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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 37 New Delhi September 3, 2016

Saga of Forest Dwelling Tribes: Sandwiched Between the Indian Forest Act and Policies

Monday 5 September 2016

by Suparna Sanyal Mukherjee

The Indian Forest and its natural phenomenon attracted people from time immemorial. The forest was a treasure, pleasure and its overwhelming beauty touched the inner sense of every individual. The potentiality of life sustenance influenced the closer acumen for shelter, having abode in its deep enclosure and fringes.

The forest dwellers, specially the tribes who are aboriginals, resided in the forest where the time-scale had no specification. The tribes are akin to nature; kinship with the nature taught them life sustenance in their own way. They were born and grew up in the forest, breathed in it, smelt it, unfolded themselves as creation expanded.

The forest was a privilege for all concerned who enjoyed it, protected and maintained it by their indigenous technology. The then feudal power also provided prime attention towards the forest and its never-ending resources. Thus there was a mutual cohesion between the feudal power and the forest dwellers including tribes. Late 17th and early 18th century did not allow any change in the erstwhile status.

The East India Company was exploring India during the era. They were allured by the forest and its gigantic scale. In 1760 they took charge of India as British India.

The Indian flora, fauna and its limitless credibility, immanent, attracted them towards the Indian forests. Sensing that they had little knowledge of the intricate contents within it, they were incapable of charging on the forest and forest products which had boundless commercial potentiality, while their rival, the tribal counter-parts, were better acquainted with it, they knew the forest as if it was their palm. Realising this fact and to establish their absolute supremacy over the forest the then government made a rule with law-relating factors; ultimately an Act, the Indian Forest Act, came into force during 1865.

The 1865 Act was a comprehensive law over the Indian Forests in its first attempt. The Act had many lacunae; with all of that it was superseded in 1878 with law regulating factors. The 1878 Act codified the rules, regulations and was applicable to the reserved forests, protected forests and village forests which were constituted legally for the first time. With plenty of legal bound the Act was again superseded in 1927 and finally enacted on September 21, 1927 and identified as XVI of the Indian Forest Act 1927 which is still in force.

The 1927 Indian Forest Act is elaborately laid down in Thirteen Chapters and Eightysix Sections with various Sub-Sections and time to time Amendments which are in vogue. The Protected Forest is dealt in Chapter IV, Sections 29 to 34.

The Chapter IV of Protected Forests, Section 29, Sub-Section (1), states that the State Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, declare the provisions in a reserved forest but which is the property of the government or over which the government has proprietary rights, or to the whole or any part of the forest produce of which the government is entitled. Sub-Section (2) mentioned that the forest land and the waste-lands comprised in any such notification shall be called a “Protected Forest”. Section 30, Sub-Section (C) underlines, prohibiting from a date fixed as aforesaid, the quarrying of stone, or the burning of lime or charcoal, or the collection or subjection to any manufacturing process, or removal of, any forest produce in any such forest, and the breaking up or clearing for cultivation, for building, for herding cattle or for any other purpose of any land in any such forest.

Nevertheless, in the unfolding situation the prevailing condition of the forest dwellers including tribes resulted in they being totally restricted and prohibited by the Act, whereas they had age-old rights over the forest generation-wise.

The tribes were absolutely innocent, faultless and ignorant regarding the law and its implementation over the forest; so their movement, and life sustenance in and from the forest were throttled. Their socio-economic, socio-cultural and socio-religious life was brought to a halt, reaching a dwindled unexpected social phenomenon, where surviving in the unnatural conditions call for a note of interrogation! But whatever the circumstances, they outlived it, proving the survival of the fittest.

The curtain of the British era having come down, India witnessed independence. The Government of India continued with the 1927 Indian Forest Act and made the first Indian Forest Policy in 1952, though the policy guidelines of 1894 continued, emphasising on factors like socio-economic, rural development and environmental development which were enunciated by the British Government in their resolution no-22-F, of 19-10-1894. The policy vested upon various objectives of which the regulation of rights and the restriction of privileges would be justified if the public attitude was in favour. It looked into that the forest rights for the forest dwellers for the absolute benefit of the local people on a long-term basis. But with all of the laid down rules and benefits provided by the policy, local people were suffering from poverty and the benefits were not need-based.

In the 1952 resolution no-13-1/52F, dated May 12, 1952, the Ministry of Food & Agriculture, later the Department of Revenue & Agriculture penned broad outlines of the general policy to be followed in the management of State Forests of the country, formulated on the basis of six paramount needs of the country. The space for forest dwellers was mentioned but the scope of reaching benefits to them was not sufficient. The policy was basically based on forest protection, functional classification, conservation and scientific management.

The 1988 Indian Forest Policy became more pronounced due to rapid changes by way of the socio-economic and rural developmental aspects. Efforts began for formulating the 1988 Forest Policy, where the strategy to be followed was for taking Indian Forestry into the 21st Century.

The principal aim of the policy was to ensure environmental stability, maintenance of ecological balance including atmospheric equilibrium for sustenance of life forms. The derivation of direct economic benefit had to be subordinated to this principal aim.

The life of the forest dwellers, especially tribes living within or its fringe area, the rights and concessions for such class of people should be protected. Their captive consumption of fuel wood, fodder and minor forest produce, construction timber and other allied forest products should be the first charge on forest produce. These or substitute materials should be made available through conveniently located depots at reasonable and affordable prices.

Chronologically it is mentioned in each and every forest policy that protection, concession, rights and maintenance of these men should be in the proper fashion and manner but policy guidelines could not allow them to avail of such boon in their life sustenance. They are still at a loss.

The Indian Forest Act did not allow any kind of rights and concessions for the forest dwellers, not even any charges of minor forest produces. According to the 1927 Act, collection, gathering, clustering of any kind of forest produces were absolutely banned and this is still in vogue in the chapter pertaining to Protected Forests along with Amendments.

Thus, it is inferred that the 1927 Indian Forest Act never supported and had no provisions for supporting any policy guidelines. The policy made was not subsequently backed by the law within the framework of the relevant Act. A policy is a suggestion or framework of future guidelines and actions which without the support of law is meaningless. In accordance with the law these policies are ineffectual, have no connection with the concerned Act and its application in legality is a far cry. Thereby, the forest dwellers, specially the tribes, were sandwiched between the Act and Policies. The Act rests on its own privileges while Policies also follow their own methods of nomenclature without the support of any legal background.

It is viewed that the Act laid down by the British was essentially tilting towards the facilities and benefits which could be acquired by the Monarchical Power whereas the Indian Policies had a Democratic approach. As such the Act and Policies were based on separate isms, one supporting the Monarchy and the other Democracy. Thereby, it is evident that since the inception they formed parallel lines which never coincided with each other.

The poor, innocent, illiterate, ignorant tribes were sandwiched between the Act and Policies, and suffered immensely in the process.

Dr Suparna Sanyal Mukherjee, M.Sc., M.Ed., Ph.D, is Secretary and Head of Education of Howrah Suparna, an NGO registered with the Niti Ayog (formerly the Planning Commission) and the National NGO Portal of the Government of India. She is also the Chairperson and Managing Director of a Multiple Project at Salboni, West Bengal. She can be contacted at e-mail: drsuparnasanyalmukherjee@gmail.com