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Bill sparks forest fears

Calcutta, May 29: The Centre’s plans to open up forest land for use by tribals has alarmed conservationists who say this will spell doom for national parks and sanctuaries from Kanha to Kaziranga.

And with that, the efforts to protect wildlife ' such as the plunging tiger population ' will go up in smoke, they argue.

Changes suggested by a joint parliamentary committee to the tribal forest rights bill, to be taken up in the next session of Parliament, has escalated the long-drawn war between conservationists and champions of tribal rights.

The revised Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2005 ' tabled in Parliament last week ' seeks to regularise forest dwellers’ rights on the land they have been cultivating as well as forest produce.

The original bill provided land rights to those living in forests since October 25, 1980; but the revised bill pushes the cut-off date to December 13, 2005, allowing virtually everyone, including encroachers, to have land rights.

It also transfers the crucial powers to implement the new law from the forest department to local communities.

Environmentalists fear these measures virtually hand the land and forest mafia a licence to plunder.

“If the tribal bill is passed with these changes, natural parks and sanctuaries will just vanish and there will be no sanctity for wildlife,” said P.K. Sen, director, species programme, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The bill comes at the cost of the Wildlife (Protection) Act Amendment Bill, 2005, which proposed, among other things, measures to check the dwindling tiger population in the country. The wildlife bill has now been shelved.

The tribal bill in its original form had been tabled in Parliament on December 13, 2005, before being referred to a 20-member standing committee.

The original bill allowed village gram sabhas to make proposals on land rights and government officials to decide on them, but the House panel wants matters to be settled in the village assembly itself.

The committee also wants forest-dwellers to have the right to make regulations to protect wildlife and forests, which, environmentalists fear, may be abused to plunder forest resources.

The shelving of the wildlife bill is itself an issue. The bill proposed a National Tiger Conservation Authority, allowing the Centre’s Project Tiger to have direct control over the sanctuaries and reserve forests where tigers are disappearing. They are now under the control of state governments.

“We have already plundered the forests beyond recognition. We must think seriously about whether we want to preserve the forests or not,” said Mike Pandey, wildlife conservationist and filmmaker.

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