Monday, August 13, 2007

Draft Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Rules, 2007 -- A Few Thoughts

The activists are talking about rights of the Forest dwellers. What about the injustices to the denizens of the wild? Yes activists, tribals are human beings, they have rights but as an ordinary citizen I have a right to see that the wild animals are also protected. I want my children and grand children to have a glimpse of this magnificent heritage. The present generation of tribals except those living in North Sentinel Islands and the deep Northeast of India are not what they used to be. They crave for modern things particularly younger members. We had this daughter of one of our tribal watcher in Periyar Tiger Reserve (Vellyan, also a very good angler), who insisted that her father buy her "LUX" soap. Poor things had seen the ads in TV, which had promised to make her beautiful.

The bill is here to stay but rights aspects of this Bill have to be in consonance with the conservation provisions of existing laws. Let us work out something that benefits both the tribals and the denizens of the wild. As things stand now in the name of protecting the interests of the tribals, development strategies are going to be brought into the heartland of wilderness areas. This in the longer run will spell doom for both.

Let us have inviolate areas where the interests of the denizens of the wild override all other interests and let us have other areas where the interest of the forests dwelling communities can be dove tailed in to the mainstream of conservation.

The re drafted Bill includes other traditional forest-dwellers also instead of only the Scheduled Tribes. The cut-off date has been fixed as December 13, 2005 instead of October 31, 1980 stipulated in the original Bill. The cut-off date of 2005 is totally unacceptable. People abetted and encouraged by vested interests will encroach forestland and try to get it regularized under the Bill using political clout. We have seen this regularization happening all over India in the past. In Kerala, the goal posts have been shifted at a sickening rate.

The dwellers would have to be residing in forestland for three generations or 75 years for entitlement to land rights and the rights to collect and market the forest products. RULE 31 (4) (a) read against this provision is a joke. Admitting the claims of ‘other traditional forest dwellers’ on the basis of physical attributes/traditional structures/pictures would certainly lead to wide abuse. Imagine someone alive vouching for the existence of an un-recorded structure to the effect that it has been in existence for the last over 75 years. Plunderers will have a field day.

Now, each family would be entitled to four hectares of forest land as against 2.5 hectares envisaged in the previous Bill.It does not take into account that the number of people dependent on one plot of land has increased and this will lead to division and sub-division among family members. Here the outsiders will definitely step in with lures. In Kerala one of the ploy that has been used is to offer loans against the produce of the land. In no time at all the tribal falls in to debt trap and the outsider becomes the virtual owner of the land. There is the likelihood of the legal owners resorting to encroachment also as the family expands. This will be a vicious circle with politicians stepping in with a new cut off date at a future date.

If an area is to be declared as critical wildlife habitat, the Consent of the individuals as well as gram sabha will be required at almost every stage. From relocation to acceptance of the relocation package. But alas, if the same area is to be opened up for mining or construction of a hydel power project or any other "developmental work", no such consent will be required. All that will be required is a public Hearing. This is going to be misused conveniently. Mining and industrial lobby has very cleverly played their cards.

Rights for developmental facilities for villages inside the PA’s is going to be misused by the men out to "develop" the forest dwellers. Roads, buildings et el will speed up fragmentation of such areas. Migratory paths will be cut off. This will lead to "confrontation" with wild denizens. Again, a vicious circle.

There cannot be any free lunch for any one. Conservation responsibilities should be tied to rights. This should be explicitly written with no room for any ambiguities.

An independent monitoring mechanism, to evaluate the impact the Bill's implementation is having on forested areas, and to suggest corrective action is an absolute must. We should not be working within the confines of closed doors. There has to be a provision for making amendments based on this report.

The knowledge base of tribal communities can be utilized for effective wildlife conservation. Poachers use this now. Getting to know the tribal communities and their knowledge base should be built in to the curriculum of training forest officers.

Rules 4.3(f) & 4.3(g) limit the powers under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, with regard to transit of forest produce. Gross misuse is possible here.

Rules 5 (a) to (e), seek to shift forest / wildlife management from the Forest Department to Gram Sabhas. Capacity building has not been specified and is not a priority item here. This may throw existing forest and wildlife management in to doldrums.

Rule 16 has some dangerous portents under "disputed lands".Rule 16 (2) The onus of proof is on the State by declaring that “the presumption of rights over such disputed lands shall be in favour of the claimant unless otherwise decided.” Encroachers are in an advantageous position.

Rule 31 gives lot of leeway for the encroaches.

The relocation provision is fraught with danger.

RULE 31 (4) (a) is a joke. Admitting the claims of ‘other traditional forest dwellers’ on the basis of physical attributes/traditional structures/pictures would certainly lead to wide abuse. Imagine someone alive vouching for the existence of an un-recorded structure to the effect that it has been in existence for the last over 75 years. Plunderers will have a field day.

RULE 31 (4) (b) The clause “recognized as having been legitimate resident of the village at an earlier period of time” as applicable to ‘other traditional forest dwellers’ is vague and gives a ready weapon in the hand of the encroacher.

The rules are silent on the mode and manner for the surrender of land/rights, which are declared to be beyond the permissible limits and where is the safeguard against future grabs by the occupants.

Now is the time to build a vibrant wildlife cadre within the forest department. In Sariska, Rajasthan Forest Department, not only failed to protect the tigers but also concealed the deaths of tigers. This is what social activists are quoting as the rationale for handing over charge of forests to village communities. But the irony is that it was the villagers who actually poisoned and trapped the tigers. Lets us have in place fully trained wildlife professionals who also understand the ethos of the forest dwellers and are willing to work hand in hand with them to protect our bio-diversity. Current training methods are out of sync with present day realities.

Protecting rights of forest dwellers should not be at the expense of the rights and privileges of the rest of the law-abiding citizens. Even the water sources, which depend on the forests, could be in peril if the whole thing is not handled on a scientific basis. Being guided by raging emotions is not the way to work on this very sensitive issue, which has very wide implications

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Munnar Land Imbroglio - In Defence of Tatas

The Tatas are one business house in India with a deep sense of social commitment and green leanings when it comes to environment.They have amply demonstrated this in Munnar where they had full stake in Tea plantations till quite recently. They could have easily diverted the land to tourism or hotels in which they are leading players. But they did not want to upset the delicate applecart of environment of this fragile mountain ecosystem They have also involved themselves deeply in the protection of Eravikulam National Park the home of endangered Nilgiri Tahr

Now a conspiracy is being hatched to belittle the contributions of Tatas in Munnar ,Kerala. This has been hatched by vested interests out to "develop" Munnar. Read the recent ad for international consultants to develop Munnar and you have set your sights bang on target.

In 2005 Tata Tea transferred management control of 17 tea estates in Munnar to KDHP in which employees hold a 69 per cent stake. Tata Tea continues to support welfare activities in Munnar such as a high school, a hospital and a complex for disabled people. This shows their deep social commitment.

In an affidavit filed before the High Court of Kerala in March 1999, the state Government had stated that there was no encroachment on the lands which had vested in the Government under the Kanan Devan Hills (Resumption of Lands) Act 1971. Now the sudden volte-face by the Goverment is intriguing.

The Tatas have at no stage willfully occupied or encroached on land that does not belong to them.They have reiterated that they will fully cooperate with any new survey the Government plans, and that the Government is free to take any excess land if the new survey indicates so.

The common man is baffled by this Tata baiting.