The March of the Zamindars: The Forest Rights Act and the Courts


On the 28th of March, the Supreme Court petition against the Forest Rights Act is due for its first hearing.  This is now - as has been reported in the press - just one of five, possibly six, court cases pending against the Act, with  the others being in various High Courts.  Aside from the legal aspects, though, there are some points about these court cases that are very interesting.

First, this is not the result of some kind of spontaneous wave of opposition.  Most of the High Court petitions are cut and paste versions of the same document, with the same paragraphs in a different order.  This is clearly a coordinated operation.

Second, it is interesting to see who has signed these petitions.  In three cases they are retired forest officers.  Of the two remaining, one is by the ex-Zamindar of Singampatti (the area that now falls in the Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve).  The final one - the Supreme Court case - is filed on behalf of four organisations, but signed by Dr. MK Ranjit Singh, ex Secretary (Forests) of Madhya Pradesh.  
Thus out of five petitions we have four by persons associated with the Forest Department (often called India's modern zamindar) and one by a true zamindar.  Well, two, if one counts the fact that Dr. Singh signs himself as the son of "HH Maharana Raj Saheb Pratapsinhji Amarsinhji."  

Third, on the 28th the Supreme Court will likely be advised by Harish Salve, the amicus curiae in the ongoing "forest case" - TN Godavarman Thirumalpad and Ors. vs. Union of India and Ors. (incidentally, Godavarman is also a zamindar) - and by the members of the Central Empowered Committee created for that case.   The CEC is effectively India's most powerful forest regulatory body today, with most of its members now being serving forest officers, and it has made its opposition to the rights of forest dwellers clear before.  Mr. Salve has also already declared his opposition to the Forest Rights Act, making him less than fit to be a neutral adviser to the Court on this matter.  

Thus in sum we have what is a planned, orchestrated offensive against the Forest Rights Act, using the courts as a platform.  This is not new.   We have time and again seen this group, a handful of hardline conservationists, take advantage of their access to money, power and the bureaucracy to block and sabotage the struggle for forest rights.  

But it is striking for a group that claims to speak on behalf of the “national interest” that they could not find anyone except forest officers and zamindars as their allies, considering that both of those groups have a direct vested interest in control over forest land.  It is remarkable that in Madurai they piggybacked on the Singampatti zamindar - on whose lands huge areas of natural forest were cleared for tea estates and teak plantations, the latter created with the forced labour of the Kani tribal community.  It is fascinating that in the Supreme Court they see their best hope as Mr. Salve, who had in November declared in open court that India has far too many national parks and sanctuaries; we need only six or seven, and the rest should be denotified for industry.  

Or perhaps it is not so surprising at all.  This group is on a crusade driven by the sense that they are the rightful owners of India's forests, and the Forest Department should be their all powerful agent.   If in the wisdom of this handful of people, industry, resorts, wildlife tourism, or "inviolate areas" are the appropriate use of forest lands, they should have the untrammeled right to decide; and woe betide those who get in the way.  This is not a fight over forest conservation.  It is essentially a fight over power.  

But they may find the reality rather different now.  There was a time, no doubt, when five people around a table in Delhi could decide the lives and livelihoods of millions.  That time is over.  Not because of the Forest Rights Act, but because of the massive people's struggle of which it is the latest manifestation.  Whatever their moves may achieve, the hardliners will soon discover that it is not so easy for zamindari to be resurrected.

Campaign for Survival and Dignity