The irony of Government (which is supposed to work for the common good) never fails to surprise me. An Act of Parliament has recognised the rights of access of traditional forest dwellers to forests. In spite of this the Union Minister of Tribal Affairs V Kishore Chandra Deo has to urge CMs (http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-andhrapradesh/cms-urged-to-implement-forest-rights-act-sincerely/article4605291.ece) to implement the FRA sincerely! This appeal had to be made after the Act has been diluted significantly with the recent amendment through which “linear” infrastructure projects will be exempted from Gram Sabha decisions under the FRA. Juxtapose this appeal from the Union Minister with the creation of the National Investment Board (NIB) or a Cabinet Committee on Investments (as it is now being called) and then the comment by the Prime Minister about making development sustainable. The cherry on this flipflop, schizophrenic doublespeak is the rolling out of the NRLM programme by the Ministry of Rural Development while the same Government is rapidly moving forward to sign the FTA with the EU. How can livelihoods be promoted if common pool resources are not provided access to, conserved and regenerated? Can a Government that is talking about carte blanche environmental clearances also protect livelihoods?
In the face of all this doublespeak small and marginal communities in various pockets across the country are forging their own futures using their traditional community networks. A small community of pastoralists have been asserting their rights of access to grazing and minor forest produce in our corner of Rayalseema since 2009. They did this by organising themselves into a sangha with a little help from a few of us. This exercising of rights has slowly spread to other communities within a radius of over 100 km through family connections, word of mouth etc. The strength that it has given them has spurred other pastoralists to stand up and assert their rights. The pastoralists in our area are now coaching and counselling others on the provisions of the FRA and how to put together documentation. The only question that keeps coming back to me is how did all these communities suddenly come together? Why did they come together 3-4 years after the enactment of the FRA? Nobody communicated the Act to all these communities. Information was shared with one community by a few of us which then spread like wildfire. I think it was more effective because those who experienced the freedom that comes with asserting one’s rights were able to share their personal experience. It made me think of Ostrom, Wade, and the theories of collective governance. There are many questions that have emerged from this experience. Now that the rights have been asserted will the responsibility of taking care and regenerating these commons come with it? At one of the meetings a fire guard (working as a contractor for the Forest Department) who is from the same village asked a question “Why do they not come when I call them to put out the fire inspite of offering them Rs. 150 per head?” “What is the guarantee that they will protect the forest now?” The community’s response was “we pay those Forest Dept. guards one lamb / kid and Rs. 50 per animal so they should protect the forest. Why should we?” “But now when we don’t pay the Forest Dept., it is our responsibility to care of the forest and we will” Decades of a governance system that has eroded a sense of ownership from the communities cannot be fixed with the stroke of a pen but there is hope that once the oppression is lifted through the assertion of rights the ownership will come!