Monday, May 16, 2011

Tribals and Environment: The Four Sided Indian Perspective

The jungle pathways are codenamed for young and new recruits of insurgent groups, the clearances are cleared further as new ways of exploiting the FRA are discovered, the waterholes are disregarded as muddy ponds where mining infrastructure is to be built, the emergent layer comes down to chest level to facilitate the trade of forest produce and the ignorant adivasi, displaced, disillusioned and deceived still sits under the worshipped tree, for the familiar volatile hope from the next expedient, knowing for a fact it would involve felling the very tree.

The fate of the tribals and the environment are so entwined in India that it is virtually impossible to solve the issues of one without affecting the other. But since a volley of voice—and not infrequently, bullets—that our race is, the forced tending to the tribal’s needs (absurdly) innocuously debilitates the environment to a point of no return. While on one hand, the largest ever environment related campaign Save the Tiger our country ever saw, drew more than fifteen lack petitioners (or as the campaign developers poetically put, a thousand supporters for every tiger), on the other hand Maoist insurgents, supposedly fighting for the cause of the tribals, slay seventy six Jawans in Dantewada. No prizes for guessing who is more effective in getting heard. 
There are few who attempt to solve the problem from the grass root level, where it is four dimensional.

Traditional lifestyle: While the romanticized notion of tribals and forest dwellers as nature worshippers and friends of the forest still exists, the fact is that the population blast that extended to tribal population as well have turned their lifestyle into no more than a struggle for survival. According to noted nature conservationist and founder of Satpuda Foundation, Kishore Rithe, there is no aspect of existent tribal lifestyle that is beneficial to the ecosystem or the bio-diversity of the forests. The forest dwellers, in several instances take advantage of their knowledge of the forest to assist poaching, timber mafia and ganja cultivation. There is yet a more spectacular example for ecological imbalance created by tribal lifestyle. The government supported Tendu leaf trade, traditionally pursued by the tribals, accounts to more revenue for the state than timber trade itself. While to an outsider, it doesn’t look like any harm is being done since the Tendu trees itself are not felled, traders practice cutting of the growing trees to prevent them from growing to 20 feet as is their natural height so that more leaves can be harvested. Grown to their natural height, Tendu trees sequester 1-2 metric tones of carbon per hectare every year, while the shortened leaf-less emergent layer that is a result of the trade practices hardly counts for anything in terms of ecological balance.

Development: The biggest milestone achieved by the government in accordance with tribal interests is the Forest Rights Act, 2006 through which encroachments made prior to December, 2005 are considered for ownership rights and local governing bodies are responsible for maintaining ecological balance. The tribals displaced several times due to insurgency in their original areas or industrial development or other issues like unyielding land, forest department’s interference, trader’s exploitation, etc. have no rights on their encroachments. The Gram Sabhas deployed for nature conservation activities, have the interests of the people at heart and several officials of the forest department, while hardly passionate about conserving the forests, look to profit from forest trade themselves. Like K.Thulasi Rao, Assistant Conservator of Forests, Srisailam Tiger Reserve relates, “the staff of the forest department are always on the lookout for transfers—in order to be closer to civilization or out of sheer boredom. There aren’t many who are actually knowledgeable about biodiversity, let alone be passionate about conservation.” In addition the FRA is also being abused by the local political bodies to attain more supporters. For example, the Samaj Kranti Agadhi (SKA) led by Mukund Khaire encouraged the tribals into encroaching lands while promising that it could be shown in government records that the lands were encroached prior to December, 2005. In addition, the party staged hunger protests and raised hue and cry to permit encroachments. The FRA while presenting land to the tribals, falters in the very fact that the hilly slopes these uneducated tribals have encroached are unsuitable for cultivation leading to more encroachments and rebellion.

Mining and Industrialization: The recent controversy involving Vedanta’s Bauxite mining operations in Niyamgiri Hills, Orissa threw sufficient light on the mining practices in India. The Union home minister P.Chidambaram was implicated as well since he was the director and board member at Vedanta before he became the finance minister. The project if continued would result in the displacement of the Dongria Kondh tribe that dwells in this region and imflicts insufferable damage to endangered species like giant squirrels, not to mention destroying the habitat of several wild animals including tigers and leopards. It is obvious that the projects in the past by Vedanta and other mining companies have displaced tribal settlements increasing encroachments of forest lands and raising poverty and desperation in addition to destroying the ecosystems through mining operations.

Militarism and war: Why is P.Chidambaram’s Operation Green Hunt in light of the maoist insurgency on April 6th that killed seventy-six Jawans in Datewada, mandated to ‘fight guerillas like a guerilla’ instead of capturing and holding territory with a counter-insurgency plan firmly in place? While there could be several counter arguments, it is also a possibility that P.Chidambaram’s connections with Vedanta prompted him to clear the land around Lajigarh (where Vedanta’s interests lie) of insurgents, as the government did promise Vedanta more mining land ‘nearby’. It is a well known fact that Chidambaram’s incensing remarks (pressure prompted?) at Lalgarh on April 4th like “(maoists are) cowards hiding in the jungle” and the three year time for their elimination that he talked about led to their violent attack in Dantewada less than forty-eight hours later. Noted Anthropologist Nandini Sundar who with her team tried to study the natives of the region, mentioned that war was palpable in the entire region and little or no efforts are being made to reach or understand the common people still living there. Her team was forcefully escorted out of the uniform infested town because the officials decided at the last moment that the conditions of the natives were better left in the dark. Whether it is politicians acting on their own interests or ambitious maoist leaders, the tribal militia is creating violent hope for desperate tribals who obviously have no where else to go, thereby strengthening the movement. The Maoists and insurgents who occupy forest lands work with the timber mafia and ganja cultivators to fund their interests while the forests are left untended to and gradually destroyed.
Understanding the four dimensional perspective of nature conservation and tribal welfare and their inherent interconnection, not just in India but world over, is the key to solving both the issues. 

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