Column: The Price Of Ignorance

By: Ashutosh Mishra

Bhubaneswar: Media has reported about the felling of around 40,000 trees in Sambalpur’s Talabira village to facilitate coal mining. The destruction of greenery followed Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC)’s Stage II clearance for diverting 1,038.187 hectares of forest land for an opencast coal mining project.

Believed to be a huge project mining in the area could call for the cutting of more trees. The government apparently sanctioned deforestation on such a massive scale despite being aware that this huge sylvan wealth was being nurtured and preserved by the locals in Talabira and its adjoining areas.

If reports are to be believed the villagers had formed an organisation called Talabira Gramya Jungle Committee and had even appointed a guard to protect this forest. According to one account, they had been protecting the forest for more than 50 years and depended on it for many of their daily needs. It was a symbiotic relationship.

The government could, however, take the forest away from them rather easily because they had never filed any claims on this sylvan stretch under Forest Rights Act, (FRA), 2006. Naïve as they are they thought that their long association with the forest made it their own. They never even thought of applying for rights under the FRA.

This is a classic example of forest dwellers not being able to protect their rights because of sheer ignorance. But their ignorance is not entirely their fault. The implementation of FRA in the country was supposed to have been preceded by an intensive awareness campaign across the country. This was particularly important for states like Odisha which has a sizeable population of forest dwellers, most of them tribals.

Unfortunately, the awareness drive was less than adequate in most of the areas. Officials in most cases displayed a completely apathetic attitude towards making the forest dwellers aware of their rights and explaining to them the finer points of the newly enacted law. In a majority of cases the forest dwellers, particularly the tribals, did not even understand the importance of the committees set up at various levels for the verification of their claims.

Had non-governmental organisations not taken the initiative many more forest dwellers would have forfeited their claim to the land that should legally belong to them. Government officials, as is their won’t, always treat such work as a burden and their impatience and exasperation show when dealing with tribals who are largely illiterate.

On the other hand, they do not hesitate to use the same law against the forest dwellers when the interest of the government is at stake. What has happened in Talabira illustrates how ignorance instead of being bliss can be completely disastrous. It also underscores the urgent need for further sensitisation of forest dwellers and tribals about their rights on the forest land they have been inhabiting for decades. Awareness on this front should turn into a people’s movement with the patent support of non-profit organisations working in this field. This is the only way forest dwellers can preserve their and claim its rightful ownership.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)