26 October 2005

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Instead of shelving the tribal bill, legislators can rework it to reconcile tribals’ claims to justice with the nation’s ecological concerns, writes Mahesh Rangarajan The author is an environmental historian. He has recently co-authored the book, Battles over Nature

India — Few issues have polarized the articulate sections of the media as the proposed tribal bill has. It is difficult to think of any issue related to conservation that has revealed such a deep divide between advocates of adivasi land rights and those who favour continued retention of the lands they claim to be under the control of the forest department.

For a while earlier this year, the bill met with immovable obstacles. Strong criticism by a section of the conservationists led to a rethink on the part of the Union government. The ministry of tribal affairs went so far as to solicit opinions from across the country.

For a while it looked as if the measure would be put on the back- burner. Among the critics was the Indian forest service, which is charged with administering 23 per cent of the country’s land area. It is not keen to see any diminution of the area under its control. A second critical group consists of urban conservationists anxious to keep the forest cover and wildlife intact, but all too ready to see the forest department as the sole agency capable of executing such a vision.

But now there are signs of change. The pressure is telling on the ruling United Progressive Alliance legislators. Many have also been stung by the composition of the Tiger and Wilderness Forum, which had disproportionate numbers of MPs from former princely families. And as many would know, most princes were once avid big-game hunters themselves. Madhav Maharaj of Gwalior, whose descendants are active in the two largest political parties, personally shot dead as many as seven hundred tigers.

It is all too natural that the intervention of public figures from such a background would not be looked upon kindly by descendants of commoners. Freedom fighters like Hare Krishna Mahtab have exposed the inhuman forced labour involved in the princely hunts.

In fact, the Tiger and Wilderness Forum’s own meeting in April was followed by some careful words from the chairman, Karan Singh, who clarified that the forum had nothing against tribal rights and only sought to reconcile these with the objectives of conservation.

It is a matter of public record that Karan Singh was Union health minister during the Emergency and was also chairman of the steering committee of Project Tiger. No one who knows the political history of north India needs to be told how the public policies he piloted damaged civic life and even the public image of Indira Gandhi. Be that as it may, it is notable that a far larger number of MPs from reserved constituencies publicly spoke out for such a measure.

The proponents of the tribal bill have as allies not merely populist politicians or advocates of adivasi rights, but even a significant section of the environmental movement. The latter are not always figures or groups who endorse the bill in its present form. They are elements that seek to give equal importance to biological diversity and landscape integrity but are also working overtime to reconcile these with the livelihood needs of the rural poor.

These would include two innovative initiatives. One is the tiger task force report that endorses the idea of one per cent of the land mass of India being made totally inviolate from any exploitative activity. The other is a less well- known but no less important report gathering dust in the ministry of environment and forests — the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. The latter calls for as much as 60,000 square kilometres to be made free of human habitation and presence.

Both these reports are unique as their preparation entails large-scale consolidations away from the urban metropolises, among forest users and residents. Neither endorses the kind of summary evictions and clearance that pass in the name of conservation. Both call for a consensual approach that enables anyone who has to move to get a better deal and a new life.

Yet the media has played no small role in drowning out sane voices. The entire issue has been posed as if adivasis are the major source of deforestation and denudation. Even a cursory look at the single largest factor for the loss of forests, namely the expansion of cultivated arable land, will belie such a claim. Adivasis, who make up around 8 out of 100 Indians, own the least land.

Among the more bizarre claims by opponents of the bill has been the suggestion that it seeks to divide and distribute all forestlands to land-hungry scheduled tribes. Not only is this a misrepresentation, if there is any, it fails to recognize the core principle on which the bill is founded.

Cultivators are already in occupation of such lands and have already cleared the forest. All that the bill seeks to do is give occupants the status of owners. Further, the Movement for Dignity and Livelihood has agreed to limit all claims to those whose presence predates 1980. They are a set of occupiers who have had a presence for a quarter of a century.

Such a regularization of tenure would make sense in terms of natural justice if nothing else. But it does raise other troubling questions, both in terms of implementation and ecological consequences. These can indeed be resolved by reworking the bill instead of shelving it. The issue of justice is simple enough and has been raised by groups such as the Jan Sangharsh Morcha in central India. Setting 1980 as a cut-off date imperils all those who came in later. Many of the latter are “ecological refugees”. They have fled from the mega dams, mines, roads and other projects that have displaced them.

One possible answer is to adopt the Madhya Pradesh government’s model of recognizing the rights of all those who predate a notification by one year. Such families should, at the least, have a guarantee of a better deal, including rights on fertile arable land, jobs and just compensation. Of special concern are those given land right documents or pattas by the revenue department itself.

This issue has also found echo in the recent public stand taken by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). What may well be necessary is a comprehensive settlement of all rights, which in turn will require a fresh survey.

The second issue is that of national parks and sanctuaries. The former, in particular, cover barely 30,000 square km. There are also critical wildlife corridors where the presence of large mammals like elephants and tigers would make life conflict-ridden for any settlers, adivasi or not.

Here, the tiger task force’s idea of just and transparent relocation is a possibility. This is critical for sound biological reasons. Keeping a small part of the landscape with its plant and animal life intact makes eminent sense in an age when their scientific significance grows more evident by the day.

Such specific issues of justice and biological integrity need serious debate. The issue is not of adivasi land claims versus forest survival. It is one of reconciling adivasi claims of justice in a manner consonant with ecological concerns. Opponents of the bill do these issues no justice if they are sanguine about a government department’s ability to address such issues. Supporters need to address biological concerns. A revamped bill that strikes a balance can prove to be a new beginning for the forests, as much as adivasi India.


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