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India's forest policies have ruined its forests and tribal



dalits
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[Topics under debate]: GOOD GOVERNANCE
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Condition of forests and tribal dalits before the British Period:

Historical records indicate that India had a thick forest cover with a
high
biodiversity and a symbiotic relationship among the various living
beings
such as plants, microorganisms, insects, herbivorous and carnivorous
animals, fish, birds and tribal people. The tribal people, forming a
part of
this complex forest ecosystem, represented the real indigenous people of

India and were ruled by their own tribal kings. They practiced one or
other
of over 60 tribal religions with the associated customs and festivals.
They
made a living as hunters, gatherers, trappers, fishers, pastoralists,
shifting cultivators and peasant farmers inside the forests. Some of
them
practiced herbal medicine. They had a good working relationship with the

non-tribals living outside the forest areas to barter goods and act as
guides to those visiting the forests for hunting and recreation.

These tribal people acted as the custodians of the forest flora and
fauna,
and took up the task of rescuing and rehabilitating animals suffering
from
various illnesses and injuries, including malnutrition, viruses, old age
and
wounds. Reported cases of lost children of tribals rescued and raised by

wolves in the forest indicate how tribals formed part of the forest
ecosystem. Walt Disney's "Jungle Book" depicts the story of one such boy

raised by wolves in a forest in Central India, who finally manages to
win
the heart of a British Major's daughter and hidden treasures with the
help
of his animal friends.

Condition of forests and tribal dalits during the British Period:

The real destruction of the India's forests and wildlife commenced only
during the British rule. They created the Forest Department to assess
the
magnitude of the India's forest wealth for large-scale exploitation for
export and local use. Roads, railways, ports, fast-moving vehicles,
machinery and guns helped to achieve this end. The only solace was that
they
took up a scientific program of regeneration of forests and never
questioned
the dependence of the tribal people on forest resources.

Condition of forests and tribal dalits after independence:

After India attained independence, the government decided to reserve one

third of India's land as forest and, as a part of its socialist policy,
made
the employees of the Forest Department to be the exclusive owners of the

forests. In the process, they forgot that tribals had the riparian right
of
living on forest resources for thousands of years. Thus only after India

attained independence, the tribal dalits (scheduled tribes),
constituting a
third of the total dalits and 8 percent of India's total population,
lost
their independence forever.

In order to check degradation of forest cover and wild life, the
government
tightened legislation making forest offences non-bailable and increased
the
minimum stipulated punishment for such offences. Despite this, there has

been no improvement in the situation and dense forest cover with a crown

density of above 40% has been reduced now to less than 12 percent of
India's
total land. Although the Forest Department blames the tribal people for
the
deterioration of the forests, the real reason for this was because of
legal/illegal felling of trees on a large scale using machinery without
a
matching program of reforestation on a continuing basis.

Who controls India's forests?

Although the manpower and the resources of the Forest Department are
highly
inadequate even to improve the quality of our forests and wildlife, a
good
portion of their time and resources are diverted for the development of
non-forest lands. They spend a substantial portion of the grants
obtained
from the international funding agencies such as World Bank and
governments
of the developed countries in non-forest areas towards urban and social
forestry, raising nurseries to raise seedlings, and construction and
maintenance of forest research laboratories, zoos and national parks.
This
gave them a good excuse to live outside the forests for most of the time
and
in the process lost hold on the forests permanently. Despite this, the
forest officials insist that they alone have the right to make
expenditure
for any developmental work within the forests.

With the silent support of the tribal dalits, forests are now virtually
controlled by secessionists, naxalites, poachers and activists of
organizations such as ULFA, NDFB, LTTE and Ranbir Sena. These activists
operate their activities by staying in abodes deep within the forests,
whose
locations could not be known either by forest or police officials. They
run
parallel governments and collect taxes from local landlords, owners of
plantations, contractors, merchants and even government officials other
than
police. It is unsafe for anybody, including forest officials to stay in
the
forests particularly during nights.

How conflicts between tribals and non-tribals started?

The stringent forest rules gave so much power to the forest officials
that
they could successfully harass and prevent tribal people from the
age-old
practice of living on forest resources. As an alternate way of living,
the
government assigned wastelands bordering forests for tribals. The
tribals
who took up agriculture could not do well owing to lack of previous
experience, capital and infrastructures. Those who could not take up
agriculture sold away the assigned lands and left to cities to work as
laborers leaving their wives and children for exploitation by
non-tribals.
As the government made sale of such assigned lands illegal, some tribals

claimed back the lands sold to non-tribals. All this has brought
misunderstanding and conflicts between tribals and non-tribals. These
conflicts are often erroneously interpreted as due to tyranny of caste
Hindus on tribal dalits. The conflict between police and forest-based
antisocial activists made the condition of tribals further precarious
with
each group harassing dalits on suspicion of supporting the rival group.

