Check closely from
where all the support for the Tribal Bill is coming. Tribal rights
activists and a section of credible environmentalists and ecologists
are backing it. Their conviction that the tribals still form an integral
part of the forest ecosystem doesnít consider the impact of population
boom and shrinking forest resources. One can debate the merits of
their assertions but not their sincerity. Unfortunately, the same
is not true of the more influential political and bureaucratic lobbies
pushing the Bill.
In the political din, one cannot escape the obvious. The BJP feels
it is slowing gaining control over the tribal vote banks in many
parts of India and must penetrate further. The Congress is wary
of losing traditional command and is keen to woo back the once-committed
voters. Other parties canít afford to see the issue in perspective
either. If itís between the future of our forest resources and the
immediate appeasement of the tribals, no Indian needs to guess which
way the political clock swings. Tribals vote. Period. And when a
handful of Parliamentarians dare point out that the forests may
not have any electoral value but their well-being is integral to
our future water and food security, they are ridiculed as upper
caste elites who are anyway supposed to be anti-tribal.
Then you have the bureaucracy. The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972
and the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 have been the eyesore of
our babudom. They regret that these laws have largely insulated
our forest reserves from bureaucratic tinkering. Earlier, MoEF officials
themselves tried to float the Biodiversity Act 2000 as an umbrella
Act but failed when finally the national parks and the sanctuaries
were kept outside its purview. It would be a kind of poetic justice
that they are now fighting another ministry to save the same forests.
We must accept that there is no black and white situation at hand.
Tribal or non-tribal, forest-dwellers are now surviving at the mercy
of the sarkari ground staff. Almost everywhere, they need to routinely
bribe them to ensure their livelihood. In Ranthambhore, itís a few
hundred rupees per season per person for collecting wood and grass.
In the northern boundaries of Corbett, Gujjars pay in milk to have
their livestock grazing inside the forests. A number of forest officials
confided in me how their ground staff demanded sexual favours from
women of such communities for access to minor forest produce. Forget
all these, how can we justify forcing the tribals to pay the entire
cost of conservation? If our forest resources are saved, the benefits
reach every Indian. So itís our national responsibility to look
after those who lose their traditional livelihood in the process.
But giving them back their rights to forests is a retrograde and
dangerous solution. Considering the Bill addresses all the concerns
of conservation, who will ensure everything goes by the letter of
the law once the tribals get their right to hold forest land? It
is reported that the Tribal Affairs Ministry ó through state-level
monitoring committees sought in the Bill ó wants control of the
tribal areas which more or less overlap the forest map of India.
While the Wildlife Act and the Conservation Act will be applicable
to the tribals, any forest official on hot pursuit can face humiliation
as there are provisions in the Tribal Act for a penalty of up to
Rs 5,000 and 30-day imprisonment for government officials found
guilty of violating tribal rights. Duality of control will anyway
lead to conflict between the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the
Ministry of Environment and Forests.
There is also the danger of ĎĎMandalisationíí of the situation.
The draft Bill has the potential to create flash points all over
India. Except for some rare pockets, tribals are part of mixed populations
that share similar lifestyles of marginal land farming, flash and
burn, pastoral sustenance etc. Non-beneficiaries in the same population
will fight the tribals tooth and nail. And already we have certain
activists advocating similar rights for the Scheduled Caste population.
Imagine the chaos waiting to unfold.
Today, only the tribals are far too many to survive in our remaining
forests. Critics offer scary arithmetic: 80 million tribals roughly
make for 20 million nuclear families and the provision for 2.5 hectare
per family amounts to 50 million hectare forest land. This is about
74 per cent of the existing million hectare forest cover. Given
the growth rate, they argue, it will take just another generation
to reach saturation point. Certain grey areas in the draft Bill
over ancestral rights apart, senior officials in the Tribal Affairs
Ministry claim that no outsider will be brought in and settled in
the forests and only existing forest-dwellers will be given rights
to the forest land. Even so, itís enormous economic value we are
talking about. In a number of ongoing cases, the SC is in the process
of fixing the present net value of forest land which will be somewhere
between Rs 5 lakh to Rs 7 lakh per hectare. We must understand the
value of our mega-diversity.
With no land use policy in place since Independence, itís not surprising
that our natural resources management has been largely messed up.
Forests are no exception. We may blame our ministries but there
was not much political will at work either. Just because we have
not been able to find a dignified space for the tribals in the larger
paradigm of conservation, we canít suddenly leave crores of them
to subsist on vanishing jungles, which, if nurtured and utilised
scientifically, could yield enough economic benefits to sustain
them for generations to come.
We have enough models working well in different pockets of India.
There is no dearth of ground expertise and experience either. What
we need is better policies and management that not only protect
our forests from all interference but also tap its economic potential,
which, in turn, adequately addresses the livelihood concerns of
the tribals. Discouraging direct subsistence on forest resources
is not denying the tribals their rights. The forests belong to them.
But their future will be secure only if they have an option to live
on the interest and leave the capital untouched. Provided, of course,
our policy-makers take the trouble of thinking beyond populist,