People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
September 10, 2006
WLPA Amendments: The Anti-Tribal Face Of The BJP
THE Wild Life (Protection) amendment bill 2006 (WLPA) to further amend the principal act 1972 was passed by both houses of parliament at the end of the last session. Although in the Rajya Sabha where the bill was first introduced and passed, there was not much opposition to the bill, in the Lok Sabha all the six NDA members who spoke, four of them from the BJP strongly opposed the bill and one of them even called it “the worst bill since independence.” Their anger was directed at the ministry for having accepted many crucial amendments/suggestions made by the CPI(M) in discussions with the ministry. This had been reported in some sections of the press as the CPI(M) having “hijacked a Tiger bill and made it into a Tribal bill.” This is far from the truth. But the utter hypocrisy of the BJP in relation to rights of tribals was apparent through the written amendments they moved. This party is running governments in three states that have a substantial tribal population, but all their amendments were directed against tribal and local communities in the name of conservation. BJP member in the Lok Sabha Shri Vijendra Pal Singh said “Where is the need of saying that the rights of the people living in these project areas will also be looked after and we will do only voluntary resettlement of the people? If this is the attitude then this bill is going to be a death warrant for tigers.” Nor is this just the approach of a single member. Maneka Gandhi speaking on the bill said specifically. “ There has been a fierce debate within the NDA as to whether we should allow this bill to go through or not. The leaders of the NDA were of the firm belief that this should not be allowed…This is probably the worst bill brought in since 1947. It was a brilliant bill. The officials and the minister worked hard to make this an excellent bill. It was brought to the Rajya Sabha and 13 amendments have been made. They have made it such a bad bill…”
What are the main differences in what the BJP considers an “excellent bill” and what it now says is “the worst bill since independence?”
The CPI (M) supported the main aim of the bill that is to set up a statutory tiger conservation authority (TCA) and a crime bureau for protection of the tiger as suggested by the tiger task force (TTF). An important component of the TTF report is the approach to balance the needs of conservation with the rights of tribal and local communities. The preamble of the amendment bill itself states “Any conservation effort to save the tiger must take care of the prevailing peculiar circumstances in the country where forests are not wilderness areas but also where tribal and other people live.” This is in line with international conventions which India has signed.
In contrast is the view held by some sections who call themselves wild life experts that tribals are in a perennial adversarial relation with the tiger, other wild animals, trees, plants, fauna and all the natural resources and wealth of the forests. According to this view, all human habitation mainly tribal settlements have to be eliminated not only from tiger reserves but also from all areas that are designated as national parks and sanctuaries.
The WLPA bill that was circulated in the Rajya Sabha for consideration and passage reflected this latter view, not the concerns in the preamble. It contained certain formulations that gave the TCA overriding rights over the entire forests, by using the term “ land in and around tiger bearing forests” not just tiger reserves. This included rights over land use. It had no guarantees for tribals and local communities living in these areas. On the contrary it gave sanction for removal of all communities from areas designated as required for tiger preservation by the TCA. Nor was there a process of identification of what is “core” or “buffer” area in the reserves. The composition of the TCA had hardly any tribal representatives. Apart from the dangerous implications for tribals the bill also impinged on the rights of the states.
As is well known a separate bill is pending with the government called the scheduled tribes (recognition of forest rights bill). This bill was sent to a joint parliamentary committee which made many recommendations to further strengthen the bill. Some of these recommendations concern the rights of tribals and local communities living in protected areas including tiger reserves and are in sharp contradiction to the original draft of the WLPA amendment bill. These recommendations were given to the government in May/June. Therefore when the WLPA bill was first proposed to be moved in the Rajya Sabha in the second part of the budget session, the CPI(M) requested that since there would be a conflict between the two bills it would be better to postpone the WLPA amendment bill. The government accepted the proposal and the bill was postponed. This was immediately picked up by the so-called tiger lobby as a move by the Left to “sabotage” the tiger conservation authority because “tigers don’t have votes” and other such nonsensical charges.
Between the budget session and the monsoon session of parliament the ministry noted some of our objections and made two important changes, namely removing the phrase “tiger bearing forests” which was too all encompassing and secondly qualifying the clause regarding land use to TCA only for specific objections regarding use of land “for mining, industry and other projects.’ tribal use of land was thereby specifically omitted from TCA writ. However there were still major problems regarding non-recognition of rights of tribals, gram sabhas etc. For this reason the Party continued its objections to bringing the TCA bill to parliament before the Tribal bill. Once the monsoon session started the ministry started discussions on the concrete amendments which were required. Since our concern was that the amendments should bring the bill as far as rights of people living in “core” and “buffer” areas in line with JPC recommendations for these areas we also consulted the chairperson of the JPC Shri Kishore Chandra Deo and concrete amendments were given, detailed discussions held as a result of which many of the amendments were accepted by the MOEF as official amendments.
