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   Home >> Library index >> Tribal Welfare >> Whoís bothered about tribal welfare?
Whoís bothered about tribal welfare?  

The proposed law suits netas and babus. Tribals must have an option to live on interest and leave their capital untouched 


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, ad-hoc Bills.