Forest dwellers' rights: The government is sabotaging its own law
The flaws in the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, and its even more flawed implementation are not really secrets. Envisaged as a way to protect from eviction people who traditionally live in and by forests while engaging them in the conservation of forest resources, the law yet seems to carry marks of a covert reluctance. Which individuals and communities have the right to live on land they have occupied for years — in the case of non-scheduled tribes, for 75 years at least — and which forest produce can they collect and sell, as they had been doing? These decisions were vested in gram sabhas, and when these were unsure or non-existent, with the forest department. Joint management, let alone community management, was very rare. The bureaucratic approach undermined the purpose of the law. Without documents, claims to land and produce collection could be arbitrarily rejected, as has been happening. It was almost as though the law made it easier to notice and evict the poor who lived by forest produce. Yet carefully thought-out programmes to engage forest dwellers consciously in the preservation of resources would have protected forest wealth — community forest management can create the balance between need and nurture. Administrative principles are strange enough to forest dwellers, and the apparent unwillingness of governments to change things in spite of detailed reviews by different agencies has worsened matters.
Neither the United Progressive Alliance nor the National Democratic Alliance shows up well in this context. Governments have even refused to de-regularize the trade in forest produce in spite of being urged repeatedly. That would reduce the government’s revenue and bring more money to the collectors. The simmering opposition from the wildlife lobby, which fears human encroachment in animal habitats, has never been tackled either. The Supreme Court ordered the eviction of a million forest dwellers in response to petitions from the wildlife lobby. The court was ruling on the basis of reports of rejected claims. The government should long ago have eliminated the possibility of easy, agenda-driven rejections. The fact that no lawyer to defend forest-dwellers’ rights was sent by the Centre on the day of the ruling exposes how the government is sabotaging its own law.