Lok Sabha passes Bill giving rights to forest-dwellers

New Delhi( Express News Service)

The Lok Sabha today adopted the amendments to recognise the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2006 though some members said there was “lack of clarity on what the exact amendments were.”

The main amendments are to do with the cut-off date for consideration for land rights: It is December 2005 for all tribals, instead of 1980 that was proposed earlier.

The Bill in its present form also recognises non-tribal traditional forest-dwellers provided they prove they have lived there for three generations.

The Cabinet cleared these major amendments a week ago. The Bill aims at giving legal recognition to the rights of traditional forest-dwelling communities and tribals. However, the conservationists feel that allowing lakhs of people to legally reside in the forest will spell destruction for many forests belts in India.

The Lok Sabha’s adoption of the Bill today brings an end to a nearly two-year stalemate —it was referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) and then to a Group of Ministers.

However, at the last minute, a few minor amendments to the Bill were not included by the Tribal Affairs Minister P R Kyndiah, much to the disappointment of some of the members of the JPC.

Just before Kyndiah went in to introduce the amendments, Pranab Mukherjee, who headed the GOM on the Bill, discussed other smaller amendments that would have made the Bill more tribal-friendly. Brinda Karat, a strong votary of the Bill was also present at the meeting.

These relate to the definition of minor forest produce to include fish, leaves, fuel wood and stone. It also sought to clarify the process of identifying sanctuaries. The JPC wanted that independent ecological and social scientists be included in the committee to decide on sanctuaries. Some Lok Sabha MPs and Karat wanted the Bill to specify that tribals can use handcarts and cycles, instead of motor vehicles, to transport forest produce.

In the end, these points were not included and the Bill was passed amid chaos.

The Tribal Affairs Minister sought to allay fears that inhabiting forests would denude the areas. “Studies have revealed that where there are tribals, the forest area had been dense,” Kyndiah said, adding tribal and forest dwelling communities were the most efficient conservationists.

Kyndiah said it had been agreed that forest-dwellers, living before December 13, 2005, were entitled to their rights and could sell the forest produce.

Cutting across party lines, nearly 15 members spoke supporting the Bill in the larger context while objecting to the delay in implementation of the legislation.

Jual Oram (BJP) said the government should have circulated the proposed amendments well in advance. The amendments were circulated in the afternoon, barely an hour before the debate in the Lok Sabha began. Supporting the bill, Oram said government should put the Tribal Act in the Ninth schedule of the Constitution to protect it from future interventions.

Lamenting that the “historical Bill” had been delayed under the “tiger lobby” pressure, he said only 2 per cent of forest land would be affected by the legislation. The legislation would benefit lakhs of tribals and non-tribals residing in forests for centuries, Oram said.

Bajn Ban Riyan (CPI-M) wondered how the government would provide land rights to tribals and other dwellers in the absence of revenue records. Sandeep Dikshit (Cong) said an anti-tribal mindset was prevailing in the country and added the legislation when implemented fully would bring about a massive change while BJP’s Mahadeo Rao Shiwankar said all powers regarding the forest produce should be vested in the gram sabhas.

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