What are the main issues at hand?
At present there are 28 tiger reserves and over 592 “ protected areas” including national parks and wild life sanctuaries. There are no accepted criteria to decide which areas are to be declared “protected areas.’ Nor are there any criteria to decide what are to be considered “core” and “buffer” zones within protected areas. The forest department can arbitrarily notify the different areas and simply take it over as a protected area. This has a direct bearing on the lives of people living in these areas. The population involved is quite substantial. Shamefully even while impacting the lives of tribal communities the government has no proper data of the numbers involved. Only one or two such areas are surveyed and then figures are extrapolated to come to an approximate estimate. This is a continuing flaw in formulation of policies. In any case according to present estimates of the ministry of Environment and Forests there are 1487 villages with a population of 3.80 lakhs in just the 28 tiger reserves of which 273 villages and 1.1 lakh people live in what the ministry calls the “core” area, that is the area in which according to the ministry there should be no human habitation for the needs of tiger conservation. In the adjacent “buffer” area also substantial numbers of tribal families have had their rights to livelihood seriously restricted causing great distress. For example in Chhattisgarh the Chhattisgarh government has had to go to the Supreme Court in an appeal to permit tribals and local communities living in 313 villages in the 15 protected areas in the state the right to collect at least minor forest produce which is the basis of their livelihood. At present the MOEF in consequence of an earlier Supreme Court order has not permitted even plucking of leaves or collection of honey in any protected area of the state. Nor has it been shown either through primary data collection or any environmental impact study that the collection of minor forest produce would adversely affect bio-diversity conservation concerns. The petition states “This restriction is causing great hardship to the tribals in the state.” In Maharashtra’s Nasik district the Kisan Sabha is fighting the eviction notices served arbitrarily on tribals after the declaration of an area as a bird sanctuary. In Orissa the situation is even more grim. According to a paper written by Kundan Kumar around 8112 sq km of land has been declared as protected area including 17 wildlife sanctuaries. Most of these are in tribal dominated fifth schedule areas. But in none of these sanctuaries have the claims of tribals been settled and in many they are considered encroachers to be evicted. For instance in the Sunbeda sanctuary there are 34 unsurveyed settlements mostly inhabited by “primitive tribes” who are considered encroachers even though the area is their ancestral home. A similar situation exists in other sanctuaries all over the country where tribals face eviction or are banned from collection of minor forest produce which is their livelihood.
Such actions of the MOEF are possible because under the present regime there is no scientific basis for declaration of protected areas, or core and buffer areas but left entirely to the forest department.
Secondly, many of the forests declared protected areas are in the fifth and sixth schedule areas where there are very specifically delineated rights of self-governance for tribals recognised by law as for example the panchayat extension to scheduled areas act 1996 but which are being violated.
Examining the conditions of tribals and traditional forest dwellers living in protected areas including tiger reserves, the JPC has recommended an end to the present fatwa regime of the officials of the forest department to declare any area as core or buffer. Such identification has to be made by an expert committee on a site specific basis to decide what area constitutes “critical wild life habitation.” Gram Sabhas are to be consulted in the entire process. The JPC has also recommended that rights of tribals and traditional forest dwellers should in the first instance be recognised and then only if no other alternatives are possible should be relocated only on the basis of relief and rehabilitation according to the national relief and rehabilitation policy. If the agreed package is not adhered to by the government then the existing rights of affected communities would prevail. Thus the JPC has recognised the need for relocation of tribal communities from “core” areas in reserves where it is specifically shown as being essential, while at the same time ensuring the settlement of rights of these communities before such relocation. This is an approach which is in tune with both the needs of conservation as well as the requirements of tribals.
Following discussions with both the cabinet minister for MOEF Shri Raja of the DMK and the minister of state Shri Meena of the Congress, the ministry accepted many of the amendments which to a certain extent bring the WPLA in line with the relevant recommendations of the JPC in the forests bill. Apart from the “core area/critical wild life habitation” the bill recognises that “buffer” areas also have to be identified through a similar process, and the agricultural and livelihood rights of tribals and local communities will have to be protected. The TCA has also been democratised and made more representative after the intervention of the CPI(M) with the inclusion of senior officials from the ministry of tribal affairs, ministry of social justice and empowerment; national commission for the scheduled tribes; national commission for the scheduled castes; and the ministry of panchayati raj. Thus even though only to a limited extent, CPI(M)’s intervention has been able to prevent the legal total elimination of rights of tribals and local communities in the name of conservation in designated areas. Indeed because of these amendments thousands of tribals including those in Chhattisgarh will be able to legally access their traditional rights over minor forest produce.
Thus it can be seen that what is “excellent” for the BJP would have been a terrible assault on the rights and livelihood of tribals. This real anti-tribal face of the BJP must be exposed using the debate on the WPLA bill.