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When politics strikes at forest roots

Kishor Rithe

The primary cause for the destruction of forests is encroachment, and, ironically, such illegal occupation is often because of some policy decision of the State or Central government.

The Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2005 seeks to recognise the rights of forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes (FDSTs) who have been occupying the land before October 25, 1980. Once the Bill is passed, much of the forests, at least in the Satpura range, in Central India, would be encroached upon, hampering the entire conservation movement and striking a blow at sustainable development.

The Bill seeks to raise the ceiling of 2.5 hectares for regularisation of encroachments as also to include other forest-dwelling communities. According to information,, approximately 12.50 lakh hectares of forestland are encroached upon, and this will be lost if the Bill gets passed.

The primary cause for the destruction of forests is encroachment, and, ironically, such illegal occupation is often because of some policy decision of the State or Central government. In May 1995, when I was crossing Maharashtra's Melghat forests that border Madhya Pradesh, I saw massive encroachments with some people burning the trees to extend agriculture land.

Apparently, theMadhya Pradesh government had issued a Resolution, F.16-21/92/SAT/2A dated April 21, 1994, to the effect that a survey would be conducted and encroachments that had happened before 1980 would be considered for regularisation.

Local politicians were allegedly using the GR to win the `votes' of the tribals, by encouraging the locals to grab land, which they would get to be noted as `prior to 1980 in the Government record'. A similar situation prevailed in Palashya and other adjoining villages in the south Betul division.

`Save Satpura' march

It was decided to take out a "Save Satpura" march to highlight the consequences of these encroachments to the media, non-governmental organisations and policy-makers.

The Nature Conservation Society Amravati (NCSA)-led rally of some 40 people started from Chikhaldara in Melghat on January 26, crossed villages such as Semadoh, Makhala, Chunkhedi, Jarida, Bhainsdehi, Chandu, and Mahupani, before reaching Betul, covering 160 km . En route, the environmentalists met and spoke to some of the villagers who had encroached forestland.

Another group of 20 marched from Pachmarhi and reached Betul on February 4 after observing the encroachments at Dhain, Dhasai, Ratibandar, Podar, and Betul. A meeting was held at Betul where the march concluded.

The reason behind these mass encroachments was apparently the Madhya Pradesh Government Resolution. As soon as this notification reached the district headquarters, the politicians are said to have organised meetings, promising pattas to those who had encroached on the forestland before 1980. And, the bureaucrats had a tough time trying to evict the encroachers.

Before the Madhya Pradesh GR, similar resolutions had been issued by the governments of Maharashtra and Gujarat on regularising encroachments — which for many politicians became an excuse to barter forestland for votes.

Realising the possible misuse of powers by politicians, Indira Gandhi had brought out the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.

Subsequently, the Centre issued several circulars instructing the State governments not to regularise fresh encroachments.

Yet, vast stretches of forestland were encroached upon. These happened even in a number of sanctuaries.

For instance, encroachments had come up all around the Yawal Wildlife sanctuary, and protecting it had become quite difficult what with the adjoining forests in Khargaon district degraded and the mounting pressure from encroachers.

Order for eviction

When the order for eviction of the encroachments (dated May 3, 2002) came from New Delhi, there was much hue and cry from the tribals (and the non-tribals who were actually the illegal owners of these land).

The politicians wanted to halt the eviction process, but as the orders were an outcome of the Supreme Court proceedings, no State government could ignore it although the local politicians were much worried about their tribal vote bank.

Encroachments in tiger habitat

With the increasing human and cattle population of the villages, more agricultural and grazing land is required. This has led to increasing illegal encroachment of forestland, often even in the tiger reserves. For instance, in the Melghat Tiger Reserve. But when any action is contemplated, the people claim that their encroachments had existed prior to October 1980.

Also, the procedure set up by the Maharashtra government and the temporary certificates issued to encroachers have given the impression among villagers that encroachments can and will be regularised time to time. This has again led to a spate of fresh encroachments.

Strategy to stop encroachments

It is necessary to introduce community policing and bring social pressure on those who may be tempted to encroach. There is a need to educate people on the fact that encroachment cases tie up the department and staff in legal proceedings, filing complaints, registering offences and court cases.

This, in turn, prevents them from supervising employment-generating work, affecting the opportunities of many.

Thus, in its present form, the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2005 could spell the end of much of the forests, and needs to be reviewed.

(The author is founder of Nature Conservation Society, Amravati, and Satpura Foundation.)

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