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Civil society yatra in Himachal campaigns for forest rights, seeks support for environment-friendly issues

By Sandeep Minhas
To coincide with the Himachal Pradesh assembly elections, Himalaya Niti Abhiyan (HNA), a well-known environmental group, has undertaken a week long state wide campaign (yatra) with the slogan Conserve Environment, Support Livelihood in order to make community issues part of the election manifestos.
The yatra, to start from Kullu and is to pass through the districts of Mandi, Kangra, Chamba, Una, Hamirpur, Bilaspur, will culminate in Shimla.
It will interact and generate awareness among voters on the issues of sustainable development in Himalayan in the context of environment conservation, employment and livelihood, Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, right to education, health, and other localised alternate development issues in order to trigger a healthy debate on primary issues in this election.
National coordinator of HNA Guman Singh and advisor-cum-member of zilla parishad Sant Ram, told media that HNA will hand over a memorandum to the contesting candidates to take up community issues as a part of their respective election campaign.
Singh said, FRA intends to provide right to livelihood, forest produce, individual and community forest rights, protection and management right of forests, development rights to the people of Himachal Pradesh. This Act provides legal right only to those occupants who are utilising forest land for individuals use like agriculture, horticulture, residence, cow shed etc. for those cultivating forest land before December 13, 2005.
The only solution to end illegal occupation of land is to implement FRA 2006 in its letter and spirit, he said, insisting, no other law provides for inviting claims to forest land, and if found valid, providing a legal right to it. But, he added, unfortunately, the state machinery has not taken steps aimed towards its effective implementation.
Referring to the situation in Himachal Pradesh, he said, even after the state obtained relaxation under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 for two years, thousands of Nautod lands are lying without any consolidation for years together in the tribal areas of the state. Such lands can only be settled by implementing FRA.
“Due to lack of political will coupled with bureaucratic lethargy, FRA has not been implemented in the state, nor the issue of Nautod lands resolved in tribal regions of the state. A comprehensive debate is required on this issue during these elections”, he insisted.
The yatra would also highlight now the potential of tourism in absorbing local youth remains unutilized. However, its main message would be to make tourism environment friendly and responsible.
“A strong policy initiative in this direction is required. Promotion of eco-tourism on forest land shall be encouraged through the forest right holder. For sustainable environmental integrity, a break on mega tourism schemes and programmes is mandatory”, Singh said.
The yatra would also stress that vast stretches of agricultural land lie barren due to variety of reasons, and at many places agriculture is not economically viable. Abandoned livestock and wild animal attacks are twin problems, forcing farmers switching to alternate occupations resulting in large swath of lands becoming unproductive. A policy to address enhance agricultural productivity is required.
Further, the yatra would highlight that Himachal Pradesh is ecologically and tectonically fragile, calling for complete moratorium on mining, large industries, cement factories, mega tourism projects, large hydroelectric projects and large construction projects.
“The state should strive for a displacement-free development, and in case displacement is inevitable than displaced should be economically and socially rehabilitated”, Singh said, adding, “In planned and under-construction four-lane highway projects, compensation value should be granted in discussion with farmers and at least four times compensation must be given as a bare minimum.”
Pointing out that Bhakra and Pong projects left behind bad memories the those displaced by these projects, Singh said, the pending cases should be reopened with priority to end the historic injustice meted out to the farmers of this state.

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