What did not raise much chatter last week was a hint that the ‘development’ juggernaut was considering scrapping the Forest Rights Act, using one of many backdoor methods available to bypass legislation.
It will force the country back to intense mineral-based conflict and also the never-ending struggle for land, which fill over-crowded court dockets. The regional parties that survive in and around forest areas live on the sentiment of “jal, jangal aur jameen” (water, forest and land). Ironically, the NDA government is considering this move to alienate tribals and forestdwellers around the time that marks the 10th anniversary of the merger of Leftwing extremist parties (along with their military factions) into the CPI(Maoist).
Smug editorials from armchair journalists have surfaced in favour of scrapping or bypassing the legislation. Some even professed that tribals do not live in tiger reserves. Well, tigers definitely do. As do elephants and other animals and their corridors are shrinking and fast.
The BJP-led NDA government was elected on promises of ushering in ‘development’ and ‘growth’. It wants to keep some of those vows and is taking steps to ensure a manufacturing and infrastructure boom. In that, it is learning from the decision of its predecessor, the Congressled UPA regime. It is doing away with the major hurdles to such ‘economic development’, that even Congress apologists were forced to protest against vocally.
The National Board for Wildlife — a body that could raise a stink over wildlife clearances to infrastructure and industrial projects — has been diluted. This would push wildlife and forest matters to the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court.
The Forest Rights Act is a different matter altogether.
Despite best efforts, Schedules Five and Six to the Constitution of India have remained largely ornamental. These provisions protect the rights of tribals based on their socioeconomic right over their land and other factors.
Besides this, there are other specialised legislations such as the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Parganas Act in Jharkhand, the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act and the Samta Judgment.
But, the Forest Rights Act deals directly with forest-dwellers, who had been treated as encroachers in the forest in a tradition inherited from the colonial era. Forest officers often behave with them in the same way as insensitive gora sahibs. In brief, the law allows a forest-dweller or a forest-dwelling community to retain individual or community ownership rights over the land around their communities, mostly to sustain themselves.
The UPA government, with its Leftleaning philosophy, enacted this law but failed to implement it. In some states, individual pattas (title deeds) were given; while other states failed to do so.
According to a Central government report dated 31 May, 37,64,315 claims had been filed, of which 81.21 percent were disposed of. But only 14,36,290 titles had been distributed and 34,421 titles were ready for distribution. These 14 lakh plus titles are for 55.3 lakh acres of forestland. However, less than half of this land was given community rights under the Forest Rights Act.
The poorest performer was Jharkhand, which, considering its large tribal and forest-dwelling population, had collected around 42,000 claims of which around 15,000 had fructified into titles under the Forest Rights Act.
Largely, the implementing authority under the Forest Rights Act failed to do its duty by not handing over community rights to forest villages. This would then leave it to the entire community to decide upon the fate of their land.
The law allows for up to one hectare for roads and other infrastructure and development projects, but note that this is one hectare out of the forest-dwellers’ land. The Ministry of Environment and Forest and the National Board for Wildlife has to clear the project for the rest of the forest minus the forest-dwellers’ land.
In the early 1980s, before Bihar was bifurcated, a question in the Assembly about forest villages (especially in south Bihar, which later became Jharkhand), led to recognising and registering several forest villages. Eventually, it would mean ensuring basic social welfare measures such as health programmes reach these hard-to-reach villages.
In many ways, forest villages are very different from the revenue villages that cityfolk see either on their way to vacations or in Bollywood films. The forest villages are set deep in jungles and are usually built around a water source and thrive on subsistence agriculture and collecting and gathering minor forest produce. The latter includes collecting lac that is used to make bangles; flowers, herbs and roots used in traditional medicine; tendu leaves for beedi; and other raw material for indigenous small and cottage industries.
The distinction of forest villages from revenue villages must be maintained as must the socio-religious culture of its inhabitants who are indigenous people.
The British largely used the law to control the timber trade, which made big money even then. Now, forest conservation laws have made that difficult.
But, current economics is not concerned with the green cover on the surface of forests but the minerals that the green cover hides from plain sight.
Take for example, the Saranda forest. In the local Ho dialect, Saranda literally means seven hundred hills. It stretches across south Jharkhand into Bihar, contiguous across political state borders and is home to steel and other mineral mines controlled by the Tatas, Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL), among other companies. Many are still trying to get into these hills and hence any proposal to bypass the Forest Rights Act is welcome, because the law requires the community to have a say in any project, mining or otherwise, that encroaches upon their land.
Till 2011, this was a ‘liberated zone’, held by the Maoists and governed by their janatana sarkar or people’s government. Sustained conter-insurgency efforts, through phases of Operation Anaconda, including a month-long operation, managed to establish permanent paramilitary camps in these forests.
A little-known detail about this forest is that this is where the merger of Left-wing extremists into a single Maoist party was finalised between factions of the CPI(ML) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC).
In 2011, the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh made a ‘go-no go’ policy in Saranda that handed over control over further mining in the region to SAIL.
Later, as the Union rural development minister, Ramesh visited Saranda several times and proposed rehabilitative measure for these forest villages, which had till then largely been governed by the Maoists, under his ambitious Saranda Action (later renamed Development) Plan.
