Recently, there has been widespread concern about the possibility of a large-scale eviction of those tribal and forest-dweller households which have had their claims rejected under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA).
This concern follows an adverse court verdict. The decision is up for review in the Supreme Court. One can only hope for a judgment that recognises the rights and needs of affected tribals and forest-dwellers.
We should remember that the officially-stated aim of the FRA was to correct the historical injustice done to tribals – this was the spirit behind the law. If a legislation enacted to undo injustice ends up displacing a lot of people from their land, it will lead to rampant discontent.
These people have suffered enormously in the recent past and their belief in the existing system could come apart again. One can understand if, in a few cases, unjustified claims have been made and denied. But in cases where people have been cultivating land for years as their main or only source of livelihood, it will be unjust to evict them. A law which promised to protect livelihoods and provide justice should not be doing the exact opposite.
At the same time, we need more forest cover and this need has increased due to climate change. The challenge ahead is to evolve a paradigm in which forest rights of tribal and forest-dweller communities are compatible with policies of improving and increasing forest cover.
So even if it is decided that some forest land cannot be used for agriculture, tribal claims should not be rejected. Instead, the communities should be given long-term rights to the land (to be passed on to the next generation) for creating forests rather than for agriculture.
The aim is not to create monoculture plantations of commercial trees. Communities should use their traditional wisdom to create – over a long time – mixed indigenous species forests, which should come as close as possible to natural forests. This should be the mandate.
Tribal and forest-dweller communities given such responsibilities should initially get income support from the government under various schemes of forest protection and employment generation. Later, when a forest has come up reasonably well, they can earn from complete and inheritable rights over its minor produce – apart from continuing to receive a small honorarium from the government for responsibilities related to forest and wildlife protection.
Additionally, vast areas of degraded land – devoid of any significant greenery – are also within the jurisdiction of the forest department. For several years, it has not been possible to give such land any real green cover. These areas should also be given to tribals, forest-dwellers and, in cases where these communities are unavailable, to other vulnerable communities living nearby – for the task of creating and protecting forests on a long-term basis.
In this context, too, the effort should be to mimic natural forests to the extent possible.
Hence, in various ways, it is possible to integrate the objectives of protecting forests and sustaining livelihoods. This can be a field of tremendous creativity which can spark global interest.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.