Ever since the British landed up in the country, forests are treated as a source of wealth for the state, but for more than 10 crore forest dependents is a source of livelihood and sustenance fodder, fuelwood, small timber, honey, was and fruits. More than 6 crore of such people are Adivasis and as most of forests are located in dry, deciduous regions; these people live a very hard life. These forest dependent communities, irrespective of castes, depend on forest for their livelihood, a fact they fully understand and have a symbiotic relationship with forests since centuries. They have their own model of forest management that has elaborate rules for harvesting the biomass and they always extracted only that much amount as they need and also of prohibition of hunting and extraction during certain periods in a year.
But, these forest dependents were considered as the enemy of forests by the colonial regime. To prevent this and to promote ‘scientific forestry,’ the British established the Forest Department (FD) in 1868, that was basically a tool to bring the entire forests of India under the government’s control as it divided the forests into reserve and protected categories so that they could become inaccessible for these people. The government of free India continued the same colonial policy, albeit under the grab of ‘maintaining the sustainability for national interest.’ The Forest Policy Resolution of 1952 confirmed it which paved the way for the FD to keep India’s forest under its grip and people out. Hence, between 1951 and 1988, the Act was used to enlarge the national forest estate from 41 million to 67 million ha and this increase paid no attention either to determine the ecological status of these forests or to the rights of the existing occupants or uses as required by law. Today, 60% of the state forests are in 187 tribal districts, confining to 1/3rd of the country.
Maoist insurgency took a deep root in these were and often the Maoists took advantage of the dictatorial and despotic attitude of the FD to lure the forest dependent Adivasis in its grab. Finally, the Government of India took notice of this ‘historic injustice,’ and in order to undo it, passed the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Recognition of Forest Rights) Act or the FRA, in 2006.
It has been about seven years since this act was passed and there is a pressing need to look at the status of its implementation as it was supposed to affect the lives and livelihoods of more than 100 million forest dependents in the country.
As expected, the FD with a grip on about one-fourth area of the country will not let its control slip so easily and used all arsenals to sabotage the basic features of the Act and rejected an overwhelming majority of claims filed all across the country. In 2010, the Council for Social Development completed a summary report on the implementation
The condition is Uttarakhand, a forest dominated state, where more than 64% of the state’s geographical area is under the control of the FD and where an overwhelming majority of people are forest dependents, is even worse as all 182 claims submitted by people, have been rejected as the same Down To Earth report notes. It should be noted here that the Government of Uttarakhand notified the Act after a lot of pressure and persuasion in November 2008 and issued an order for the establishment of state district level committees and block district level committees. But, even since then, although institutions like Forest Right Committees have been constituted but, no awareness and training programs have been conducted by the government or by any NGO.
The condition of nomadic tribe, Van Gujjars who consider the forest ecosystem to be their veritable lifeline living in Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh is really pathetic. In order to keep the Park free for animals, especially for wild elephants, they are beaten, harassed, their makeshift humble huts, called deras, made of haystack and grass, broken and their women molested by the FD officials and workers and police. It is the only Muslim forest dwelling community in the country. This nomadic tribe resides inside the Park that is located in the Shiwlaik foothills. In the beginning of the summer, they migrate to the bugyals (meadows) in the high hills of the Himalayas with the herds of buffaloes they rear and by the end of the monsoon, they return to their dwellings. This well-planned and finely tuned transhumance not only helps to regenerate vegetation but also goes to provide nutritionally fortified grass in the upper Himalayan stretches.
While Van Gujjars have been granted ST status in Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh they are still classified as ‘Other Backward Caste,’ and this is proving a big stumbling block for them getting their due forest rights as the RNP officials are hell bound to kick them out from the Park, denying them any rights and without any meaningful rehabilitation.
The Park officials are so inebriated in their power and have such a despotic & dictatorial attitude that they don’t even give two hoots to the orders of the Uttarakhand High Court , Nainital that had issued order in their favour in September 2008, issuing a contempt notice to the director of the RNP for attempting to forcibly relocate the VG communities outside the park, in violation of the earlier orders of the HC directing him to recognize their rights under the FRA.
And, the Uttarakhand Government keeps on lying as it claims that only 182 such claims have been filed in the entire state, whereas more than 480 individual forest right claims have been filed by the Van Gujjars alone in the Park area. And, the FD has denied all claims under the pretext that as VG are not the ST, they must furnish the proof of 75-years of residence at one place, whereas the Act requires the condition of 75 years of residence in the forestland and the proof can also be an oral testimony of an elder.
Finally, after constant persuasion by activists, researchers and the media, including by the author, the official accepted—just on the fifth anniversary of the Act’s notification in the stare—797claims, a number higher than the two added together, but added that only 41 of them were disposed of and all of them were rejected because of the lack of evidence!
This is the gross violation of the Act that says that even the oral evidence by an elder is sufficient and the FD in this forest dominant state where majority is dependent on forest for their lives and livelihoods and most of them being OTFDs as Uttarakhand is the only state in the country where higher castes comprising of brahmins and kshatriyas are in the majority and only five castes: Tharus, Buxas, Vanrajis, Jonsaris and Bhotias are scheduled tribes and VGs haave not yet notified as the ST.
During this period while, as many as 1,228 Gujjar household out of 1,390 have been resettled and not rehabilitated in a sub-human condition where they live in one-roomed makeshift huts, devoid of their social, cultural and environmental setups, in the shantytowns of Pathri and Gaindikhata areas in Haridwar district, many others from the remaining 162 households are continuously harassed, beaten and hassled by the RNP officials and police and their dearas being broken as Noorjamal, a van-gujjar from the Park was detained in Biharigarh Police Station, Saharanpur, UP on 28th June 2011 on false charges filled by the FD and was released only after a strong protest by the Van Gujjars.
In such a condition, a cohesive and well thought out plan is needed as a few OTFDs have got their forest rights as in a village in Behraich district in Uttar Pradesh as the author reported, else these people have to restore to struggle and declare a total assault on the FD as they did in a village in Pauri district of Uttarakhand where the process to initiate forest rights to the OTFDs has been initiated; a first instance of its kind in Uttarakhand, again, reported by the author. Else, politically powerless and socially disadvantaged community for whom no one seems to care will remain a soft target for the forest authorities as for them life outside the forest could be a difficult preposition since they know only forest based animal husbandry with hardy, mountain buffaloes remaining the bedrock of their socio-economic life.
It looks like the ‘historic injustice,’ will never be undone in this country.