Forests, having cradled human civilisation and affected its subsequent journey, have always been pivotal in our economies and ecology, but their importance is much more pronounced in the day to day lives of the traditional, nomadic and indigenous communities still living in, around or near forested areas. The socio-cultural regimes of these communities have evolved virtually within the forest ecosystems. They see and derive all their spiritual and material requirements, including shelter, food, livelihood, mystic values, taboos, etc, from the surrounding woods. Their social and cultural environment is defined and shaped by forests, physically as well as metaphysically. The close-knit and intrinsic relationship they have with forest is mutual in nature. Accordingly, they hold their home, the forestland, very dearly, protecting it against all internal and external adversaries. They are, in a sense, the faithful custodians of an invaluable treasure which mankind can’t afford to lose. The traditional knowledge (about local plants and animals) they have acquired and accumulated over centuries is highly important from resource-utilisation as well as conservation point of views. Researchers and biologists often encourage its exploration and incorporation into scientific data.
However, these forest dwelling communities, generally tribal, nomadic or transhumant groups, who did not bother about their socioeconomic progress or were not allowed to do so, have been pushed to live in miserable conditions all over the world, India being no exception. Away and out of local and national mainstream groups, they have lacked basic amenities of life like education and healthcare. Industrialisation and economic progress of the rest of society has rather added to their miseries. Forests, on which they conventionally and sustainably rely for their survival, were extensively cleared for want of timber and other forest produce. Indiscriminate plundering of forest wealth, particularly during but not limited to the colonial era, sabotaged their entire socioeconomic settings. The colonial laws went to the extent of designating them as ‘criminals’ when they resisted the vandalism and pillage of forest wealth.
Even after independence, the forest protection and management policies not only ignored the role and importance of these communities in protecting the country’s green gold but also snubbed humanitarian aspects while dealing with them. They, not being able to sustain their livelihood either due to resource-depletion or eviction from their traditional habitations, were left stranded and helpless.
About 8% (84,326,240) of the total population in India and 20% (more than 22, 00,000 people) in Jammu and Kashmir belong to the Scheduled Tribes, a great majority of who inhabit forests or nearby areas. But they had no legal rights over their lands, farms, dwellings or any sort of forest produce. They have been facing vicious poverty, harassments, evictions and exploitation at the hands of forest authorities, revenue officials, police, land mafia, timber smugglers and even locals. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006 (often referred to as Forest Rights Act) came as a blessing and saviour for these communities but unfortunately it did not apply to the hitherto state of Jammu and Kashmir as such and the state government never bothered or even agreed to formulate a similar law to benefit the aggrieved people under its jurisdiction. Now, with the scrapping of Article 370, the Act inherently applies to the UT of J&K and offers relief to the Gujjar-Bakarwals and Gaddis who constitute the major groups of forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes in the region.
The Act, in a first-ever instance of the sort, recognises these communities as an integral part of the forest ecosystem and appreciates their role in conservation and management of natural resources including wildlife and biodiversity. It understands “that the forest rights on ancestral lands and their habitat were not adequately recognised in the consolidation of State forests during the colonial period as well as in independent India resulting in historical injustice to the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who are integral to the very survival and sustainability of the forest ecosystem”. Purposing to address a serious and long pending human problem, it provides a framework to empower “the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who have been residing in forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded”.
The Forest Rights Act(2006) recognises (i) tenurial rights and security on ‘forest’ lands; (ii) livelihood rights, such as agriculture, pastoralism, non-timber forest produce, and so on, including rights to collect, trade and process the latter; (iii) traditional, customary and developmental rights and(iv) governance rights to protect, conserve, regulate and manage community forest resources. Implementation of the Forest Rights Act in Jammu and Kashmir would affect thousands of families reeling under wretched and uncertain circumstances due to not having any legal rights over their ancestral lands. Having gained the legal validity of their homes and habitations, lakhs of Gujjar, Bakarwals and others will be entitled to basic amenities of life including healthcare, education, connectivity, food security and livelihood. The Act is a sincere attempt to protect and provide basic human rights to an extremely marginalised community. It is in accordance with a host of international conventions and declarations which India proudly ratifies.
Besides addressing a grave humanitarian issue, the Act aims to attain the conservation objectives in a more effective and practical manner by involving the indigenous groups. It stresses that “the recognised rights of the traditional forest dwellers include the responsibilities and authority for sustainable use, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance and thereby strengthening the conservation regime of the forests while ensuring their own livelihood and food security”. The traditional forestry knowledge, skills and experience accumulated by the forest-dwelling communities over centuries shall certainly supplement the scientific management of forest resources.
This Act is, in fact, a vital tool for delivering good governance by ensuring social justice, equality, basic human rights, grassroots level democracy and transparency. It is not something that enables land distribution or loss of forest areas as propagandised by certain quarters. The Act doesn’t provide for giving an inch of forest land to anyone. It simply provides a framework to give legal recognition to lands that people have already been farming as on 2005 and that too up to a ceiling of 4 hectare only. The claims of forest dwellers over their lands are required to be examined and verified by a 3-tier body of committees ensuring complete transparency, democracy and genuineness. In most of the cases such lands are recorded long ago as ‘forest’ in the revenue records without ascertaining their actual position. The Act can’t be an impediment in conservation efforts in areas such as national parks or wildlife sanctuaries where presence of humans interferes with the conservation. It, however, provides for proper relief and rehabilitation of the population being displaced.
The Himalayan eco-region harbours huge geographic, cultural and biological diversities. Its spectacular peaks, plateaus, plains and valleys, supporting a deep and diverse world of plants and animals, are also inhabited by various groups of people rooted in altogether different socio-cultural milieus. Forests and pastures constitute the most vital part of the Himalayan ecosystems and so do the indigenous and traditional human groups. They can’t be left to the mercy of God in the world’s oldest civilisation. They deserve to be protected and provided with basic facilities of life. Implementation of Forest Rights Act 2006 in Jammu and Kashmir would offer a strong basis for protecting cultural as well as biological diversity of the region. It would promote equality, social justice, transparency and prosperity.
—The writer is HoD, Env. Sc., Govt PG College Rajouri. [email protected]