New Delhi: A year after legislating the rights of tribes and other forest dwellers, India turned it into law on Tuesday.
But, some pro-tribal rights activists still complained that the new rules dilute some provisions and will take time in implementing, while conservationists claim the law will lead to further destruction of the country’s forest cover. According to the ministry of environment and forests, about 25% of India’s land mass is forested.
The long delay in activating the law stemmed from intense lobbying by tribal and pro-conservation activists, for and against the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, which recognizes and gives forest rights, as well as rights to occupy forest land, to scheduled tribes and traditional forest dwellers.
Sanjay Upadhyay, a Supreme Court advocate specializing in forestry rights and environment, was on the technical sub-group that formulated the draft rules.
“The great thing is that something is there and, most significantly, eviction is stopped,” he said of the law. “But, having said that, the way the rules have been sanitized it almost looks like it has been cleaned up.”
Still, Upadhyay said he was optimistic that the rules could be yet revised to correct for any omissions.
The focus now shifts to the states. So far, only Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi has promised to implement the Act.
“It will take at least another six months for the formation of committees at the state, district and village levels as envisaged by the Act,” said Babu Rao Mediyam, a Lok Sabha member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from Bhadrachalam in Andhra Pradesh. “So, the implementation of the legislation is bound to be delayed.”
Shankar Gopalakrishnan, a tribal activist for Campaign for Survival and Dignity, noted that the Act is by no means a welfare scheme, but that it does correct historical “injustice”.
The concerns of pro-tribal rights activists centre around the complaint that the rules are “silent” on identifying critical wildlife habitats which cannot be inhabited, and have empowered the local panchayat, instead of the single village specific institution, the gram sabha, in areas reserved for tribes.
Coordinating between villages, activists argue, would be difficult and, hence, pose practical problems to implement the Act.
“The new rules define the gram sabha as the panchayat gram sabha or the revenue village, which, in practice, includes multiple hamlets and settlements. In practical terms, this will make implementation of the law and democratic functioning impossible. The Act clearly states that, in scheduled areas at least, the gram sabha should be that of the hamlet, which the joint parliamentary committee also recognised,” says Gopalakrishnan.
“Tiger habitats have been left out of bounds, mainly because of misdirected activism, but the area occupied by these habitats is not too large,” said Tushar Amarsinh Chaudhary, a Lok Sabha member of the Congress party from Mandvi in Gujarat.
“So, that shouldn’t be too much of a dampner. I said misdirected activism because tribals don’t harm the tiger.”
On 31 December, India announced that the existing and 36 proposed tiger reserves are now deemed as critical tiger habitats under the recently amended Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
Ashish Sharma contributed to this story.