Rightfully Theirs

By Gladson Dungdung
29 February 2008

“The State must restore the rights of tribal people to resources they’ve been denied for years”

Forty eight year old Rohan Pahadia has a family of five and lives in a mud house at Nirjhor village in the hilly jungles of Dumka district in Jharkhand. He cultivates on a small piece of land. The income from his farm sustains him and family merely for 3 months in a year. For the other nine months he works as a labourer to sustain his family. If he does not get any work during this period, he collects dry twinges from the forest and sells it in the nearest town. Over the last few years Rohan has been cultivating maize on the small patches of land in the hills as a result the forest officials often harass him by abusing and demanding bribes, and when he is unable to pay them, they threaten him to put behind the bars.

The similar experiences were shared by the 150 tribal activists of “Jharkhand Jungle Bachao Andonal”, a mass organization working for the ownership rights of tribals on forests in Jharkhand. They had gathered at Ranchi on January 30 to discuss on the matters of implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 and the community forest management. They also welcome the historic step of the central government for recognizing their rights over forest, which they call the ownership rights but at the same time, they are very much concerned as even after the enactment of the Act, 22 tribals were booked by the forest department in Churchu of Hazaribagh district blaming them as the encroachers.

This is not the unjust story of a small group of people but about 10 million tribals across the country live in the similar conditions. All the talk of tribal rights and protection has remained just that talk. None of the numerous laws enacted to protect the tribals have ever been implemented. Perversely the state which is supposed to protect the citizens has under the guise of forest conservation has snatched away the mainstay of the tribal’s resources i.e. land forest and water. The government also proposes to move them out of the forest areas for the sake of forest conservation and the safety of wildlife. But where will they go if they are displaced from their traditional homesteads? The tribals may have voting rights but what is there status in a democratic set-up? Shouldn’t the state and the society have responsibility to protect the rights of these people?

With deeper insight one realizes that over the centuries the tribals had the ownership rights to the vital resources of land, forest and water and they judiciously used these resources for their livelihood। Soon after the East India Company established control over India they realized the enormous commercial potential of India’s natural resources and systematically went about acquiring control over it. In 1793 the “Permanent Settlement Act” was passed, which affected the socio-economic and cultural life of the tribals, and the tribal lands slipped into the hands of the Zamindars (landlords). In 1855, the government declared through a memorandum that the forests as the government property and the individuals have not right and claim over it. In 1865 the first Forest Act came into force, an avalanche of regulations followed this act. Wherever a loophole was detected in the existing laws a new law would be passed. Under the Forest Act 1927, for the first time a tax was imposed on all forest produce.

Post independence, the situation went from bad to worse. The marginalization and impoverishment of the tribals increased. The government of India introduced the National Forest Policy in 1952, which stresses on weaning away the tribals by persuasion from the practice of shifting cultivation, increasing the efficiency of forest administration by having adequate forest laws, giving requisite training to the staffs, providing adequate facilities for the management of forest. The research in forestry, products utilization and controlling of grazing in the forests were also the part of the policy. Meanwhile the government of India also issued a directive in 1974 to convert forest villages in to revenue villages but pace was very slow. Consequently, very few villages were converted into revenue villages. The government of India constantly empowered its control over the natural resources by enacting numerous policies. By the enactment of the ‘Forest Conservation Act 1980’ the government completely denied people’s access to forests. The forests are not allowed to use for non-forest purposes and reserved forests were ceased to be de-reserved. It was completely centralized by seizing the power of the state government on the forests. After so much of hue and cry, the government of India again introduced a new policy in 1988 called ‘National Forest Policy1988’, which advocates for the protection of tribals’ rights and concessions, but it is seldom practiced. Again in 1990, the government issued a guideline for the settlement of the forestland to eligible category. But due to lack of efficiency in the work of government officials did not serve the purpose.

21st Century witnessed the worst atrocities on tribals and forest dwellers. The government of India issued an order following the Supreme Court’s verdict in 2002 to evict the illegal encroachments of the forests and forest land. The order also describes the encroachment of forests by powerful lobbies। But ironically ‘none of the powerful lobbies, the letter alludes to, were touched; nothing was done to the front line staff of the forest department who did not take timely action to encroachments by powerful lobbies but the tribal and forest dwellers were the first targeted and though exact numbers are not available, but the numbers is in the region of 25,000 evictions. The forest policies not only deprived tribals from their livelihood resources, destroyed their social, culture, economic and political system but also depicted them as encroachers and enemy of the forests and wildlife.

The peculiar thing is that these tribals are deprived of life and livelihood resources, which their ancestors had protected for them। These tribals’ areas are full of natural resources but they are the most marginalized sections in the country। There is an ancient, symbiotic relationship and inter-dependence between the tribal and the forest has been conclusively established, and they do not need any legal document or certification to prove it. The tribals derive their identity from the forest and possess a wealth of traditional learning and wisdom and fully aware that they would survive only as long as the forest does. The tribals cultivate on forest land, collect fruits, flowers, dried wood and leaves for their own consumption. But the politicians, contractor and vested interest groups plunder the forest and sell the timber and other forest products at market rates.

After snatching away the traditional resources from the tribals, a move is afoot to repeal the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act 1949 and the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act 1908 so that they can grab the remaining land of tribals in Jharkhand. Under these acts a tribal land cannot be sold to an outsider or a non-tribal, but the World Bank has other views, it contends that the tribals take loans and are unable to repay it as they can sell the land only to another tribal not to the highest bidder। But the question arises that if these vested interest groups are really interested in tribal welfare then why they don’t address the real issues of tribals rather than foisting their own agenda? Today status of tribals is of second class citizens in their own land, isn’t it a matter of the nation shame?

Finally, the government of India recognizes the rights of tribals over forest after 60 years of independence. But irony is the Act, which aimed at giving ownership rights over forestland to traditional forest dwellers, was vehemently opposed by the wildlife conservation lobby and the Ministry of Environment and Forests who termed it as the ideal recipe to ensure the destruction of India’s forests and wildlife by “legalizing encroachments”. By seeing forest dwellers as encroachers of forests and forest land, they have been occupying for years, the state has been denying their right to a livelihood for decades. The wild animals, trees and bushes were in the better position than tribals as the government of India was much worried for their protection and enacted the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and forest conservation Act 1980, and the tribals were thrown out of the forests.

In these circumstances, if the tribals have to regain their ownership rights over forests, land and water, they must have to make free these resources from the clutches of the politicians, bureaucrats, contractors and the almighty forest department. They have to protest the unjust laws which instead of protecting, victimize them. The government is simply not concerned about the tribals welfare and in the guise of protecting forest and wildlife, the contractors, politicians and vested interest groups intends to deprive the tribals while profiting themselves by selling the natural resources therefore it is now time for the tribals to stand up and fight for realization of their ownership rights on forests and forest rights. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 can be a great weapon for them for re-occupying their snatched resources as this is the first harvesting time for them in the history of Indian democracy.

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