Forest-dwelling tribal communities had no rights over the land they occupied—till now. The notification of the Rules for the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, is a step in the right direction. But there could be a gap between intent and action.
There were environmental concerns about giving these rights to tribals. These concerns included the erosion of forest cover, depletion of wildlife and rapid deforestation due to consumption and destruction of forest cover. In addition, any such depletion would cast serious doubts over the country’s commitment to slowing climate change.
Conceived as a populist measure given that general elections in 2009 are not far off, some good may still come out from this exercise, perceived by many to be a vote-grabbing exercise.
Whatever the political compulsions, the granting of property rights to tribals will help deal with several existing inequities. Those with a skewed initial endowment of physical assets, education and money have nothing but their labour to sell in the market.
The Act will make it a possibility for millions of Indian citizens to participate more effectively in the economic life of the country. Often denied credit by lending institutions on the ground of having no collateral, the tribal people now have the possibility of accessing money and launching small-scale businesses.
This possibility may not take off. As in other things Indian, the gap between legislative intent and bureaucratic imprint is large in this instance as well. The rules, written under the Act to operationalize it, are likely to make a hash of things. Written while a tug-of-war between the conservation and tribal rights lobbies was raging, the rules are a product of this tension. Many ambiguities persist and useful procedures that were elaborated in the draft rules were eliminated in the final rules that were notified on 1 January.
Consider, for example, some of the more blatant deletions. In the draft rules, Section 34 provided for the declaration and notification of critical wildlife habitats within six months of the date of coming into force of the rules. This has been eliminated. This is likely to result in misuse: Politicians can insist on encroachment of these endangered, wildlife-rich areas for mining companies while tribals may simply be shunted out because some bureaucrat defines a critical area as he whims it.
Similarly, the definition of a gram sabha (village assembly) under Section 3 of the draft rules has been diluted. In the draft, the definition included smaller hamlets and habitations instead of a bigger, panchayat-sized gathering. In far- flung areas where a “village” is often a collection of a few households, merging these units into a bigger panchayat is likely to result in innumerable difficulties for poor people to secure their rights.
There are outlandish propositions in large measure in the rules. Sections 14 and 15 of the rules deal with petitions to the sub-divisional and district-level committees which implement the decisions of the gram sabha under the Act. These sections provide public hearings by district officers in the villages concerned. Anyone who is aware as to how a district bureaucracy functions in India will immediately understand that these rules are unlikely to be followed in letter or spirit.
Ultimately, it boils down to that elusive commodity called political will. As mentioned before, the Act is clearly a populist device. Given the manifold weaknesses of the rules, it’s incumbent on legislators to monitor the implementation of the Act. If they do so, they are likely to gain the commodity they desire most: votes. Otherwise, it will remain what it is, a paper with a lot of ink on it.
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