Not many people may have witnessed the beauty of forests, but it is certainly something that everyone knows something about. In the narrative of climate change and the destruction wrought on nature by man, the declining forest cover and the thinning canopy take on poetic notes. The forest becomes a singular identity, existing majestically, independent of animals and people. Thus while we talk about the inviolable sacred groves, we condone elephants rampaging villages in Orissa. Yet the Panna Tiger Reserve isn’t sacred enough for the proposed Ken-Betwariver linking project. In a system of hierarchies, where development and conservation compete for natural resources, can we meaningfully promise the tribal any rights?
The Forest Rights Act self-fashioned as ‘a weapon of democracy in the forests’ turns’ tribes (Adivasis) from encroaching offenders to right holders and view them as integral to the survival of the forest ecosystem. It also claims to correct historical injustice done unto them by letting them reclaim forest land if shown ‘acceptable evidence’. The recent NCTA decision to not grant any forest rights to tribals in critical tiger habitats suggests historical injustice need only be addressed, not redressed.
What does it mean to be an occasional stakeholder then? An occasional stakeholder could be defined as one who formally joins the fray of warring parties. Indeed, between the company that wants its resources, the government which will protect it, the animals that live in it and the tribes who depend on it, to whom does the forest belong to? Occasional stakeholder rights also mean no substantial power. A ubiquitous instrument of Indian democracy backed by Gandhian ideals is the Gram Sabha to which the tribal can appeal is not free of power struggles or competing groups or free of influence from the government or private interests. After the Gram Sabha, land rights depend on different departments screening at district and state levels, cooperating and deliberating. In fact, the land rights are rewards that may come your way if several conditions are met; but then these aren’t rights which are defined as moral or legal entitlements to have or do something. The tribal’s demand for jal, jangal, zameenis never absolutely met.
And why not? Is it because forest land demands such careful scrutiny? The paradigmatic shift of thinking of forests as community resources and collective ownership does not necessitate actual transfer of power. For community forestry to gain legitimacy, forest management will have to be transformed which at present is a repressive state apparatus that cannot so easily be dismantled. The British excluded the tribals from the forest to exploit them exclusively for timber, but the neo-colonial appropriation of forest is one of bureaucracy and governance. Forest management and state governance: to protect our forests from the adivasi of terrible environmental practices even while illegal poachers and clandestine loggers make away with the most valuable resources.
On the other hand there are environmental groups and NGOs that target specific goals and want to uphold a pristine ecological habitat for its animal and plants, and humans are all encroachers. There is a certain Eurocentric distrust of tribal customs and practices, as detrimental to nature and even as we talk about the anthropocene agevis a vis climate change, in conservation, the tribal remains the true subaltern. Even as the tribal is represented as the primitive with revolutionary potential who can challenge the hegemony of the state and offers an alternative to the systemic capitalism, the juggernaut of development levels down all defences and reinforces existing structures of power.
If the nature of the tribal subaltern is changed permanently by progress, then what role do we envisage for tribes to protect our forests? What about the forest after it is turned over to the tribe? Who will ensure that the best environmental practices are followed that will protect the tribal and the land? Entire people lost land in land acquisition projects for petty amounts, how can we be sure it won’t happen again? Community Forestry needs to be studied in an Indian context to reap its benefits. But it certainly cannot be successful without support from the Forest Department, for which, attitudes towards tribes need to change and their contribution to ecosystems acknowledged. A single legislation promising cosmetic corrections cannot go far enough.
Susan Haris is a graduate in English Literature from St Stephen’s College.