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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 25 New Delhi June 13, 2015

Predicaments of Forest-Dwelling Tribes by Dint of the Indian Forest Act

Saturday 13 June 2015

by Suparna Sanyal Mukherjee

The East India Company, owned by the British monarch, took charge of India in 1760. India was a large field of trade initially and subsequently exploitation. The rich flora and fauna amalgamated with natural resources was a synergy which the shrewd British administrators realised. India is adorned with all kinds of geographical definitions. Being the largest peninsula, it houses mountains, plateaus, estuaries, rivers and forests.

The Indian forests with their all-round treasure attracted the attention of the British who, realising the potentiality contained within it and the benefits which could be derived out of it, instantly laid their hands on it, realising that the forest-dwelling tribes were much more acquainted with the forest than them and being at the helm of administrative affairs they formed a rule and finally an Act in 1865, known as the Indian Forest Act.

The Indian Forest Act was primarily framed to provide absolute supremacy to the rulers over the Indian forests to the utmost advantage and benefit of the British monarchy. The Act contained an embargo on collection of forest produce in any form by anyone else but the rulers or its authorised representatives.

The poor forest-based tribes were uprooted from their abode and had to do away with their age-old rights over the forests, the kinship was jeopardised. The tribes had no other go except for traversing into the unknown territory with a total ignorance of their future form of sustaining livelihood. The forest was still extorted by the tribes that was considered poaching in the eye of the law. The offences were brought to record and repeated such offences saw the birth of the Criminal Tribes Act 1871, denoting these hunter-gatherer tribes as criminals, whose only known domain was the forest which provided them with food and other essential ingredients of livelihood.

The action was termed as impinging from the forest as per the Indian Forest Act and even sheer food collection for livelihood was considered a clandestine activity. The forest-dependent tribes were as such thrown out of their own territory, which they occupied generation-wise by dint of the Indian Forest Act. The implementers never bothered to explain the do-s and don’t-s contained in the implementation of the Act to these innocent, illiterate people who lived in their own territory within the forest. There was no rehabilitation programme and they were left to tread in an unknown territory for maintenance of their livelihood, thereby pushing them into the troubled waters fending for their own selves. Being ousted from the forest and at the same time not being able to live without it, they moved into the fringes of the forest.

In 1878 the Indian Forest Act was amended which had a few concessions for these people, but by then the damage was already done and the concessions too were not adequate enough for sustaining their livelihood.

The tribes, though wounded, had to find new walks of livelihood, that were mostly diagonally opposite from their traditional occupation, which was the identification of an individual forest-dwelling tribe. Thereby, the Act of 1865 ousted the tribes from their own territory and domain, literally converting them into refugees and also was instrumental in disintegrating their individual tribal identity. The Act was further amended in 1927, which saw detailed elaboration in the form of thirteen chapters containing eightysix sections and numerous sub-sections thereof. But even the 1927 amendment of the Indian Forest Act, which is in vogue still, did not contain much for these people.

The British regime came to an end in 1947, but the Indian Forest Act remained unchanged. So, an Act implemented for the benefits of the ruling monarch was adopted by a declared Socialist Democratic Republic which is itself contradictory in principle. In the franchise system of Democracy the status of these tribes was that of a bonafide citizen. But were they really taken care of? If so, the implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006 would not have seen the light, post-declaration of “Historical Injustice” on these men by the persons in governance.

The Forest Rights Act 2006 again is a puzzle in itself, since it allows usage of 2.5 hectares of land either by an individual or a group for agriculture and/or dwelling purpose. But the criteria of such clemency needs a certification of such use for at least 75 years or three generations. A keen look into the matter clearly visualises that 75 years usage cannot be certified by any government official, since it dates back well into the British regime. Again, three generations will be difficult to prove since these were all encroached forest land. As such the disbursement procedure halts at a certain point for want of adequate proof or reference.

The target of covering 33 per cent of the country’s land area under forest cover by 2020 seems mystic as implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006, will behave contra to the target. Thereby, the future of the forest-dwelling tribes and the forest seems to be under a note of interrogation!

Dr Suparna Sanyal Mukherjee has completed her Ph.D on the “Impact of Indian Forest Act on the Tribes of Paschim Medinipur”. This article is based on her research work. She can be contacted at e-mail: mukherjeesupar@rediffmail.com