INDIA: Forests need PPP with Tribes, not with for profit companies’

The rights of tribal people and other forest dwelling communities are set to be assaulted again, as the Indian government is warming up to the to the idea of public private partnerships in forest management. Though the details of the proposal are still unclear, a report in the Hindustan Times suggest that the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has sent a guideline to various state governments asking them to lease out “degraded” forests to private companies for carrying out “afforestation and [to] extract timber”. The move is a culmination of decades of lobbying and arm-twisting by financially and politically strong forest-based industries, though MoEFCC has attributed it to a lack of resources.

Apart from the apparent threat to fragile ecosystems, the move will further restrict the already jeopardized livelihood and land rights of the tribal people and other communities living in the forests for centuries. The guidelines, for example, are reported to have a clause limiting the forest-dwelling communities’ access to only 10-15% of the leased-out areas, which is in violation of the provisions of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA).

The FRA, promulgated to correct a historic wrong, recognises several rights of the forest dwelling communities; these include land rights up to 4 hectares that the tribals or dwellers had been cultivating prior to 13 December 2005 and the right to all minor forest produce like tendu patta, herbs, medicinal plants that they have traditionally collected.

In a reversal of the colonial and post-colonial administrative usurpation of forest control that made the government de facto owner of the forests through its forest department, the FRA also recognises the forest dwelling communities’ right to protect and manage the forests. For the first time, this law also gives the community the right to protect and manage the forest. Section 3(1) of FRA provides the community with a right and power to conserve community forest resources. Read together with Section 5, which empowers the forest dwellers also with the right of protecting other aspects of forest life, such as wildlife, the FRA has made the forest dwellers rightful stakeholders in the forest management for the first time.

Given the revolutionary nature of the law, the forces that have been at work within and without the forest bureaucracy to ensure it is not implemented and even repealed have been formidable. If the news report is accurate, the MOEFCC guidelines, if implemented, will flout the provisions of the FRA, an act of Parliament, and would therefore be illegal.

The MOEFCC proposal would also undo whatever little gains have been made by the forest dwelling communities in recent years and leave them once again at the mercy of corrupt forest officials working in connivance with the local forest mafia and other vested interests.

Take, for example, the sordid saga of slapping criminal cases against forest dwellers on the flimsiest of the charges like “stealing” firewood and mahua (a fruit) exposed by Jharkhand government’s withdrawal of more than a lakh cases (more here) against tribal persons to wean them away from the influence of left wing insurgents in 2009. Not many bothered to ask, though, why these cases were slapped on them in first case. Sadly, Jharkhand was not a standalone case, as evidenced by a similar attempt by the government of Uttar Pradesh which later ended in a legal roadblock.. This represents the same cruel use of colonial era laws, used as a weapon to exploit the people before FRA came into existence. The situation is bound to return in much worse forms if forests are leased out to private companies, as they would not come alone but bring in “private” security paraphernalia leading to conflict.

Finally, the reported guidelines stand violation of the provisions of the The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. Sections 43 to 50 of this Act have provisions for resettlement & rehabilitation and specific safeguards to Scheduled Tribes with respect to Scheduled Areas under Section 41 and 42. Together with the Section 4(5) of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, the 2013 Act renders illegal the eviction of any member of a forest dwelling Scheduled Tribe, or other traditional forest dweller, until the completion of recognition and verification procedure for settlement of forest rights.

It appears likely that the reported proposed guidelines are a ploy to undo the legal safeguards the tribal people and other forest dwelling communities have earned after a long struggle. And, the government would do well to firstly scrap the proposal forthwith.

Secondly, if public private partnerships are what the government is so interested in, it is time the government stops antagonising and begins trusting its tribal populations, whose lives are intertwined with the forests and many of whom still do not see the forest as a resource like the colonial-era descended forest bureaucracy is trained to do. Allowing tribals to jointly manage forests by trusting them and devolving power would be the ultimate public private partnership that India needs to both save its forests and correct historic wrongs.