As the Orissa government resumes seizing 2900 acres of forest land for South Korean Steelmaker’s project POSCO from May 18th, we might have an answer to a question that has been haunting us for decades: Who has rights over the forests in India? The recent ruling by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), or more precisely the “green minister” Jairam Ramesh, has set things straight. First and foremost, the forests belong to the Indian state. Some are to be given away to the global corporations who bring in the much coveted foreign capital to our “second largest growing economy”. Some are reserved for the valuable wildlife that the country so proudly boasts of. And if there’s any right left to share, then perhaps the poor, forest-dwelling tribal people may hope to get some. The much celebrated Forest Rights Act doesn’t seem to change this long trajectory of forest apportioning that has been going on for ages.
How oppressive are the Indian forest laws? Let us do a quick recap of the last century. The forests were open for wider access till 1865, when the British government—after carrying out a prolonged period of massive deforestation in the colonies—decided to monopolize the timbre-yielding trees for a steady supply of raw materials for imperial constructions. In a similar way, the preservation of the wild animals ensured that they were safeguarded exclusively for the hunting sports of the elite or used commercially as tourist resources in the national parks. These notions of preservation were joined by the newly emerging concepts of environmental conservation that sought to protect the wilderness in its pristine form whereby, as Richard Grove explains, the tropics embodied the colonial desire for the Garden of Eden untouched by human contact and essentially in contrast to the smoke-bellowing, factory-ridden, industrial cities back in Europe. Forests were thus appropriated by the British Raj, lands were enclosed and colonial ownership imposed. In 1878, a more stringent law was designed to bring in all valuable forests completely under the control and management of the Forest Department, followed by a further expansion of government control in 1927. Consequently, the traditional forest dwellers—tribes who had lived there and directly depended on the forests for their subsistence for ages—were ousted from the land and their rights to access the woods were severely restricted. The errant ones were promptly identified as ‘criminals’ and ‘poachers’ trespassing into the property of the British government.
The independence of India hardly changed anything—much of the original British policy was kept in place and almost one third of India’s land is now marked as reserved and protected forests under the exclusive ownership of the Indian state. Like its colonial predecessors, the Indian Forest Policy Resolution of 1952 and the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 primarily remained mechanisms for restricting popular access to the forests, and as Richard Haeubar aptly concludes, post-independence Indian forest policies saw to it that “traditional tribal rights to forest use and products had been limited even further than under colonial rule, changing from privileges to concessions” (61). The Indian state thus remains the sole protector as well as the primary consumer of the approximately US 100 billion dollars worth of forest revenue each year. Simultaneously, it is the state that has sole discretion over permits, over decisions of land use, and forest clearance, over the selection of trees that are commercially more viable and control over the substantial population of poor tribal people who still depend on the forest for their daily survival. On the other hand, the forest dwelling tribes have been pushed to the margins and frequently ousted from their lands. Millions of tribal people in and around the forests have been displaced by developmental projects as well as by the drive for biodiversity conservation that has witnessed the eviction of multitudes of poor forest-dwellers— who Mark Dowie aptly terms as the “conservation refugees” and estimates their numbers to range anything between one hundred thousand and six hundred thousand (120).
After decades of tribal resistance against forest laws, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 finally sought to undo some wrongs. Touted as the landmark act that seeks to address centuries of “historical injustice” against the tribals, the FRA proposed ambitious goals of retribution—the traditional forest dwelling tribes were finally allowed, among other rights, rights to own and live in the forest land, to access and collect minor forest produce, to protect their community forest resources and to claim rehabilitation in case of forced displacement. Things were starting to look better. Thus, when the UK based aluminum company Sterlite/Vedanta set out to take over the hills of Niyamgiri—which has not only been the home and the sole provider for thousands of Dongria and Kutia Kondh tribals but is also a sacred site for the tribe’s supreme deity Niyam Raja—the mining project was finally stalled under the Forest Rights Act. Niyamgiri was definitely a moment of triumph. It saw an exemplary resistance from the local tribals who fought to protect their land and environment from the greed of global corporations. The local struggle quickly became an issue of transnational resistance. Thus, dubbed as the story of the real “Avatar” (after Cameron’s film), the Niyamgiri issue saw thousands of people from all over the nation and the world joining in for the protests in support of the tribals. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) too revised their stand of 2007—when they had given a green signal to the company—and refused the next stage of forest clearance for the project, citing gross violation of the Forest Rights Act. Niyamgiri seemed to have made the difference we were waiting for decades.
The triumph of the forest subalterns, however, proved to be a temporary eyewash. While on the one hand, Jairam Ramesh donned the role of a tribal messiah and fought against Vedanta, the South Korean steel giant POSCO on the other hand, seemed to gain easy entry into another section of inhabited forests in Orissa. This time the Janus faced MoEF decided to overlook the FRA violations, ignored reports of the enquiry committees, rejected the rulings of tribal gram sabhas and took an autocratic decision to go ahead with the project. Simultaneously, the battle for Niyamgiri is also far from being over, for the Orissa Mining Corporation has challenged the MoEF’s decision at the Supreme Court. The tale of the two projects, Vedanta and POSCO, narrates a complex game of murky politics amidst neoliberal corporatization of India’s natural resources. But, most importantly, they tell us that nothing has really changed for the forester tribes.
Grove, Richard. H. Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island. Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995.
Haeubar, Richard. “Indian Forest Policy in Two Eras: Continuity and Change?” Environmental History Review 17: 1 (1993), 49-76.
Dowie, Mark. Conservation Refugees: A Hundred Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009.
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