There is need to allow dalits to practice their traditional beliefs:

The government respected the sentiments of Muslims and allowed them to
practice their own personal laws, which are different from that
practiced by
Hindus. In the same way, the government should recognize the right of
tribals to practice their own personal laws dictated by their religions,

which are distinctly different from Hinduism. It may be noted in this
connection that the U.S. Federal Government respects the sentiments of
the
Indian Americans dictated by religious beliefs. Despite American law
banning
whale slaughter, the Makah Indians of Washington State were allowed not
only
to practice their ancient religious rites of whale sacrifice to improve
their self-esteem and tribal unity, but were also aided with $7 million
in
subsidies for the hunt.

There is need to restore the right of the dalits to live on forest
resources:

The government has till now done enormous harm to the tribals by
disallowing
them to make a living on forests, which they were using for their living
for
thousands of years. It is known that about 70 percent of India's
population
make a living as cultivators by making use of India's cultivated land,
accounting for about 40 percent of India's land. If this is possible,
why
should there be any difficulty for tribals constituting 8 percent of
India's
population to make a living in forestry by making use of forest land,
accounting for about 20 percent of India's land? Instead of treating
tribals
as criminals stealing forest products, they could be allowed to take up
farming within the forestland, besides taking up various developmental
works
for improving the condition of India's forests.

How to improve the condition of forests and tribal dalits?

The failure for taking up reforestation is because of keeping the entire

forestland under government control. It may be noted that China's
forests,
which are also under exclusive government control, are in an equally
deplorable condition. The answer to reforestation lies in keeping
forests
under private ownership. This is amply demonstrated when a volcanic
eruption
in Mount St. Helens in the Pacific Northwest destroyed 86 square miles
of
government forest and 70 square miles of private forest in 1980. While
government forest is still in a sorry state, the logging companies
owning
the private land not only salvaged as much timber as possible besides
growing 19 million trees in a 7-year period. Private forests in the
United
States, Canada and Europe are able to provide the bulk of the timber
requirements of their countries for centuries without any danger of
denudation, besides creating a very large number of jobs. The past glory
of
India's forests can be restored and productive work could be provided to
all
its tribals in the forests by the transfer of ownership of a good
portion of
India's forests to private companies. The Forest Department can still
have
more than adequate work in managing the forests under their control to
preserve wilderness, providing wildlife habitat, protecting scenic areas
and
creating recreational activities. In addition to this, they can play a
constructive role through a program of training, supervision, protection
and
assessment of resources in the private forests.

Besides supplying timber and providing jobs on a large scale, the
government
and private forests, and national parks in the developed countries
provide
recreational and tourism opportunities such as hunting, fishing,
camping,
watching animals and birds, horse riding, hiking and cross-country
skiing.
Such opportunities are utterly lacking in India's forests. Even where
available, the Forest Department discourages their usage on grounds of
protection of endangered species. For example, some pedestrians in
Hyderabad
had to move the Andhra Pradesh High Court to gain access to the Kasu
Brahmananda Reddy National Park in Hyderabad. There is need for the
Forest
Department to change their attitude and improve recreational facilities
in
forests to create some extra employment to tribals.

Who should decide on the management of forests?

During the first 3 decades after independence, the local forest officers
had
the discretion to disreserve forestland for non-forest use. When, as a
result, the forest area got reduced to less than 20 percent of India's
total
land area, the government made the rules for disreservation so highly
centralized and difficult that the forest area remained virtually
unchanged.
Although a further reduction of the forestland could be prevented, it
brought extreme hardship for putting forestland even for a highly
genuine
non-forest use. For example, the overhead service reservoir of the Rs.
700-million drinking water supply scheme to Tirupati town in Andhra
Pradesh
had to be located at a lower elevation in the non-forest land owing to
problems faced in acquiring forest land with no vegetation at a higher
elevation. This necessitates pumping water from the reservoir and
thereby
increases permanently the recurring cost of supplying drinking water to
the
city. In order to avert such costly mistakes, it is essential to remove
the
present monopoly enjoyed by the Forest Department and entrust the
management
and decision making on forests to a local committee of all stakeholders
in
the government departments, people's representatives and environmental
groups.






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