Centre releases 7,693 hectares of forestland for tribals

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM Aug. 26. The Union Minister for Environment and Forests, T. R. Balu, today flew all the way from the New Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram to present an Onam gift to the Antony Government — the decision of his Ministry to release 7,693 hectares of forestlland for solving the vexatious issue of providing land to the landless tribals in the State.

At a workshop on `Captive Elephants', hastily got up by his Ministry with the assistance of the State Forest Department apparently to provide him with the opportunity to make the gesture, he dramatically produced a laminated copy of his Ministry's order approving the diversion of `reserved' and `vested' forest land in Kasaragod, Kannur, Wayanad, Palakkad and Malappuram districts for the resettlement of landless tribals in the State.

The order comes as a big relief to the Antony Government, which had given a commitment to the tribals in 2001 to solve their resettlement issue only to be caught in the legal implications of diverting forestland for such a purpose.

The delay in distributing land to them had prompted several tribal groups, including the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha (AGMS) led by the tribal leader, C. K. Janu, to whom the Chief Minister, A. K. Antony, had given the commitment, to forcefully occupy forestland.

The occupation of the forests at Muthanga, in Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, by the AGMS had even led to disastrous results, with a tribal activist and a policeman getting killed in the police action to evict the encroachers from there.

At a press conference convened after the workshop, Mr. Balu said the tribal families who were to get the forestland would have `heritable but inalienable right' over the allotted plots. The State Government should give an undertaking to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests that no further proposal would be submitted for the diversion of forest tracts for this purpose.

He said his Ministry was not insisting on the usual stipulation of compensatory afforestation in this case. However, an extent of 13,223 hectares of forestland in the State currently outside the control of the State Forest Department would have to be notified as `reserved forest' for better protection and management.

This change in the legal status of such forests would be adjusted against the provision of compensatory afforestation, he said.

The forestland `deemed to have been subjected to the mandatory compensatory afforestation include 11,000 hectares of ecologically fragile land' acquired by the State Government from private individuals (through an Act passed by the State legislature during its latest sitting), about 70 hectares of densely wooded area in Alacode Estate of Plantation Corporation of Kerala Limited, about 1,160 hectares of mangrove forests available with the Revenue and other local authorities and private individuals in Kannur, Kasaragod and Kozhikode districts and 464 hectares and 189 hectares of densely wooded areas in Sugandagiri and Pookott respectively.

The tribal resettlement project was to be implemented by the Forest Department. A forest officer would have to be appointed as Rehabilitation Commissioner. His duty would be to ensure appropriate consolidation of forestland in the State.

The State Government should also ensure, through this Rehabilitation Commissioner, the integrated development of the tribals under the project so as to provide the tribals adequate source of livelihood without compromising on conservation of biodiversity in the forests, Mr. Balu said. Earlier, while speaking at the workshop, Mr. Balu, in a veiled attack, criticised the tendency of State Governments to sacrifice the forests for short-term political gains. "Future generations will not pardon us if we destroy what remains of our forest cover. My Ministry gets brickbats from all corners for standing in the way of such projects, which result in the depletion of the country's forest cover'', he said.

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