Political Economy of Tribal Development and Conservation of Forests

Dr VK Bahuguna

(The author is former civil servant)
The development of tribal (adiwasis) people has always been a hot topic of discussions among the ruling and political parties of all hues. For the past seven decades after independence several schemes and programs were launched by the various governments which were met with minimum success rate in terms of enhancing the socio-economic status of the tribal population of the country. A miniscule group of educated people were of course benefitted from the job reservation policy of the Central and State Governments. The land tenure reforms have always been in the forefront of tribal struggle and many NGOs and social workers have been raising the issue of tribal land with the forest department. The tribal livelihood rights however, are intricately liked with the management of forest ecosystems and it is equally necessary that the forest bio-diversity is in good shape to meet their needs. Not only tribal people but villagers living in 170,000 villages of the country situated in and around 32 million ha of forests are also partially dependent on the adjoining forestlands for their daily needs. The tribal population of the country as per 2011 Census was around 10.4 Crore constituting around 8.6 % of the total population of India. In 2004 the then NDA government opened up the issue of historical injustice of disputed settlement claims of tribal rights on the recorded forestlands which were pending for decades and particularly after the enactment of Forest Conservation Act 1980. A notification was issued on 4th February 2004 recognizing the rights of tribal people on the occupied forestlands and a procedure was communicated to States for vesting the occupied land. This recognition was welcomed by all but could not be implemented due to the defeat of NDA Government. Taking a clue from this notification the UPA Government re-initiated the process and in 2006 enacted the Forest Rights Act 2006. Since then it has been billed as the biggest reform initiative for correcting the historic injustice to the tribal people. However, it would be appropriate to examine the impact of this Act on tribal people’s political economy.

One of the biggest constraints in forest management and tribal development is the fact that forests, tribal and mineral map of the country overlap each other. Due to this there are inherent conflicts in ensuring environmentally viable sustainable development. For long term sustainability of forest management and meeting the climate change targets it is necessary that not only the forestlands become productive enough but also the land vested under the Act produce enough for a decent livelihood in such a manner that their dependency in the long term on the forests is gradually reduced and ultimately the forests in a country of India’s size are manned for ecological sustainability of all kinds of landscape. It is necessary that all major political parties assess the economic polity of the tribal-forests interface and chalk an integrated strategy in the interests of nation.

Let us examine first the implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006. Its implementation was started in 2008-09. As on 31st October 2018, around 42 lakh claims were filed and out of this around 18.93 lakh claims have been distributed and a total of 72.26 lakh hectares of forestlands were distributed. Though the basic surmise of the Act before enactment was on community rights but mainly now it is settling individual rights. It would be interesting to note that during
the last ten years till May 2018 58.5 lakh hectares was vested but more than half of this figure was distributed just in the next five months by the end of October 2018. The Act is open ended and for the past 10 years the process is still going on. It reflects either the incompetency of the system or it is gradually becoming a tool in bartering away of forestland. It is a moot point to ponder for the policy planners if it was not an easy task for the tribal, revenue and forests departments to ascertain the land under occupation as on 2006 when this Act came into effect and why it is taking so long to ascertain the occupation? Land is a precious resource and unless it is dealt with seriously this lackadaisical attitude in implementation is increasing the encroachments on forests. If the situation is not handled timely the country will suffer irreparable loss; shall torn the social fiber of the country as water the precious resource for food and sustaining life will be lost forever.

The political parties and government must think on this urgently and gear up to fix a last cutoff date so that after this focus is shifted on developing these lands for better returns to the beneficiaries. The tribal alienation is not just due to land rights but also lack of modern infrastructure and health, livelihood and educational deprivation. Unless the land vested is demarcated, digitized on priority and becomes productive the real purpose of empowerment of tribal will not be achieved and as in the past they will continue to be hoodwinked by land sharks and rural mafia. The implementation of the Act should therefore, be linked with creation of livelihood and basic infrastructure. In the interests of both tribal and non-tribal population it is necessary that the government and political parties shift the focus of creation of infrastructure and rural development on the 32 million hectare of fringe forests primarily targeting the vested tribal land and adjoining village forests/non forest land on a landscape basis. A nationally coordinated project in collaboration with Environment, Agriculture, Tribal, Water Resources, Micro and Medium Enterprise, Renewable Energy, Ayush and, Rural Development Ministries for livelihood generation. The Project should have a second component based on cluster approach to be implemented by Human Resources, Housing, Health and Family Welfare, Power Ministries for infrastructure. The Prime Minister must make an announcement on this and set aside an outlay of Rupees 10,000 Crore for the next five years which is possible by pooling up existing funds.

Now the question is how to implement it. Recently, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes considering the interface between forests and tribes has requested the Government of India to assign the Tribal Welfare to Indian Forest Service (IFS) by renaming it as Indian Forest and Tribal Service. It is an excellent proposal however, renaming IFS is not necessary what is absolutely essential is to encompass tribal welfare as a core value of forest management. For this the IFS training will require changes and Indian Institute of Forest Management and Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy should be assigned this task. The IFS cadre shall require revamping to create a capable force but not be a lame duck attempt like changing the name of the service. To begin with one Additional Director General’s post should be created in the Ministry of Environment to deal with tribal affairs, ensure convergence and plan future set up. In the long run a tribal child should grow up in story telling tribal culture but simultaneously encompassing the fruits of modern development. 

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