Spectre of eviction looms over forest dwellers

EVEN as the Supreme Court has stayed its order directing state governments to evict occupants from forestland whose claims for land titles under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) have been rejected, about 20 lakh tribal and other forest-dependent families across the country continue to be on tenterhooks. The order was passed on a petition filed by organisations that claim to be working for wildlife and forest conservation and have dubbed, albeit fallaciously, forest dwellers as ‘enemies of the forest’. Ironically, this notion was countered through the passing of the Act in 2006 by Parliament, acknowledging the role of the inhabitants of forestland, practising forest-based occupations, in protecting and conserving forest resources. However, securing survival and basic tenurial rights under this Act has been an uphill task for the claimants, facing bureaucratic and judicial hurdles, in most states. Administrative delay and apathy have thwarted fair implementation of the Act, but the more fundamental challenge is rooted in the colonial idea of ‘conservation’ and our neo-liberal model of ‘development’. The toxic mix of these two agendas calls for retaining complete control over forestland by the removal of ‘encroachers’.

In Himachal Pradesh, close to 70 per cent of the land has been categorised as forestland. The farm-forest-livestock trinity has been the bedrock of mountain economy, society and culture from time immemorial. Even now, at least two-thirds of the state’s population depends on land-based livelihood. Since only 11 per cent of the state’s geographical area is under agriculture, land here refers not only to that which is owned privately, but also includes the riverbed in the valleys to grasslands and the alpine pastures in the high altitudes.

The first significant rupture in the forest-people relationship in Himachal Pradesh, parts of the western Himalayas and other forested areas occurred during the colonial era. Historical accounts reveal that until then, the princely rulers were the owners of territories, but on the ground and in the villages, the clans and the deities (devtas) were managing the forests. State control over forests was established by setting up a forest department and making it the custodian of the forests, as the interests of the empire lay in commercial exploitation of the forests. The Indian Forest Act was legislated in 1927 to ‘reserve’ forests under State control. The British first propagated the chir pine monocultures, which eventually went on to be promoted by the Himachal forest department right up to the 1980s. Today, these plantations are mainly responsible for the widespread forest fires and the fodder crisis.

After Independence, land reforms led to the abolition of feudal control over agricultural land, but as far as forest areas were concerned, there was a continuation of the colonial legacy. The National Forest Policy (1952) made this obvious. “Village communities in the neighbourhood of a forest will naturally make greater use of its products for the satisfaction of their domestic and agricultural needs. Such use, however, should in no event be permitted at the cost of national interest,” it was stated. The guideline of at least two-thirds of a hill state area being under forests was also spoken of and the Himachal government instantly declared all land that was not under private ownership as ‘protected forest’. In 1974, through a new law, common land with panchayats, used for grazing and other livelihoods, was taken over by the state government. While a part of this land was set aside for allotment to landless people, the forest department exerts its control over the rest. This way, a majority of the state’s geographical area came to be declared as ‘forestland’, where community access was controlled.

While the Himachal government carried out a ‘forest settlement’ exercise in the 1970s, whereby it recorded the community’s customary user rights that allowed some access, these remained ‘privileges and concessions’ which could be taken away at the will of the State. Dam projects such as the Bhakra Nangal swallowed thousands of hectares of forests and fertile farms — a process that continues in today’s age of hydropower, four-laned highways, urbanisation and expansion of tourism. All these projects are impacting access to land for traditional occupations.

Through the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), 13 National Parks and Sanctuaries have been created in Himachal Pradesh where access to forests has been curbed for communities like the pastoralists. The shrinking of space for communities to exercise their land-based livelihood options continued with the Forest Conservation Act (1980), which disallowed the diversion of forestland without the permission of the Central government. This meant that even those who had been allotted land for cultivation from the ‘common pool’ in the 1970s, but had not received titles over the land, remained ‘illegal occupants’ in the records. ‘Encroacher’ has become the dubious label applied to all occupants and users of forestland, especially by the judiciary, even as the juggernaut of urbanisation and infrastructure development legally usurps vast stretches of forests.

In many parts of Himachal Pradesh, like the tribal district of Kinnaur, or the Gujjar and Gaddi-dominated Kangra and Chamba, the struggle for access to forestland for both individual and community rights has become prevalent. Yet, the state government has moved at a snail’s pace with the FRA’s implementation, repeatedly questioning its provisions, particularly the guidelines that mandate ‘gram sabha’ consent before forest diversion for large projects. The ‘encroacher’ tag is used to selectively evict forest-dwelling people, even as the claim-filing and recognition process is stalled. In order to save mountain ecology and economy, the need of the hour is to strengthen the human-nature symbiosis. Those who depend on land for traditional occupations and live close to the forest need to be assured of their tenurial rights for justice; they should again become the custodians of forests. Scuttling the FRA will, apart from creating swathes of ecological refugees, only hasten the demise of our forest ecosystems. It may be a little late then to assess who the real encroacher was all along.

Manshi Asher is environmental activist-researchers working in the Himalayan region.

This article was first published in The Tribune


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