As you may have seen in the news, yesterday the Minister of Tribal Affairs made a statement in the Lok Sabha that the Forest Rights Act will be notified from January 1st. This is not the first time the Minister has committed to a date – in fact this is the third such date being promised. But, as a formal promise to Parliament rather than a mere public announcement, it remains welcome news.
Yet the battle is far from over. In the first place, on this issue the government has many a time broken its commitments – even commitments made on the floor of the House, as occurred when the tabling of the original Bill was being delayed. Whether or not anything happens on January 1st will hence have to be seen.
But more importantly, for us the notification of this law is not a goal in itself. Notification is of value, in that it gives us one more tool to fight eviction. But the key steps forward in this law – the struggle for actual rights, the fight for democratic control over forests, and the demand for a democratic and accountable process for both conservation and rights– remain incomplete. Indeed, insofar as the process remains undemocratic, the ability of people to fight even for their basic right to land will be compromised. The Act itself is flawed in these respects; and as the Campaign had stated in September, there is sufficient information that the Rules for the Act are being constructed so as to further undermine the law on these points.
Moreover, one of those steps forward – a transparent, scientific and participatory process of deciding on wildlife habitats – has already been turned on its head. In its place, a hasty, slipshod process of determining "critical wildlife habitats" is being implemented as we speak, a process that simply cannot work. Some details on the current process are pasted in below. The Act provided a clear procedure for doing this, a process welcomed by many environmentalists as a chance for an open and scientific examination of the areas required for wildlife protection. Now, even if the Act is in force, we can expect that there will be efforts to arbitrarily remove people from these areas, or at the least to sabotage the rights recognition process.
Today we look forward to January 1st as a date on which we can, at least, have one more weapon against forced evictions. But for our rights, ranging from our right to our plots of land to our right to democratic control of resources, the struggle will go on. This announcement is no less, but also no more, than a step forward.
Campaign for Survival and
The Forest Rights Act provides for certain areas to be declared, after due scientific study, to be "critical wildlife habitats." Within these areas, resettlement can be attempted, but only after it has been shown to be necessary scientifically, all the rights of the forest dwellers have been recognised, their consent to resettlement obtained and a proper resetlement package which provides a secure livelihood is granted.
The guidelines were clearly drafted in a slipshod manner. Examples include:
Para 4(vii) of the guidelines requires that the State government include resolutions from gram sabhas that the process of "recognition and vesting" of rights is complete in the areas concerned. How can this occur if the Forest Rights Act is not implemented first? In short, these guidelines are unimplementable in this form.
Para 2(d) of the guidelines provides for declaring critical wildlife habitats in areas "besides national parks and sanctuaries." The Act defines critical wildlife habitats as areas within national parks and sanctuaries, indicating how little application of mind has gone into these guidelines.
Para 3.3(i)(e) of the guidelines states that one member of the State level committee will be a representative of the gram sabha. But a State contains thousands of gram sabhas. Which gram sabha will be represented?
these guidelines have been framed under the Forest Rights Act. How can
government implement just one part of a law –while ignoring the
rest and violating the sequence of the law, defined in sections 2(b)
and 4(2) of the Act.
The government has been claiming that the process will be completed within a month. But the process in these guidelines requires a minimum of 45 days to be completed in every single protected area. For a free and informed process of consent in the local areas, if that is actually intended, months would be required in each protected area. Thus a minimum of one to two years would be required. Such a timeframe is of course not a problem in itself; what makes it problematic is the Ministry of Environment and Forests' claim before Parliament that the Act will not be notified until these guidelines are implemented.
Contrary both to the National Rehabilitation Policy and to the Forest Rights Act, the government's notion of relocation is to offer 10 lakhs per family being relocated. No land or livelihood resources will be provided. M ore than 1000 crore has been already allocated for this scheme. A great deal of the cash will be siphoned off, and people left stranded, desperate for a livelihood. This is why the Tiger Task Force had said that "The [relocation] scheme must take into account the options for livelihood in the resettled village... The relocation package must be designed to provide viable alternatives." Failing to do this will only mean corruption, conflict and desperation.
The only people who will benefit are corrupt officials, who can siphon off money and extract bribes, and the big companies, who can take over these areas more easily for tourism or for mining etc.
Major environmental organisations such as WWF-India, Kalpavriksh, Foundation for Ecological Security, Samrakshan Trust and the Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society, have previously opposed this kind of process in the name of relocation. In a March 2006 joint statement, these groups and the Campaign had said no resettlement should occur without "a site-specific open process, with involvement of ... multi-disciplinary experts, [which] should take place through democratic mechanisms including local community representatives." Otherwise there would be "legal battles, physical resistance, and enhanced conflict. This will seriously harm both conservation and people's rights."