Education and healthcare had already been seeping in slowly through the Sarva Shikshya Abhiyan and the National Rural Health Mission. These forest villages such as Thalkobad, Tiril Posi, Bitkel Soi, Baliba and others had formed village education and health committees. Women took up positions of sahiyas (grassroot- level workers) and forest roads were strengthened and allowed better communication. BSNL started work on mobile telephone towers in the area.
The UPA government partially cleared this forest of insurgency. A bureaucrat had also proposed bypassing the Forest Rights Act and the NDA government is merely taking it forward.
This proposal will allow the government to bypass gram sabhas (empowered under the Forest Rights Act), allow prospecting for mining, bypass Forest Rights Act for granting of mining leases and some other clauses that allow handing over forest produce rights to largely insensitive forest officials.
A recent parallel example is from Maharashtra, where the state forest department created rules to subvert the Forest Rights Act by handing over rights over forest produce such as bamboo to forest officials, which accounted for crores of rupees in revenue.
In Odisha, there was large-scale demonstration against a bauxite mining project for Vedanta and finally the forest-dwelling community denied mining in the hills following a Supreme Court directive to ask the community’s opinion.
BJP MP Jual Oram had supported the tribals in this protest and has taken a stand against modifying or bypassing the Forest Rights Act to serve corporate interests.
While the Forest Rights Act does a little for the forest-dwellers, it suffers from many problems. Forest-dwellers are extremely poor in terms of socio-economic standards. They are far below any discounted standard of living standards and would surprise the shockingly low poverty parameters set under the Planning Commission.
But, the Forest Rights Act did not consider several smaller communities that are under the category of the primitive (or particularly vulnerable) tribe groups.
In 2012, I came across a settlement of Birhors and Mahalis (both primitive tribal groups) near Chakradharpur in Jharkhand. They live off the forest and earn between Rs 5 to Rs 10 a kilo for collecting lac from the forests.
The government had settled them on a patch of land and an NGO had built them houses to which the doors and windows were never built because the contractor had swallowed the funds.
The primitive tribal group communities were considering moving, not only because they are often nomadic within the forest, but also because their condition had worsened due to poor hygiene conditions in those houses. The forest department officials had taken to chasing them away from that part of Saranda forest when they would scrounge for minor forest produce.
If the NDA government is trying to decode any fresh reasons for the Maoist struggle and rural (or urban) sympathy for it, it need look no farther. The Leftwing extremist factions have grown in strength and support fed by the apathy towards tribals and other such communities. While the forest provides a natural cover to the guerrilla warriors, the struggle for the land and the forest has provided a man-made impetus for its ideology to spread and grow.
Counter-insurgency efforts may have temporarily forced the Maoists to concede physical territory but it has not pushed away the ideology and the villagers’ support for them.
On the border of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, at the junction of Palamu and Latehar districts, the erstwhile Bihar government had tried to build the Mandal or Kutku dam by submerging 22 villages. In the late 1990s, the Maoists had fought back with fire on behalf of the villagers after the government filled the submergence zone and created a reservoir.
Though it is not a corporate project, this is a fit example to show how the forest habitat is important for these 22 villages. They survive largely on subsistence agriculture but the forest and the three rivers that meet at the ‘submergence zone’ augment to their income. But, more importantly, the forest is an important part of the tribals’ culture and inhabitants of these 22 villages prefer to remain in that zone despite being cut off from government- sponsored social welfare measures such as PDS, health and education. Patronising attitudes about existing constitutional reservations for jobs and education will not compensate for the cultural and religious rights of tribals associated with the forestland.
The government also needs to recognise that the forest is a part of the religio-cultural rights and recognise tribal religions, without codifying and prescribing laws for these religions.
Activists who have worked here have been labelled as Maoist agents or members of the left-wing extremist outfit cutting off connection to organisation, funds and support for their democratic protests.
The Maoist presence has since then subsided due to heavy area-domination patrols by the CRPF. However, moves to bring back heavy industry and mining will only give the Maoists a boost to regroup and get more members.
Last year, the Maoists had been forced to admit that their leadership and militia were greatly diminished, but moves to alienate the tribals may increase their numbers. Their estimation of losses is around 2,332 party members in the last decade of the Maoists’ existence but the militia wing has survived in the forest areas despite the 50 lakh state and Central forces deployed to fight them.
Villagers continue to be squashed in the conflict, which has changed in external character from a feudal system to one of crony capitalist.
In a recent press release by its central committee, the Maoists claim that they have responded with underground parallel governments under the Revolutionary People’s Committees in many places as well increased activity by its militia wing, the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army. Despite earlier lower estimations, the Maoists claim that the armed wing has strengthened its ranks, with the number of cardes being around 10,000.
With mining back in the forests, the Maoists will also flex their guerrilla muscles to collect levy from the miners. In the past, corporate mining entities have paid it off, while the villagers had been caught in the crossfire.
The opportunity cost for corporate projects in the forests by bypassing the Forest Rights Act is high and not just in terms of the Maoist conflict. Such attempts must be discarded immediately and the government must display sensitive intentions towards forest-dwellers and tribals.