International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is celebrated every year on August 9. The significance of this day is to remind us about the necessity to recognize of the rights of the Adivasi (Indigenous) Peoples to their traditional lands, territories and resources. This is a crying need not only for the sake of justice ~ of returning the real owners their properties but also for the friendly ecosystem which is a must for the survival of both forests and forest peoples.
India has passed an excellent piece of legislation in the form of Forest Rights Act, 2006. Previously, millions of Adivasis had no legal rights whatsoever to their homes, lands or livelihoods. It was the government officials who enjoyed all the powers including legal privileges resulting in deaths and destructions of both forests and forest dwellers.
Unfortunately, Indian forest areas have been witnessing torture, bonded labour, extortion of money, rapes, harassment and eviction of millions of Adivasis on the pretext of being intruders in their own homes since the British legislation of Indian Forest Act, 1927. The fact of the matter is that the Indian Forest Act, 1927 was made only to serve the British need to extract timber. The Wild Life Prevention Act, 1972 followed somewhat the same model.
These forest laws destroyed all the community management and regulations that had existed before, forced tribals either leaving the forest or living there as if they were criminals. Ironically, it was a criminal offence to plant a tree in a reserved forest but it was perfectly legal for the forest department to destroy the entire forest!
At present, India needs to speedily implement 2006 Forest Rights Act and do what China has done. China has given direct rights of over 100m hectares of forest area to its traditional inhabitants, which helped it reduce poverty and protect environment.
In our country, community rights have been recognised only in less than three per cent of the forest area. However, in those area, it has been seen that making traditional inhabitants managers of their forest land not only improves their lives but betters the environment as well. It is high time we implemented the Forest Rights Act, 2006 in the remaining 97 per cent of the forest area.