A long and winding path (Cover story)

Raika herders in Rajasthan. They will benefit from the Forests Rights Act if their claims are accepted by gram sabhas along their migration route. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Rights (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, had already made an impact on the ground when it came into operation on January 1, 2008. There were reports that the State Forest Departments were rushing to carry out evictions from allegedly encroached lands before its provisions to stay all evictions came into force. Reports from Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and other parts of India spoke of fresh clearing of forests at the instance of political parties, with the promise that these would be regularised under the Act. More quietly, communities and civil society organisations at some sites began preparations for implementing the Act in such a way that both forest protection and livelihood security could be enhanced. Now that the Act has been operationalised (with the notification of Rules), the question is: will it achieve what it sets out to do, and what will be the larger impact? The preambular text of the Act clearly lays out the context for its operative provisions. It is meant to undo historical injustices meted out to forest-dwelling populations in not recognising their rights to land and resources. But it also stresses that the rights of forest-dwelling communities include responsibility for the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity. Will its implementation help achieve this rather difficult balance between livelihood security and ecological conservation, which has eluded most conservation or development programmes in India so far? In a sense, this Act is 60 years late. The Indian state should have granted forest-related rights to Adivasi and other forest-dwelling communities, whose survival and welfare was integrally connected to their natural surrounds, immediately after Independence. This did not happen, and over the last few decades such communities have been massively dispossessed and often rendered criminals in their own homelands. In Orissa, for instance, over 25,000 sq km of land has traditionally been under shifting cultivation; those lying above 10 degree slopes were unilaterally declared government lands, and much of these as forest land. Suddenly, the cultivators, many of them Adivasis, became "encroachers'. This should not, of course, hide the fact that significant forest loss has also taken place because of encroachment. The motivations for this are mixed, from desperate forest clearing by poor people with no other alternative to encroachment by oustees of "development' projects who received no rehabilitation to powerful vested interests forcibly occupying forest lands for various purposes. It should also not obscure the painful reality of forest-dwellers being alienated from their homelands by "development' projects or by powerful vested interests, instances of injustice that have hardly been addressed by the Indian state. Simultaneously, forests across the country have seen a horrendous onslaught from industrial and commercial interests and agricultural expansion. Over 4.5 million hectares of forest was officially diverted from 1952 to 1980. Slowed down by enactments such as the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA) of 1980, the pace of forest diversion has once again increased in the past decade as the full force of globalisation and unbridled economic growth has made itself felt. Of the total 1.1 million ha of forests officially diverted since 1980, about a third has been only in the past five years. Responses to this devastation have mostly been in the form of laws and judgments resulting in stricter regulation of how forest lands are to be used. The most stringent have been protected areas (PAs) set up under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The nearly 5 per cent of India's territory covered by PAs has been invaluable in stemming the tide of wildlife destruction. But the manner in which PAs have been set up, ignoring the rights and needs of several million people dependent on their resources, has only created mass hostility and anguish. The tremendous traditional knowledge and practices, which were often strongly conservation-oriented, have also been ignored. This is an approach now rebounding on conservation itself, as these communities either simply refuse to cooperate with forest officials in stopping forest fires or reporting poachers, or actually become conduits in poaching and wood theft. The disappearance of tigers in Sariska is no surprise to anyone observing the brewing of a disastrous conservation recipe: ill-equipped and often unmotivated forest staff, hostile local villagers, and the absence of the political will to change things. The Forest Rights Act is a product of this history. Indeed, it is doubtful if it would ever have come into being if the people behind the Indian Forest Act, the FCA, and the Wildlife Protection Act integrated a livelihoods perspective into their vision. Had the interests and traditions of forest-dwellers been taken on board in the past few decades, the country would have had several million more supporters of conservation. A cauldron of impacts The debate on the Forest Rights Act has seen some incredible assertions about what it is going to result in. On the one side are a handful of conservationists (and prominent journalists) claiming that the Act will end up destroying all of India's forests and be the final nail in the coffin for the