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
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
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
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
But it is striking for a group that claims to speak on behalf of the
â€œnational interestâ€ that they could not find anyone
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
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