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OPINION / ANALYSIS

Forest: Ultimate Conflict Zones of India

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Avilash Roul
August 2, 2007

India’s forest land which is rich in natural resources, like forest derivatives and minerals is undoubtedly the cauldron of various degrees of conflicts. From civil wars in Chhattisgarh to armed conflict in North East, it has created internal security more volatile than ever before in India. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs has a special wing to neutralise this ‘internal security’ with strong policing. The growing number of incidents of conflicts in the forest area have threatened the forest resources as well the livelihood of inhabitants. At least ‘a million mutinies’ in and around the forest area is ticking to explode. However, who triggers these conflicts or social unrest has been a serious concern which needs to be addressed at the earliest.

Recently, in its affidavit to country’s apex court, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest (MOEF) requested to wrap up Green Bench appointed by Supreme Court which contributed in the flaring of the civil unrest and a burst in Maoist activities in major states by risking forest resources. While forgetting its own forest laws, rules and guidelines, the government squarely put the blame on Supreme Court on the excess of anti-state activities. Do we need either Green Bench or Forest Laws? Both Forest laws and Green Bench under Supreme Court have delayed justice to tribal people and failed to manage forest resources.

Since the filing of writ petition in 1995 in the Supreme Court, the MOEF feels that the process has resulted in ‘judiciary usurping the executive’s powers’ and ‘eroding of separation of powers’. The major apprehension of MOEF is that scientific forestry has not been administered due to the Supreme Court’s hearings for the last 12 years. It is believed that since 1995 the Supreme Court has been managing the forest resources in India! Therefore, government wants to use its scientific forestry in the forest areas without intervention of none. It should be noted that the Maoists activities did not start in 1996 when the Supreme Court first pronounced its forest related hearings. The Indian forest laws like Indian Forest Act (IFA) 1927 is much older than Maoist movement of late 1960s. There have been places still in India where campaigns against the IFA are going on for the last 75 years or so. Similarly, the 1980 Forest Conservation Acts (FCA), at best, has alienated tribal people, which provides new support base for Maoist movement. Not only these policies have failed in its primary objective to conserve and manage the forest, they have created social unrest, people’s movements and so on.

The objectives of transforming 33 percent of India’s geographical land to forest area do not arrest spreading of conflicts side by side. The conflict arises not only between Mogli (human) and Sher Khan (animal) as in the famous Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, but within people as in the case in Salwa Judum, people and forest laws (IFA, Indian Wildlife Protection Act, FCA, Joint Forest Management, Forest Development Projects and so on) and people and private companies (Jindal, Tata, Vendanta, Utkal Alumina). The Country’s most predominantly tribal districts with natural forest like in Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh are prone to conflicts due to poverty, dispossession of people over forest resources, ecological degradation and above all the government’s forest policies and developmental plans like dams and mining activities. The exercise of control and legitimacy has been the signature of India’s forest area. As always the losers in this battle are the tribal. An estimated 40 million people (of whom nearly 40 per cent are tribal) have lost their land since 1950 on account of displacement due to large development projects.

The biggest landlord in the country is facing the obvious threat i.e., its relevance! The official logo of the Forest Department (FD) in India is diagonally divided half red and green. But interestingly, the FD has now more red (read conflict) than green (forest). The intensity of conflict between the tribal and the forest officials are increasing manifold for wrong reasons. Not a single forest administered unit in the country is free from conflict. Most forest inhabitants feel that the FD which is rewarded as the single largest land lord in the country possessing nearly 23 percent of the geographical land has become the instrument of oppression. While the resource conflicts evolve as the competition over extraction and exploitation of lootable or commercial viable resources between two parties, in India, the only competitor is the state government and its agencies and private companies. The reign of terror using by state government couple with defunct basic administration and flaws in forest laws has given birth to ‘red corridor’ in India. The evil axis of government-business-legislatures-brokers has created more avenues for potential provider to conflict situations.

After the 2002 Indo-Pak stand-off at the LOC, the maximum number of national security meeting was commenced on the issue of Maoist violence in forest areas than securing India’s international boarder. As usual India’s ministries involved in this conflict zones are Prime Minister Office, Ministry of Environment and Forest, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Rural Development, Ministry of Water resources, Ministry of Mines, and of course, Ministry of Tribal Affairs and joining of Ministry of Defense won’t be a surprise by seeing the increased violence. When India’s powerful cabinet portfolios are engaged in conflict resolution it bounds to create cacophony. After discussion with tribal and more than 100 forest officials of Central and East India, I believe that the resolution of this increasing potential conflict is not feasible at least in coming decades. As long as people are being kept out of resource management or forest development, the explosion of million ticking mutinies is not a distant hypothesis.

Avilash Roul is a New Delhi based environment and development analyst.