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Forest Rights Act "threatens" forests, existence of tribal societies, is of limited significance: British scholar

By Our Representative
Well-known British scholar Felix Padel -- great grandson of Charles Darwin, a social anthropologist who has made India his home for the last three decades -- has termed the Forest Rights Act (FRA) "a stop gap" arrangement against "appalling" projects threatening tribals. In an interview published in "Sanctuary Asia" (February 2015), Padel, also known for his activism on tribal rights issues, however, believes that the Act, with its emphasis on individual rather than collective rights, "threatens not just the continued existence of India’s forests, but also the continuance of all that is best in tribal societies."

Padel suggests that the Act may be called "historic" only in a limited sense -- only in so far as it intends to "return to tribal people their fundamental traditional rights to the forest, which British rule took away". However, he believes, quoting Marx and Engels, that there is a need to emphasize on "communal, as opposed to private, property as the essence of tribal societies worldwide – the basis of ‘primitive communism’, and a major element in the concept of communism itself."
One who thinks that India has given the world a "more fundamentally vital concept of self-development, from Yoga and Upanishadic sages to Buddhism", and also the fundamental values of "closeness of nature and culture, the true multiculturalism", Padel last worked as professor at the School of Rural Management, Indian Institute of Health Management Research (IIHMR), Jaipur, during 2012-2014. Earlier, he was associated with the Institute of Rural Management, Ahand (IRMA), in Gujarat.
Suggesting why other tribal movements have failed while the one in Niyamigiri -- a major forest area in Odisha where MNC Vedanta had planned bauxite mining -- has succeeded, Padel says, here the gram sabhas "voted together not just against mining, but also refused the individual title plots of forest they were being offered under the FRA." Padel's view comes at a time when the FRA is being sought to be watered down by the current NDA government, which is seeking to ease the law for the corporates.
Pedal emphasizes, the Niyamgiri movement had the support of "influential environmental as well as social/tribal rights groups and political parties including the Samajvadi Jan Parishad", and they didn’t have to "aim for a common platform." Saying that this was the main reason for its success, he adds, "Many of them didn’t even dialogue! This needs to be understood."
According to Padel, the FRA has actually helping the policy of "divide and rule – allowing conservationists and human rights activists to be divided against each other is a sure strategy for making certain neither succeeds." This despite the fact that "both face the same enemies, including inner demons and attitudes, as well as certain strong external entities and tendencies." He adds, "Both sides have often stereotyped the other, and taken rigid positions." 

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