Rights Against All Odds: How Sacrosanct is Tribal Forest Rights?

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"Since colonial times, in the name of conservation, the tribals or the original inhabitants have been asked to justify and prove their existence on their own land. This is part of a long conspiracy that has consistently alienated people from their homelands and livelihoods. For the colonial powers, forest was commerce, trees were timber and indigenous people were trespassers and encroachers. Furthermore, the indigenous people were regarded as the greatest threat to the expanding British colonialism designed to be achieved through legitimizing control over forests. Unfortunately, forest management has not been very different in post independent India-- the laws and policies have been mostly the same only the policy makers have changed. The exploitation of national resources has continued in the name of national objective by systematically marginalizing tribals and other forest dwellers. "During consolidation of forests in the 1950s and with the coming up of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980, a large area were recorded as forests without settling local rights. Many of these forests did not even physically exist and revenue lands supporting livelihoods were sealed off as forests. Moreover, the unclear demarcation of forest and revenue lands, the Supreme Court's definition of a forest were other crucial issues that went a long way in denying rights to the tribals and forest dwellers. The final blow was given by MoEF with its May 2002 circular to evict all `encroachers' immediately. In June 2004, the Government of India made a significant admission by holding that 'historical injustice' has been done to the tribal forest dwellers of the country, which needs to be immediately addressed by recognizing their traditional rights over forests and forestland. With changes and amendments, the Forest Rights Act was finally passed in December 2006 that promises to give up to 4 hectares of forestland to tribals and traditional forest dwellers basing on recommendations of the Gram Sabha. "Though landmark legislation by all means, apprehensions are raised whether the Act in its present form deliver what it was supposed to? Definition of 'forest dwellers', authority of the Gram Sabha, area where forest rights to be given, forest rights in the protected area, are still some of the contentious and unresolved issues. The other crucial issue that raises doubts about true implementation of the Forest Rights Act is the preeminence of Government machineries and complete absence of the forest dwelling scheduled tribes and the Civil Society Organisations. When the rights settlement process is crowded either by Forest Officers or by other Government agencies, it only remains to be seen how far the Act which is regarded as a revolutionary move in the history of land rights legislations in India yields desired results."



forest management, wildlife, habitats, community forestry, eminent domain, IASC