June 29, 2016 3:14:00 pm
In his interview with Arnab Goswami, PM Narendra Modi claimed that although he wanted to ‘grant’ Rs 40,000 crore for afforestation to states, it was being needlessly blocked by the Congress Party. Nothing can be further from the truth.
To understand why the Congress is objecting BJP’s afforestation efforts, it is important for us to conceptualise the history of forests and Adivasis in India. Historically, Adivasis (150 million) and other forest dwellers (another 125 million) have functioned as custodians of both the forest and its wildlife. This was radically disrupted by the colonial government to allow for and maximise resource extraction to service the commercial interests of British industries. Consequently, the customary rights of Adivasis were reduced to ‘privileges’ conferred arbitrarily by the State.
To ensure rigorous policing of this rapacious appropriation, a vast forest bureaucracy was created and given unchecked powers so that colonial corporations with interests in mining and timber could get on with the plunder of India’s resources. To sweeten the deal, the Raj turned a blind eye to the extra-legal profits this forest officialdom made for itself by slashing forests to create personal plantations, who thrived on poaching and hunting, and who forced Adivasis into slavery. It is atrocities and injustices like these which created widespread conflict and allowed Naxalism to take root in the forest-tribal areas.
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The Forest Rights Act (or FRA), which was the natural culmination of a protracted struggle by Adivasi organisations, changed all that drastically and formalised the historical and traditional rights of Adivasis. Re-instating them as custodians of forests, it recognised their rights to live in the forest, to self-cultivate, to own use minor forest produce and to have a host of community/customary rights. Perhaps most radically, it made gram sabhas central to forest governance. There are numerous instances, like a gram sabha in Gadchiroli which earns about Rs 2 crore from minor forest produces, and other community resources! If properly implemented, the FRA can dramatically enhance the lives of Adivasis in 1.77 lakh villages, and lead to the conservation of at least 40 million hectares of forests!
Needless to say, the forest officialdom (and the numerous vested interests it’s in cahoots with) has vehemently opposed the FRA tooth and nail. After all, it decolonised forest governance and sounded the death knell to their unbridled ravage of India’s natural treasures. Despite his relentless refrain of “sabka saath, sabka vikas”, PM Modi has eagerly sided with this lobby by introducing the seemingly benign Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill (CAMPA), 2016, purportedly to promote ‘afforestation’.
This bill actually subjugates Adivasis, and sabotages their rights. Like the British Raj, the NDA grants the forest bureaucracy unadulterated powers by ensuring their dominance on all the state and national level authorities that will oversee CAMPA. The bill also directly violates the democratic structure of forest governance laid down in the FRA (under section 3(1)(i) and section(5) which mandate that gram sabhas control and manage all aspects of forest management, including financial resources) by usurping fiscal powers meant for gram sabhas for itself and the forest officialdom.
Despite PM Modi’s exhortations about promoting panchayati raj, he has done everything in his power to do otherwise. If he sincerely cares about empowering every Indian as he claims, why does he not trust gram sabhas to govern themselves which is now a legal mandate under FRA and PESA? Given Adivasis are empirically shown to be better at forest conservation and wildlife protection, why are gram sabhas not in charge of CAMPA funds and management as required under FRA?
The NDA’s ‘afforestation’ efforts mirror the British Raj’s approach of monoculture commercial plantations (such as eucalyptus and teak). These plantations devastated forests and their biodiversity which Adivasis protected and nurtured for generations. Essentially, the Modi sarkar wants to, through the forest bureaucracy, replace natural forests with vast tracts of teak and eucalyptus to service the needs of the timber mafia.
It’s evident that the CAMPA is neither about conservation nor vikaas. It is a direct consequence of BJP’s deep ideological aversion to Adivasis (as also Dalits and minorities).
Along with a host of other anti-tribal forest programmes (village forest rules etc.), CAMPA signifies the BJP’s intent to undermine the idea that Adivasis are holders of inalienable rights, with claims on their governments. Subjugating Adivasis into a state of perpetual slavery, it will kick start a process of unhindered looting by the forest bureaucracy and unscrupulous corporations at the cost of the ecology and the wildlife.
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