tiger. One sees a lot of rhetoric in their position, but little logic. On the other side are human rights advocates who wax eloquent about how the Act will revolutionise Adivasi existence and save India's forests from being destroyed by the industry-bureaucracy nexus. Again, more rhetorical heat than light. In the middle are a range of observers, cautiously supporting or questioning the Act, recognising that its impact is going to be extremely mixed. Already one sees evidence of this: ? In 2007, it was reported that 24,000 ha of forest was cleared in Gujarat, under political incitement, to claim it under the Act; ? In 2007, nearly 150 acres (1 acre = 0.4 ha) of forest was cut down inside the Kawal Sanctuary, Andhra Pradesh, by Adivasis from outside; ? In November 2007, more than 100 families were evicted from their villages in Nepanagar tehsil, Burhandpur district, Madhya Pradesh, with forest officials reportedly wanting to hurry up evictions before the Act came into force; ? Communities in Orissa are preparing to use the Act to claim control over forests they have been conserving, in particular to stop mines, industries or other destructive "development' projects that the government is allowing in these areas. In the ongoing case against the proposed mining by Vedanta Alumina Ltd in the Niyamgiri Hills, the Act's provisions protecting "Primitive Tribal Groups' have been cited since the hills are the abode of the Dongariya Khonds, a highly vulnerable Adivasi group; ? A number of conservation organisations are preparing to influence the process of declaring "critical wildlife habitats' under the Act so as to strengthen conservation greatly while also safeguarding bona fide livelihood interests; ? The Soliga Adivasi community in Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple (BRT) Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka is being helped by the non-governmental organisation (NGOs) Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) and Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK) to map resource uses, sacred groves and habitats considered by them to be critical for wildlife, and other aspects, and then invite the sanctuary authorities to prepare a consolidated plan for the implementation of the Act; ? Several States are beginning to identify "critical wildlife habitats' within their protected areas with the purpose of making them "inviolate' (which could mean a range of situations from no human use to only those human uses that are absolutely compatible with the conservation objectives of the area). Once notified, such areas would be totally off limits to any damaging industrial project (see box). The medley of positive and negative impact of the Act is partly a result of the structure of the Act and Rules, partly an outcome of the serious lack of readiness amongst the government and civil society to implement their provisions. Fresh encroachments in some States, if the reports above are valid, could be a result of the Act's provision that in the case of Adivasis, lands could be claimed for regularisation if "encroached' before December 2005. The original version of the Act had specified 1980. With a cut-off date that was many years behind, any fresh clearance of forests for encroachment could have been much easier to detect and pronounce illegal. Even now, satellite imagery could be used to detect any post-December 2005 encroachments, but this will be more difficult and the political pressure to regularise these would be much stronger. Another serious issue is the possibility of opening up forest lands that are currently safeguarded by the FCA. This would happen in two ways. One is forest lands under cultivation that would get regularised (and presumably converted into revenue land). These lands are not alienable in that forest-dwellers cannot sell them off; however, it is not clear if they would be eligible to be acquired by the State under the Land Acquisition Act and would no longer have to go through FCA procedures. In the worst-case scenario, this is one way in which the Act could become another tool in the hands of the State and industry to access lands for commercial activities. The second is forest lands that would be diverted for one or more of the development facilities (roads, health centres, transmission lines, and so on) that the Act provides as a right to villages, which are exempt from the purview of the FCA. These are within limits (for example, only one hectare per facility, with less than 75 trees per hectare), but subject to violations under political pressure. At least in some parts of India, these provisions could lead to the fragmentation of forests. However, this is not yet manifest on the ground, and civil society organisations can at least raise an alert if they see misuse of this kind taking place. A Soliga Adivasi hamlet in the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary, Karnataka. NGOs are helping the Soligas to map resource uses, sacred groves and habitats considered by them to be critical for wildlife. There are likely to be severe problems in establishing genuine rights too. Even the definition of who is eligible is not clear; the Act says those "residing in and who depend on forests or forest lands for bona fide livelihood needs'. This leaves unclear what "residing in' means. Does it include villages that are immediately adjacent to forests, does it include villages that are surrounded by forests but are on revenue land? Also, do both conditions (residing in and dependent on) need to be fulfilled

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