Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Learnings from the Peoples’ Tribunal - II: The Forest Dwellers’ Rights Act and the incomplete Regional Plan Process

At the conclusion of the Peoples’ Tribunal on the Restoration of Adivasi Homelands in Goa, the jury indicated to members of the press, that finalising the Draft RP 2021 without settling the rights of tribal communities under the Forest Dwellers’ Rights Act would seriously imperil the RP Process, leaving it open to legal challenge.

The Forest Rights Act gains the kind of centrality that the jury of the Peoples’ Tribunal attributes to it by virtue of Section 13 of the Act which indicates that “the provisions of this Act shall be in addition to and not in derogation of the provisions of any other law for the time being in force”. The Act operates therefore, as an addition to any law already in force and with an impact on the intended beneficiaries of the Act. For a process such as the RP process which claims to have the interests of the people and their sustainable development at heart, the inclusion of the process of the Forest Rights Act is central for reasons of the aims and objectives of the Act.

The Act intends to right and remedy the wrongs, the ‘historical injustice(s)’ that have been done to the tribal and forest-dwelling communities in India, where their rights on land have not been recorded. The Act aims to “address the long standing insecurity of tenurial and access rights of forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers including those who were forced to relocate their dwelling due to state development interventions”.

These are significant aims, and one that the State Government ought to take into consideration if it is serious about the Regional Plan process. It is a fact that the centrality of this particular legislation was pointed out to the State Government, while the process for the Regional Plan was still on. However, rather than act on the responsibilities laid out before it, the State Government has initiated some half-baked process only for those communities that live within the ambit of the officially designated forest areas of the State. In doing so, the State government (and Forest Department) has continued a long tradition of working to undermine tribal and forest-dwelling community interests. The Act is applicable to all Scheduled Tribe persons, and communities reliant on forest resources in the State. The faster the Government sets about realizing the objectives of the Act, the faster Goa would move toward sustainable development. This means pushing large chunks of the people back from the impoverishment they are being pushed toward.

Very interestingly, the Forest Rights Act envisages a system similar to the 73rd amendment process that many activists have been proposing for the RP process. It requires a gram sabha to identify the usages of the community and this is eventually confirmed at the District Level. The process at the gram sabha is in fact the process that has been skipped all these past centuries and was referred to in the previous column written by me; the documenting of the various rights and traditional livelihood practices that have hitherto not been recognized by various land settlement and land tenurial systems.

What is most interesting however is that the Forest Rights Act actually stands to radically recognize the rights of not just Tribal groups but ALL Forest resource reliant communities in Goa. While the Act is defined as the Forest-Dweller’s Rights Act, the Act addresses itself to two communities; those who have been identified as Scheduled Tribes and “Other traditional forest dweller” that is to say, “any member or community who has for at least three generations prior to the 13th day of December, 2005 primarily resided in and who depends on the forest or forests land for bona fide livelihood needs”. Read the latter definition closely and you realize that not just the Scheduled Tribes in Goa, but other communities as well, who have been reliant, and continue to be reliant on forest resources stand to benefit from this Act.

An example of communities would be the Scheduled Tribe groups and other dalit-bahujan Catholic groups who live along the spine of the Taleigao-Bambolim plateau, as well as those who live around the Kadamba plateau. These are groups that have been and will be most impacted by the urbanization of the landscape, as we carve the plateaus into homesteads for the rich and famous. These are groups that have relied on either the cashew and mango plantations on the hills, or continue to collect firewood to fuel their kitchen hearths (and bathing water), and graze the cattle that provide some additional income to the family kitty. None of these areas have been forests for quite some time, and yet this is not to say that these groups are not crucially dependent on the natural resources that they have tended to, or are reliant on for their livelihood needs. In fact the ‘rural’ nature of these locations is being systematically destroyed to create the ‘urban’ environment which not only endangers the livelihood options of these communities, but also places them, both socially and legally outside of the context within which they are imagined.

A careful reading of the Forests Rights Act however, would allow us to create a legal and processual framework through which the rights of these communities can also be addressed and justice served to them. The act defines “forest land” to be “land of any description falling within any forest area and includes unclassified forests, undemarcated forests, existing or deemed forests, protected forests, reserved forests, Sanctuaries and National parks;”. Further, the Act also indicates the rights that need to be protected. These include the right for self-cultivation for livelihood, the right to fish, and graze livestock and “rights in or over disputed lands under any nomenclature in any State where claims are disputed”. This final clause is interesting, since it seems to hold in it the seed for the creation of rights in properties from where these marginal groups have been illegally evicted.

The Forest Rights Act is a landmark legislation that seeks to redress the wrongs that have been visited on marginalized social groups throughout our history, both prior to Western colonization and even before this. The Regional Plan process too claims to have the good of the Goan people at heart. If such is the case, it is inconceivable that the Regional Plan process can be completed without the completion of the settlement of rights of communities reliant on forest-resources. It would also be worthwhile, if the details of the Forest Dwellers’ Rights Act, and possible beneficial interpretations are converted into the vernacular languages and appropriate scripts of the State and disseminated post-haste among the intended beneficiaries of the Act.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 24 June 2009)

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