are ambiguous about when and how the local, village-level process, driven by the democratic gram sabha, can be overruled by government authorities or other high level committees. The campaign activists demand that these sections must be amended to clearly give the gram sabha, the primary authority over the process of recognising and managing forest rights, with no scope for arbitrary interference from state agencies. Archana Prasad, academic and activist, believes that, "The people have the right to develop their own forest and be given state support for ensuring that their land and forest rights can be used in a sustainable way. Instead the state is withdrawing by saying that it is giving rights over to the people, without ensuring the recognition of rights in an acceptable manner in order to safeguard them." Fringe areas need more investments, argue forest dwellers. While the modified bill has drawn the support of civil society, there are those who differ. The main obstacle to the tabling and passage of a fair and effective Scheduled Tribe (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill seems to be the government itself which is being pressurised by the "tiger lobby" and the conservationists, including those in the Ministry of Environment and Forest. This lobby is against people's rights being granted in national parks and sanctuaries, and advocates the fair relocation and rehabilitation of affected persons. Two objections to this position are that India's relocation and rehabilitation record has been poor, so asking for fair rehabilitation is naïve. Further, this relocating of forest dwellers does not protect the environment from well-organised poachers and commercial loggers, who present the greatest threat to nature conservation. In any case, tiger conservation requires a holistic approach, which does not suit an "either or" framework. As Sunderban Tiger Reserve field director Pradip Vyas says, "A slew of anti-poaching measures like augmentation of communication network and checking of illegal entry into the forests as well as involvement of the local population in joint forest management has done the trick in increasing the tiger population in the area when the big cat is vanishing elsewhere." Though delayed and flawed, the Scheduled Tribe (Recognition of Rights) Bill is the beginning of the recognition of a historical injustice. With the bill being cleared by the cabinet, the next step is to get the bill changed and passed by parliament in a manner in which its present provisions do not nullify the entire process of recognition of rights of the adivasi. In between the conservationists and the privatisation lobby, the fate of the bill itself stands threatened. It will be a struggle to ensure that it does not end up being shelved like many other bills which had the potential to ensure a modicum of justice to nature's own children.