in a colonial fairy tale
Are the tribals still keen on the traditional lifestyles the ST (Forest
Rights) Act seeks to ensure? Will our forests survive the burden?
The draft Tribal Bill is awaiting Cabinet
approval before it is tabled in Parliament. The Prime Minister, addressing
a rally in tribal-dominated Chhattisgarh this weekend, has already
reiterated his government’s resolve to give back the tribals their
‘‘traditional rights’’ over forests.
When the tribals were stripped of their
right to forest land under the colonial rule, the motive was to
ensure unhindered commercial control of forests by the government.
In the statement of objects and reasons, Tribal Affairs Minister
P.R. Kyndiah notes: ‘‘This historical injustice now needs correction
before it is too late to save our forests from becoming the abode
of undesirable elements.’’ It sounds fine, in principle (see box).
But it often backfires when we try to rewind history. Consider these
Most traditional lifestyles can’t sustain
anymore due to fast decreasing forest-people/livestock ratio. Consider
the North-East where only a fraction of the forest land has been
with the Forest Department. Earlier, the tribals could maintain
a spaced-out cycle for jhum cultivation, and natural replenishment
was possible. Population pressure necessitated arbitrary use of
resources and the subsequent chaos is there for all to see. Forget
land erosion and bio-diversity losses, are the tribals relatively
better off in the North-East than they are in the rest of the country?
Apart from their apparent cultural westernisation, what are the
signs of progress even after hundreds of crores of development funds
went down the N-E hills?
Talk of pastoralism and check out the
denuded central Deccan plateau and the Aravali Range. Thousands
of hectors have been cleared of their last green leaves due to over-grazing.
Integrating the tribals in the eco-system of forests might have
been natural a century,ago. Today, it is a romantic dream. No-use
can be the only use of our remaining old-growth (what used to be
known as ‘‘pristine’’ till nothing remained strictly untouched)
jungles if we care for our water and food security.
For better or worse, the lure of development
has caught the imagination of most tribal communities. They are just
not happy with the lifestyle our naturalists want them to cling on
Rights, duties, penalties
The draft Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest
Rights) Bill, 2005 seeks to give a maximum of 2.5 hectare
of land — heritable but not transferrable — to each nuclear
family for ‘‘habitation or self-cultivation’’. If a tribal
family holds less than 2.5 hectare now, its holding won’t
be enhanced. The Bill offers rights to minor forest produce
for bona fide livelihood purposes. It also makes cattle
grazing legalised. The tribals will also have all traditional
rights, including non-commercial felling of trees, excluding
the right of hunting. The Bill lists a few generalised duties
for the tribals related to conservation and protection of
forests and wildlife. There are some penalties too. First
violation of the Act by any tribal will draw a penalty of
up to Rs 1,000. Second offence will mean temporary or permanent
termination of rights. The power to decide on all such issues
will remain with the Gram Sabhas which will recommend their
decisions to the respective district-level committees constituted
for the purpose.
We don’t need to go far for an example.
Inside the Sariska Tiger Reserve, Rathakala is a small Gujjar village
up in the hill you will break your SUV axel to reach and, minus
the overbearing dung stink, it’s still as pastoral as fairy tales
would have it. The place is so remote that the villagers can’t trade
in milk but settle for less perishable ghee as they manage to carry
their produce out of the jungle only once every fortnight. On my
last trip, I spent one hour there trying to straighten my limbs
and negotiating torrents of complaints about no school, no doctor,
no potable water, no bijli, in short, no development.
Wondering how their pastoral paradise
would look like with all those symbols of progress constructed in
the middle of the dense jungle, I reached Kankwari, another Gujjar
village much closer to the black-top road. Proximity to the road
helped milk mint money. Blaring filmi songs from households with
solar plates mounted on thatched roofs and youth in their jeans
brandishing even louder motorbikes almost made me forget I was inside
the core forest. Anyway, there was not a trace of a forest in the
vicinity, thanks to the presence of too many cattle. Rathakala wanted
to go the Kankwari way. And Kankwari could well thrive — in fact,
wanted to thrive — outside the forest. Free mass fodder makes little
economic sense. And, certainly, no ecological sense at all.
Even routine movements by the forest-dwellers
jeopardise the cause of protection. For example, any National Park
is supposed to be out of bounds to the people. In an air-tight scenario,
surveillance is easier as any human movement is suspect. But wherever
we have forest-dwellers inside core areas, it’s already a security
hassle. Imagine regular streams of villagers going in and out, their
in-laws making visits, guests dropping by, and with them, sneaking
in poachers, mafia. It’s just not possible to strip-search each
and every person going in and out everyday. It’s not human, at any
The Bill completely ignores inevitable
future repercussions. If the burden of 2.5 hectare per family doesn’t
seem overbearing now, imagine a situation 10 or 20 years down the
line when the number of nuclear families will multiply manifold.
Officials in the Tribal Affairs Ministry hope that by then the tribals
would anyway have moved out of the forests for a better life. First,
land won’t come free for them in the world outside and, by all means,
they will exert their ‘‘accepted’’ rights inside the forests by
extending the ‘‘by-then-somewhat-developed’’ village boundaries.
Secondly, if the Ministry really feels a life outside forests is
indeed better for these people and is hoping they would eventually
move on, why not give them an opportunity right now through proper
relocation and by addressing their livelihood concerns?