By Naunidhi Kaur
The Union Ministry
of Environment and Forests seeks to clear 12.5 lakh hectares of forest
land by evicting its 10-million strong tribal population.
The Union Ministry of Environment
and Forests (MoEF), which has forever been unwilling to settle the large
number of disputes over tribal land and turned a blind eye to the nefarious
activities of the timber lobby, has now found a speedy way to clear
12.5 lakh hectares of forest land. It is removing 10 million tribal
people from their natural habitats, confident in the knowledge that
they are as economically weak and politically unorganised as ever. A
circular issued by the Ministry in May and the recommendations sent
by its Centrally Empowered Committee (CEC) to the Supreme Court reveal
a modus operandi that includes the forcible eviction of the hapless
tribal population, which has been denied the right to go on appeal on
the decision, as an aggrieved party.
On May 3, the MoEF sent circulars
to all State governments ordering them to remove encroachments that
are ineligible for regularisation. The deadline set for the task was
September 2002. The circular delegated powers to forest officers for
the trial of encroachers and called for "adequate steps'' to complete
the eviction process through summary trials in a time-bound manner.
To implement this plan, it called for the setting up of monitoring committees
at the State level under the Chief Secretary and a second committee,
at the forest administration level, including the Conservator of Forests,
the Superintendent of Police and the District Collector.
The circular sees all tribal
people living in any type of forest land as `encroachers'. It ignores
the symbiotic relationship between tribal people and forests. It also
seeks to reverse the MoEF's unimplemented but comprehensive programme
of September 1990, which was based on the 29th Report of the Scheduled
Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission.
The effect of the circular
was nowhere as apparent as in Andhra Pradesh. A few months ago, 32,000
hectares of land was reclaimed by the Forest Department of the State
government through a World Bank project. A local non-governmental organisation
(NGO), Samata, took up the case, and subsequently the State government
had to give a promise that the tribal people would not be evicted from
the forest land. It was at that juncture that the MoEF circular came,
as a green signal to the State government to evict tribal people. Said
Samata member K. Bhanumathi: "Now we have moved the court to fight
this issue legally.''
To give a broader framework
to its policy of terrorising tribal people, the Union government has
augmented the circular with the recommendations of its CEC. The Supreme
Court had constituted the CEC in June 2002 to look into the issue of
encroachments. The recommendations of the committee, formed under the
chairmanship of P.V. Jayakrishnan of the MoEF (the CEC consists of five
members representing the Environment Ministry), also bypass the September
1990 guidelines, which dealt with the problem of encroachments in a
holistic manner and came up with workable solutions. It had no tribal
representation. All commitments made earlier for tribal welfare have
been ignored by this committee. Before the passing of the Forest Conservation
Act of 1980, a number of promises had been made to the tribal people.
The forest policy of 1988 also laid special emphasis on the symbiotic
relationship between the tribal people and forests. The most tribal-friendly
document came from the S.C. and S.T. Commission.
The main contribution of
the S.C. and S.T. Commission was that it drew up a clear framework for
dealing with encroachments made before and after the passage of the
Forest Conservation Act of 1980. The Commission came up with the pragmatic
solution that all encroachments made prior to 1980 should be settled
and those made after 1980 should be carefully examined. The recommendations
distinguished the claims of the tribal people from that of other encroachers.
Besides making it mandatory for the States to come up with schemes to
provide alternative means of livelihood to those rendered resourceless,
the recommendations also sought to involve the village communities in
settling disputes and ensuring lasting solutions.
Subsequently the MoEF issued
six circulars on September 18, 1990, based on the Commission's guidelines,
for regularisation in respect of leases held by tribal people before
October 25, 1980. The circulars dealt with the regularisation of tribal
settlements, forests and deemed forests, and pattas and leases. Says
Bhanumathi: "These were comprehensive guidelines. Unfortunately,
no State Forest Department followed up on them. Now all of a sudden
the government is mindlessly seeking to reverse, through its May circular,
a policy that should have been implemented years ago.''
While the May circular calls
for the immediate eviction of all tribal people from forest land, the
recommendations of the Jayakrishnan Committee read like a rule book
against the tribal people. The Committee, which has taken a "a
strong and effective'' approach for the "speedy'' removal of encroachments,
has come up with 16 recommendations.
