Missing the forest for the trees
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Tribal affairs minister's letter to states on the Forest Rights Act highlights the problems of implementation
For most observers, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) is just another "welfare" law. It is often trotted out as one of those "development measures" that ought to be implemented, but isn't. Recently, Minister for Tribal Affairs V. Kishore Chandra Deo wrote to state governments, taking them to task for tardy implementation of the FRA. The problem, we are told, is one of "governance failure": officials are not doing their jobs. But reality is not so simple. The problems in the implementation of the FRA go well beyond official apathy. They cut to a key problem confronting India today: who should decide, and how, about how this country's natural resources are used?
In India's forests, this issue is far from new. In 1865, the British created the first Forest Act; its 1927 avatar is still India's main forest law. Their purpose was to secure control over India's vast timber resources. The act gives forest officials sweeping powers over any area of land declared a government "forest." In some areas (known as reserved forests) no one can have any rights, except those few that may have been recorded during an opaque, rarely completed, "settlement" process. The British said this expropriation was necessary for "scientific" management, by which they meant management of timber. Even today, the forest department's working plans talk mainly about timber; officials refer to non-timber forest produce as "minor" and the forest clearance process assumes that a natural forest can be replaced by a tree plantation — a true case of not seeing the forest for the trees.
Today, almost a quarter of India's land area is recorded as forest. Millions of tribals and forest dwellers were deemed "encroachers" on their own lands, and their livelihoods equated with criminal activity, during the century-long process of declaration of government forests. In undivided Madhya Pradesh alone, an estimated 95 lakh hectares of community forests were seized. In Thane district of Maharashtra, as early as 1878, the Bombay Forest Commission recorded that 4 lakh hectares of adivasi grazing lands had been converted to reserved and protected forest. It is not an accident that tribals are the most marginalised community in India today.
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