Wildlife is too important to left to establishment; power must be given to people whose habitat is steamrolled

If states implement the recent Supreme Court order mandating the eviction of over 10 lakh forest-dwellers, there will, effectively, be blood on our conscience, or the tatters that remain of it

Suhit K Sen February 27, 2019 19:08:52 IST
Wildlife is too important to left to establishment; power must be given to people whose habitat is steamrolled
  • According to Ministry of Tribal Affairs, less than half of the 42 lakh claims made for pattas (title deeds) by forest-dwellers have been accepted

  • if states implement the recent Supreme Court order mandating the eviction of over 10 lakh forest-dwellers, there will, effectively, be blood on our conscience, or the tatters that remain of it

  • The number of affected individuals, however, could be way higher as there are over 25 crore forest-dwellers in India who are out of the loop

  • Even after passing the Forest Rights Act. 2016, rapacious corporates in collusion with politicians and bureaucrats continue to despoil forested areas

  • A beginning can be made by implementing the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996

For over a decade, the political establishment in India has ignored the legitimate claims of the most marginalised people in this benighted country. I thas forced these people — over at least a couple of centuries and a half — to retreat to the forests and who, still, in the age of 4G technology, hunt and gather.

Their staple requirement is what is known in environmental jargon and bureaucratese as minor forest produce (MNF) or non-timber forest produce (NTFP). Translated into English, it means scrounging for a living and being exploited by rapacious middlemen in league with state agencies: witness the tendu economy.

As of April 1, 2018, there are some numbers to show the way:

Forest rights
State Claims made Titles given Rejections
Chhattisgarh 8,86,000 4,09,000 4,59,000
Odisha 6,22,000 4,21,000 1,50,000
Madhya Pradesh 6,16,000 2,48,000 3,63,000
Maharashtra 3,64,000 1,12,000 2,31,000
Karnataka 2,81,000 16,000 1,80,000
Gujarat 1,90,000 87,000 65,000
Bengal 1,42,000 45,000 96,000
India 42,00,000 18,59,000 19,34,000
Source: Ministry of Tribal Affairs, via The Telegraph, February 26, 2019

In effect, then, less than half of the claims made for pattas (title deeds) have been accepted. Most have been rejected, and if states implement the recent Supreme Court order mandating the eviction of over 10 lakh forest-dwellers, there will, effectively, be blood on our conscience, or the tatters that remain of it.

Wildlife is too important to left to establishment power must be given to people whose habitat is steamrolled

Representational image. AFP

But this is just part of the story. Crores of forest dwellers have not got to the stage of filing their claims yet. Let’s try to get some numbers going. Reliable estimates put the total number of forest-dwellers at 25 crore. The table cited above deals with just 42 lakh forest dwellers. Therefore, almost 25 crore forest-dwellers are still out of the loop. This is not a party issue. Those who conspire to deny, forest-dwellers of even the semblance of bare life are conservation fundamentalists, bureaucrats (especially in the forest department), the political class, rapacious corporates and a complaisant middle class, which is only interested in being cosseted.

There are more problems here. Let’s begin with the identity-obsessed segment of the anthropological establishment, which would dearly like to ‘museum-ise' tribal people and other forest-dwellers. The way forward is not to romanticise a way of life which is characterised principally by deprivation and penury. The tribal and forest-dwelling people’s ‘cultural heritage’ can be protected without an enforced life of indigence. There is no reason why the children of forest-dwellers cannot, by right, aspire for education, health care, etc, and a future as professors of science, anthropology, et al.

Thus, the massive funding to bring them, and other indigent people, into the net of a proper welfare state, sounds counter-intuitive, and, in fact, plain dumb, while all the other rubbish keeps going on as business as usual.

Conservation fundamentalists want to drive forest-dwellers out of their ‘pristine’ wilderness habitats to protect forests and wildlife. However, India is not the United States of America. It does not have pristine habitats because the man-land ratio and density of population does not allow it. Humans must learn to coexist with other animals until they can be given their due. All evidence suggests, anyway, that forest-dwellers live lightly and can coexist with animals.

It is only the relentless drive of deforestation that forces wild species into habitats they are unfamiliar with. It is this that creates the typical man-animal conflict: straying big cats or elephants in rural and semi-urban areas; simians and birds in urban areas. Take your pick: elephants mowed down by trains or aircraft hit by birds (shouldn’t it be birds hit by aircraft?).

Let's take the corporates, the political class and the bureaucrats together. These three entities have conspired to deforest India: whether to ravage whole regions with mining operations or to create, courtesy of the timber lobby, single-tree plantations, which are environmentally unsustainable, or build roads and other ‘infrastructural’ necessities. It is not necessary, for instance, to despoil the sensitive ecology of the Western Ghats, to build a road. Other solutions can be dreamed up and implemented.

The Forest Rights Act was passed in 2006. In over a decade, nothing has changed. Rapacious corporates colluding with (or buying up) politicians and bureaucrats continue to despoil forested areas. Once they are through, ie, when the mines, for instance, run dry, they leave cratered, wasted lands that look like moonscapes. In the process, hundreds of thousands of people lose their homes and livelihoods, because nobody talks of rehabilitation of the kind that enables them to live productive lives.

As for the complaisant, sometimes voyeuristic, middle class, all of this is happening on another planet. Except when the time rolls in for the ‘break’ from the quotidian urban routine. What better, then, than a getaway to a pristine forest: perhaps the sighting of a big cat on a manufactured safari.

Wildlife is important, too important perhaps to be left to fundamentalists. People are also seminally important. Their rights and entitlements must be protected and promoted. A beginning can be made by implementing the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996.

This would mean giving a voice to the people whose habitats, homes, livelihoods and lives are being steamrolled, via the principle of informed consent, enshrined in law as a vital desideratum: the ineluctable necessity of obtaining the permission of gram sabhas for any diversion of land for any other use than the one in operation.

And not by the kind of force and chicanery that leaves a bad odour hanging in the air forever.

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