The first recommendation,
placed by the Ministry before the Supreme Court, says that further regularisation
of encroachments on forest land in any form is strictly prohibited.
It makes an exception in the case of encroachments that are eligible
for regularisation in conformity with the September 1990 circulars.
The CEC has conveniently overlooked the fact that the September 1990
guidelines have remained largely unimplemented even after 10 years.
The CEC has said that the
First Information Report (FIR) under the relevant Forest Act shall be
the basis for deciding whether an encroachment took place before or
after October 25, 1980. The Ministry has overruled the recommendations
of the Commissioner for S.C. and S.T. who had said that this option
was detrimental to tribal welfare. The S.C./S.T. Commissioner said:
"If the claims of the tribal people are to be determined on the
basis of the record of the Forest Department or at best the record of
other government departments, their claims are as good as lost.'' The
Commissioner came to this conclusion on the basis of the ground reality
that in most cases "common knowledge'' in the village is the basis
of possession of land by tribal people. In most cases these facts may
not have been brought to the notice of the forest officer, the reason
for which can be that the forest officer would never have visited the
Another recommendation of
the Jayakrishnan Committee is: "All encroachments other than those
eligible for regularisation shall be evicted from the forest lands.''
Forest Departments have already begun evicting hundreds of tribal people
before their claims for regularisation have been considered.
For redress of grievances,
most of which will no doubt come from the displaced tribal people, the
CEC has set the procedure. This says that the aggrieved parties should
approach the CEC, which in turn will approach the Supreme Court for
appropriate orders. This procedure takes away the right of the aggrieved
party to use the option of a trial before a court of law.
As regards rehabilitation,
the CEC has given a one-line recommendation: "Any concerned State
government shall be at liberty to provide suitable rehabilitation package
to the encroachers, particularly to the tribals.'' The fact is that
the eviction of tribal people has already started in most States without
the respective governments framing rehabilitation packages for the displaced
people. Another recommendation seeks to make the Chief Secretary of
the State concerned "personally responsible'' for the compliance
of this order. It is another matter altogether that nothing of this
sort has been undertaken to stop the alienation of tribal land or the
restoration of land to the tribal population.
In order to inform the tribal
people concerned about an eviction procedure, the Committee recommends
publication of notices in local and other Indian language newspapers
"at least seven days before the actual removal is undertaken, specifying,
to the extent feasible, the compartment/survey number, the forest range,
forest division and district from where the encroachments are being
removed in compliance of this order''. In this, the CEC has overlooked
the fact that tribal people residing deep in the forest will never know
of such an advertisement as they have no access to newspapers. The CEC
has not thought of using a more tribal-friendly means of communication.
The committee placed the
recommendations before the Supreme Court on September 9, 2002. The court
deferred the passing of orders to October 22. What is clear is that
if these recommendations are implemented, they will sound the death
knell for 1.5 million tribal families who depend on forest land.
The "speedy'' pace of
implementation of the recommendations of the MoEF has also placed the
Union Ministry in charge of tribal affairs in a difficult spot. The
National Tribal Commission (NTC) was set up in July 2002 under the chairmanship
of Dilip Singh Bhuria. One of its tasks was to look into tribal and
forest conflicts. The MoEF framed its circular as also the recommendations
without consulting the Ministry in charge of tribal affairs or the NTC.
In response to the coercive
measures adopted by the government, some civil rights groups have taken
up the task of fighting for tribal rights. Given the all-India nature
of the problem, these voices remain diffused.
In an effort to bring the
displaced people under a common forum, a jan panchayat and a rally were
organised in Madhya Pradesh on October 3. The rally, which was held
under the joint forum of the Jan Sangharsh Morcha, had various organisations,
including the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the Kisan Adivasi Sangathan and
the Shramik Adivasi Sangathan, reaffirming that the tribal people would
"never give up lands and forests''.
Samata has approached the
MoEF with a request to provide work to people rendered resourceless
in the process of eviction. It has asked for the resolution of disputes
in the manner in which they were worked out in 1990, besides a resolution
in consultation with gram sabhas. Given the "evict all'' approach
adopted by the present Union government, it remains to be seen how far
it would be willing to roll back its policies against the tribal people.