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   Home >> Library index >> Tribal Welfare >> Trapped in a colonial fairy tale
Trapped 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 factors:


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.


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.

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 to.

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 rate.


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?