Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Forest dwellers demand more rights over forests

New Delhi : Dozens of activists travelled from unknown hamlets deep inside forests all over India to the nation's capital Tuesday to press their demand for more rights over their own lives.

Brought together by the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, the forest dwellers demanded changes in the rules notified by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs after the passage of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act in 2006.

They also demanded implementation of the law after the changes they wanted - mainly formation of empowered and representative committees in every village.

The act was passed Dec 18, 2006. There was a long hiatus before the ministry published a series of draft rules June 19 to make the act operational, and gave the public 45 days to suggest changes to the rules.

The suggestions have been given, the period is over, and there is no further move from the ministry, according to Pradip Prabhu, convenor of the campaign.

The representatives of voluntary groups and community organisations who gathered at the Indian Social Institute here Tuesday accused the government of "sabotaging the act" by rejecting the recommendation of a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) and saying that the panchayat (village council) would decide who would have the right to farm land inside a forest and collect minor forest produce.

Since most villages located inside forests were very small, a panchayat took in a large number of villagers, Prabhu pointed out. In effect, this meant that most villagers would not be able to attend panchayat meetings and argue for their rights. The activists demanded that the gram sabhas - committees that would decide on the rights of individuals - be constituted at the village and even hamlet level.

The activists were also very upset because the June 19 notification takes away from the gram sabha the right to decide if a government agency or a private firm can exploit forest resources. They demanded that the "power to protect its forests" be given back to the gram sabha and that the "consent of the community be required" before there was any "interference" in a forest.

Prabhu said despite the assurances of the government, there was no sign that forest dwellers who did not belong to any scheduled tribe would get any right. On the other hand, the government had rejected the demand that "people who mainly use hired labour" should not be considered forest dwellers. He demanded that the gram sabha be involved in deciding who was a forest dweller.

The activists also demanded that the consent of the gram sabha be mandatory for resettlement and rehabilitation of any forest dweller who lost his home because a forest was declared a wildlife reserve.

According to Prabhu, forest dwellers should be allowed to take minor forest produce to a market of their choice, and not to the nearest village or collection point as envisaged by the government. He also demanded that forest dwellers and women be made members of the gram sabha.

The activists felt that in the absence of more rights for local people was a major reason why Maoists had made deep inroads into the forested parts of India and that the reaction of the state - by forming the salwa judum militia by the Chhattisgarh government, for example - had only worsened the situation. They demanded the withdrawal of the salwa judum initiative.

Prabhu was apprehensive that the government wanted to privatise forests in the guise of creating carbon sinks that would offset global warming. "This threatens the survival of both the forest and her people," he said. "Such moves are fraught with dangers - ecologically, socially and politically."

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