29 Nov 2006 Source: Reuters
By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI, Nov 29 (Reuters) – Thousands of India's poorest and most marginalised people living in forests gathered in the heart of New Delhi on Wednesday demanding rights over the land they have lived on for centuries.
Women in brightly coloured saris and men in turbans, who came for remote rural areas, waved banners and punched their fists in the air calling on the government to quickly pass a law recognising their rights.
"Who will look after the forests? We will. We will," they chanted. "Who does the forests belong to? They belong to us."
More than 40 million people live in India's resource rich forest areas — which include protected wildlife reserves and dense woodlands — eking out a meagre living from simple farming, picking fruit and collecting honey.
For generations they have had no legal entitlement over the land or the use of forest resources.
They say they have been treated as "encroachers" and "criminals" on their own land and forced to leave it by forestry officials, mining and logging companies.
"Millions of impoverished people ironically live in the richest lands in India, but they have not been able to benefit from the land," said Shankar Gopalakrishnan from the Campaign for Dignity and Survival, a union of forest community groups.
"Every year, hundreds of thousands are forcefully evicted, beaten, tortured and their homes are demolished by officials and businessmen who want to use the land for their own purposes."
The government is expected to pass a new law — the Recognition of Forest Rights Bill 2005 — before the end of the year which would, for the first time, give forest dwellers the right to own the land they have been using.
But some wildlife groups have expressed concern about the bill saying it will give too much protection to forest people and would threaten efforts to save endangered tigers.
Activists for the forest dwellers say the bill has already been watered down to give little power to the people after pressure by green groups and powerful logging and mining companies.
"The government is using conservation as an excuse not to give us rights," said S.R. Hiremath of Samaj Parivartana Samudaya, a local charity working with forest communities in the southern state of Karnataka.
"We are not a threat to the environment and not a threat to animals. For centuries, we have lived in co-existance with the environment and it's destruction is because of the mining and paper companies."