Directing the new ST Forest Bill
By Daya Krishna
About 25 years back in June 1981, the Planning Commission had published a report, Development of Tribal Areas prepared by the National Committee on Development of Backward Areas and it was the sixth report in a series of 11 reports. This report, running into 120 pages had 11 chapters and 31 annexures, is an eyeopener compendium of matters relating to forest-dwellers and forests. The report also gives a summary of conclusions and recommendations running into 24 pages for action by the government.
Unfortunately, no action was taken on the report and the recommendations for a long period of over two decades. But, the government woke up suddenly when it lost to the BJP most of the tribal seats in the state assembly elections of 1993 held in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.
The Scheduled Tribes account for about 8 per cent of India'spopulation and 15 per cent of India'sgeographical area. About two-thirds of the tribal (Vanvasi) population is concentrated in five states of Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar, Gujarat and Rajasthan.
Provide security to tribals for the growth of forests.
The UPA government, faced with the danger of a permanent loss of the support of Vanvasis who formed a significant part of the Congress votes, suddenly started talking about the ?historical injustice? done to the Vanvasis through non-recognition of their traditional rights on forest land and forest products.
On February 5, 2004 the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) passed an order regulating the encroachment of lands by Vanvasis upto 1993. This was an election stunt and was stayed by the Supreme Court in July 2004. But the MoEF argued that ?their February 5, 2004 letter was based on the recognition that the historical injustice done to the tribal forest-dwellers through non-recognition of their traditional rights must be finally rectified. It should be understood clearly that lands occupied by the tribals in forest areas do not have any forest vegetation.?
The Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forests Rights) Bill 2005 finally recognises the debt of the Indian State to the Vanvasis. It proposes to give to the Vanvasis, heritable?not alienable or transferable?rights over land and minor forest produce in forest villages. Each family would be given 2.5 hectares of land jointly registered in the name of husband and wife. It makes them responsible for protection of forests, wildlife and biodiversity. They can be fined and their land rights can be cancelled if they do not honour these responsibilities.
In addition to land pattas, the Bill also gives to the Vanvasis, rights to ownership of Minor Forest Product (MFP) and intellectual property. MFP is often the only source of cash income for them.
The discovery that the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram has been working among tribals since 1952 and is now firmly entrenched in the entire tribal areas of the country, is giving enough headache to the Congress leaders.
The Bill is central to the political calculation of the ruling regime as it is part of a larger attempt to get closer to the Vanvasis. But, opposition to the Bill has emerged from within the Congress ranks. A meeting of the Babalog MPs at the India International Centre held on May 3, 2005 called the Bill as ?anti-green?. Significantly the meeting organised by the tiger activists was attended by Rahul Gandhi.
But the Bill has strong and growing support. For example, the Tiger Task Force chairperson, Sunita Narain and the framers of the Bill have rejected the argument that the Bill would affect the country'salready depleted forest cover. ?Tribals are part of the forests and have as much rights as the wildlife. The Bill will make the tribals a stakeholder and this will help wildlife and forests, both.?
And the discovery that the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram has been working among the Vanvasis since 1952 and is now firmly entrenched in the entire Vanvasi areas of the country, is giving enough headache to the Congress leaders.
Also, sensing opposition to the Bill within Congress, a growing number of Vanvasi MPs, irrespective of their political alignment, are joining hands for boosting support to the Bill. Their main argument is that the inability of the Congress to pass the Bill will only give the BJP an opportunity to question the commitment of the Congress to the deprived sections of the society. There is a growing realisation among the people that there is a strong link between the security of Vanvasis and the health of the forests.