29-Nov-2005

Land Rights For Tribals

The Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Land Rights) Bill 2005 is attracting passionate criticism. I didn't know what to believe, before I read this in The Hindu. The article prompted me to go through the bill itself - why not see this evil bill with my own eyes, I thought. And the bill gives the lie to much of what the writer writes, in my opinion.

He says:
It may end up as a ploy to get the forestland in the name of the tribal people and then grab it from them.
I say: The bill clearly specifies that the rights are inheritable but not 'alienable or transferable'. Unless the legal meaning of 'alienable or transferable' are different from the dictionary meanings, grabbing the land from the tribals would not be possible. Not much more so than now, when the forest department owns the land.

He provides anecdotal evidence of how the forest tribes' conventional livelihoods may be vanishing, and suggests the tribals may not remain guardians of the forests. In fact they may destroy the very forests:
However, such is the force of technology, industry and development that in a few decades these sections [forest dwelling tribals] have aggressively exploited all the forest they could lay their hands on. They have drilled into the forest to mine for stone or ore. They have logged for wood and bamboo. They have, for their use, pushed for more monoculture plantations like eucalyptus. In short, they have brutally laid the forest low.
He does not specify where the things he mentions happened - are they isolated incidents or widespread? Judging by his citing the Gujjars, this does appear to be isolated. Whatever be the case, the Bill specifically prohibits such activities. It makes it clear that the land is for habitation or self-cultivation only, including use for grazing. Using the land for exclusively commercial purposes is nor allowed. Also, they can use only minor forest produce which is defined as:
all non-timber forest produce of plant origin including bamboo, brush wood, stumps, cane, tussar, cocoons, honey, wax, lac, tendu or kendu leaves, medicinal plants and herbs, roots, tubers and the like;
All other activities are offences and can lead to loss of the right to the land. The tribals also get the additional responsibility of protection, conservation and regeneration of forests, along with the authority of ownership.

Mr Soni admits that forests have been ravaged for development and that the diminishing habitat is the problem. He then surprisingly agrees "that the forest dwellers would not have allowed the pernicious forces of development to pillage the forests." If he believes that then why all the scare-mongering about mining and logging by the tribals?

Mr Soni then goes on to another point:
Reportedly, about seven per cent of India's population is tribal or wilderness based and only 8 per cent of the country's area is left with dense forest cover. If these two are to go together our prime wilderness will have the average population density of the country. By no account is this the definition of a wilderness and by all accounts it is a recipe for disaster.
...
Certainly, tribal people should have a stake in the management of the forests; the Bishnois in Rajasthan with their conservation ethos are some of the most passionate and effective protectors of forests and wildlife, but it is clear that all forest dwellers cannot live in the prime forests.
The Bill differs (9. Checks and Balances):
There is no distribution of land involved at all and Bill will not cover the entire 8.2 % ST population. Only tribes scheduled for the area living in the forests will benefit. A tribal from an outside area/State will not benefit. The Bill in actual terms will only benefit the tribal population on “as is where is basis”.
Who is already there, stays - so the situation won't change due to the bill. They already are in the forested areas. According to this from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs:
More than half the Scheduled Tribe population is concentrated in the States of Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Jharkhand and Gujarat. The main concentration of tribal population is in central India and in the North-Eastern States.
That taken along with this map, makes that clear. And nowhere does the Bill say that the tribals will be given only prime wilderness. The overall forest cover is around twenty one percent. Presumably some of it may be inhabited currently by the scheduled tribes.

Like he says, giving land rights to the scheduled tribes and cooperative effort by the tribes and the forest department seems to be the way to go. So why exactly is the Bill evil?

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