Politics over forest protection

Kashmir Times. Dated: 2/8/2018 12:25:04 AM

J&K forest act must be amended to suit the need of forest protection as well as dispossessed nomads and tribals

The resistance of the BJP to demands for amendment to J&K forest protection act to bring it at par with the central act, that seeks to protect both the forests and the nomadic and tribal communities dependent on forests, and its unjustified defence by using the special status enjoyed by the state betrays the hypocrisy of the party that for long has been batting for revocation of Article 370 that grants Jammu and Kashmir a special status under the Indian Constitution. This is for the first time that the BJP seems to be clinging on to the special status of the state as a bail to adhere to a law that is not at par with a central act. While the special status of the state can be invoked to stall the extension of any central act to the state, there is no bar on the state from enacting or amending its own laws to bring them at par with central legislations or improvise them to make them better. Interestingly, successive governments in the past have been quick to extend central laws that empower governments more and rejecting people-friendly laws. What is more worrying is that the present political hypocrisy stem not only from power politics but more from parochial and divisive interests. The proposed amendments to the existing forest act in the state would benefit the over 20 percent tribal and nomadic populations of the state, majority of whom comprise the Gujjars and Bakerwals, who invariably bear the brunt of the Hindu right wing's communal and divisive agendas in view of their under-privileged and consequently vulnerable conditions. There is a long history nomadic settlements of Gujjars and Bakerwals becoming easy prey for the communal forces during riots right since 1947. In recent months, the nomadic tribes have been the targets of gau-rakshaks and other fringe groups trying to whip up communal frenzy. Last month, the kidnapping, brutal rape and murder of an eight year old Bakerwal girl in Kathua, followed by the arrest of a minor, that too under duress, arouses suspicions about the fairness of investigations and leaves many unaddressed questions including the communal and parochial genesis of the crime and its alleged shoddy cover-up. It needs no elaboration that these two nomadic communities along with Gaddis and other tribals are one of the most victimized people within the state. Unjust forest protection act, in its existing form, further enhances the chances of their victimisation as it allows for regular evictions of the tribals from the forest areas and pasture lands. The community has been striving against the historic injustice for over a decade and demanding an amendment to the existing forest act that would bring it at par with the concerning central law that came about a decade ago.
In 2006, parliament passed a legislation whereby the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers were equipped with the rights on forest land and other resources. The broad features of the act are that it accords controlled ownership and title rights to tribal communities, right to land usage for grazing and pastures, right to rehabilitation and relief in case of illegal eviction or forced displacement; and ensure protection and management of forests. In absence of forest rights, several Scheduled Tribe communities are facing a lot of hardship including arbitrary eviction from land by forest department from time to time. They are demanding extension of the central forest act so that they can also have rights on forest lands as are constitutionally available to other tribals across the country. The Gujjars and Bakerwals are largely pastoral communities and lead a migratory way of life; the significance of forests for their survival need not be over-emphasised. Majority of them are landless and deserve dwelling rights on forest lands which they are using as traditional inhabitants since centuries together, which is ensured by the provisions of the central forest act of 2006. To address this historic injustice, the Jammu and Kashmir government must come out with the necessary amendments to the existing law, if the central law cannot be legally and constitutionally extended. More importantly, a decision to this end cannot be dictated by parochial interests of political powers who have been openly patronizing encroachments of forest and state land by the elites but turning their ire against the poor tribals and nomads whose traditional ways of life hardly come in direct conflict with the issue of protection of forest and their flora and fauna.

 

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