By Irfan Ali
South Asia is home to the world’s largest tribal and nomadic population and in India this population constitutes more than 10 percent population of the country. This population depends totally on forests for bona fide livelihood needs. In our State, Jammu and Kashmir, forests occupy 45% of the land that is free from glaciers and cold deserts. About 60% of potential land is under the use of forest dwellers. More than 30% of the total population in Jammu and Kashmir is Scheduled Tribe or Other Traditional Forest Dwellers. These people live in and near forest lands, but have no legal right to their homes, lands or livelihoods and they are treated as encroachers in their own land where they have been living for generations.
Because of this situation, thousands of people are subject to harassment and evictions on the pretext of being encroachers in their own homes. All this is done in the name of conservation and protection of forests. Practically all international conservation organisations now acknowledge that centralised conservation does not work without respect for the rights of people living in these forests. These tribal communities have played a great role in conserving the forests since ancient times. The Chipko Movement is one of the examples of forest conservation by tribal communities in India.
In Jammu and Kashmir Bakarwal community is also known as the guardian of forests and they save trees like their own children. Even the world’s most famous forests, Amazon and Serengeti are the ancestral homelands of millions of tribespeople, who nurtured and protected their forests for many generations. But no one acknowledges the existence of millions of these indigenous and forest communities and they are treated as if they are fictions.
What are called “forests” in India often have nothing to do with actual forests. Areas were often declared to be government forests without recording who lived in these areas, what land they were using, what uses they made of the forest land and often without surveying whether it was forest at all. This is due to the historical injustice done by colonial rule in India for the purpose of transferring community forests to government so that they can have easy access to timber, forest products and land.
The British colonial government regarded Tribal and Nomadic communities as different from settled agriculturist communities and were looked at as criminals by birth. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 and Habitual Offenders Act of 1959 are the examples of their autocratic behaviour towards these tribal communities.
History is always written from the sedentary point of view and these people were treated as a threat to the established social order. Many of the traditional forest dwellers who were ‘nomadic’ are no longer classified as such because they were forced to leave the forests and settle elsewhere. Some of huge number of “service” nomads who are now in cities and no longer have livelihood from the forests but have become beggars, rag-pickers, and other menial trades were traditional forest dwellers. They have become almost totally lost and destitute.
The Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA) is an historic step in India to reverse this history of injustice. The Act tries to accomplish this by recognizing that the rights of forest dwellers to the land and minor forest produce. Resources that the community are using are recorded and given legal sanction.
The Forest Rights Act 2006 does not apply to Jammu and Kashmir State due to the special constitutional provisions applicable to the State under Article 370. Even After eleven years the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes, mostly nomads and other forest dwellers of Jammu And Kashmir State, are suffering as the J & K government has not taken step to extend FRA to the state . Recent legislative intervention to frame a separate forest rights law in line with FRA has been defeated due to lack of political commitment of some section of government to the issues of forest rights and tribals and forest dwellers of J&K state.
It is high time for the government of J&K state to show its political resolve to pass the forest rights legislation recognizing its potential to restore the traditional conservation system, one that puts tribal peoples right at its heart; one that recognises these are the best conservationists and guardians of the forests.
These forest dwelling Tribes are integral for the survival and sustainability of forest ecosystem. Let this historical injustice be undone in Jammu and Kashmir also. This would be beneficial for all the tribes, for nature, and for all humanity’s future.