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The Rediff Interview/Union Minister for Tribal Affairs P R Kyndiah
'Implementing forest act not an easy task'
January 22, 2008
Union Minister for Tribal Affairs P R Kyndiah talks about his travails in pursuing the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. He spoke to Aasha Khosa in New Delhi
Your government has finally made this landmark law happen. Then, why is there criticism of this even by those who support the rights of the tribals?
The day after we notified the rules of this Act, I was happy to see that at least 15 international NGOs supported our efforts. These organisations from different corners of the world said that the Indian Act for the rights of tribals was a landmark law that needed to be accepted as a model piece of legislation across the world for indigenous people. Being a tribal myself, I feel that the Act has underlined two key points. One, it has recognised the fundamental right of the tribal people to live with dignity, and two, it has accepted the fact that tribal people are conservationists and not destroyers of wildlife and forests. Today, we have scientific evidence to prove that the tribals are best preservers of the forests.
It took you nearly one year to frame the rules of this Act and yet it suffers from several infirmities, as the NGOs working for the tribal communities have alleged. Why?
We have taken the Gram Sabha as a basic representative unit to fix the claims and counter-claims on land and forest produce, which has come under attack from the NGOs. I must confess that this was the best available option for us under the existing Panchayati Raj Act. Can you imagine how chaotic the scene would have been without this? I still maintain that no rule has violated the spirit of the Act.
NGOs can have their views, but we must realise that this Act has enabled the tribals to access the fruits of modern civilisation for the first time. They are liberated from the worry and anxiety of being hounded out of their symbiotic relationship with forests. For generations, they were treated as encroachers by outsiders. The law is a historic correction of the injustice heaped on some 80 million people of India.
You belong to a tribal society. How discriminated have you felt all your life?
I belong to the Khasi tribe of the North-East, which is a matrilineal clan. None of our people, including myself, has any record of our land. But we never faced a problem as we are socially and ethnically entrenched and there is no outsider to nudge us out of the forests.
May be for people in the North-East, this Act would not make a difference but it would surely give a new life to the people living in the mainland -- Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Chatttisgarh etc.
The implementation of the Forest Rights Act may be quite a tricky job. Do you agree?
I must admit that implementing this Act is not going to be an easy task. We have no precedents in this case to fall on since it is a pioneering legislation in the entire world. I can only fall on my wisdom and good intentions. Then it has to be implemented through the state governments. However, the government of India, and particularly my ministry, would have to be the watch-dog for its implementation.
This was perhaps the most debated and contested legislation in Indian history so far. Tell us about your experiences of seeing it through.
I cannot reveal everything on this. I can, however, tell you that this law not only saw political parties, activists and government divided over the tribal versus animals issue, but it even divided the bureaucracy.
I personally had to pass through a test of fire. As a minister and a tribal myself, at times I felt so let down by this entire debate that I wanted to give up my efforts to see this Act through. Often I felt that this would never happen and I must leave things as such. But then God is great.
To quote an instance, I was in Gujarat some four months ago in a tribal area. Looking at the faces of the women there, who would become the co-owner of the land with their spouses under the new legislation, I felt inspired. I called a young girl and asked her whether she cut trees. Fearfully, she replied, "No, never, trees are like our mother." This small incident boosted my morale and I returned to Delhi to push things ahead.
But still the Congress lost in Gujarat, though your party was confident of winning in the tribal-dominated areas on the strength of this Act.
I am sure that if this Act had come before the Gujarat elections, things would have been different today. After all, for this very reason, (Narendra) Modi was ready to pre-empt us and distribute 'pattas' to tribals, which was stopped by the Supreme Court.
The implementation of this Act is going to be a long-drawn and tedious process. Don't you feel that instead of helping the Congress in the next elections, this could create unrest and boomerang on it?
No, things may not happen since the Act has awakened a sleeping giant in the 80 million Indian tribals. It has awakened them towards their rights and no amount of manipulations can now cow them down any further.
But, yes, my real fear and worry remains about the fraudulent claims which could be made by the outsiders to claim the forest land. The encroachers are clever and can manipulate evidence to stake claim to grab the land. This could even deprive the tribals of their rightful share of land. This is my serious worry.
Coming to politics, you being from a generation that was inspired by stalwarts like Jawaharlal Nehru, how do you find the Congress of today?
In those days, Congress was a national movement. But today's Congress is different. People of India are going along with Congress only because there are no alternatives. The rise of regional aspiration has changed the politics as it has become a challenge for any national party to survive without taking note of the surging regional aspirations.
You may be the only senior leader of that generation who is taken note of by Sonia Gandhi [Images]?
Yes, she made me the minister. What more could I have asked for? I find Sonia Gandhi a very capable person, a good listener and a person with photographic memory. Besides, she has the capabilities of harmonising different sections of people and society. We are together (in the party) only because of her.
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