Cabinet sticks to one bill- Himalayan forest outfit happy with approval

Kalimpong, Dec. 8: The Cabinet approval of the bill granting rights of forest land to residents of fringe villages has been welcomed by the Himalayan Forest Villagers’ Organisation here.

According to information and broadcasting minister Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, who spoke to reporters after the Cabinet meeting yesterday, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill 2006 was given the nod to “undo the historical injustice” to tribals residing in forests for generations.

Noting that there was a controversy on whether there should be two bills (one for tribals and another for forest dwellers) or not, Das Munshi said the Cabinet decided on one with 2005 as the cut-off year.

The bill will be introduced in the current session of Parliament after amendments are suggested by the ministers of tribal affairs, panchayati raj, forest and law, he added.

Lila Kumar Gurung, the secretary of the forest villagers’ organisation here, said his outfit was happy that the bill has been approved. “We are especially glad about the cut-off year,” he said. The organisation has been demanding that the bill be placed before Parliament in the current session. There are 56 forest villages in the Kalimpong subdivision with a total population of about 5,000 people.

The present bill is an improvement on the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill tabled last year. According to many rights bodies, the original bill was flawed in that it sought to ignore a significant number of non-tribal forest-dependent people like those living in the Himalayan tracts. The revised bill expands its coverage from tribals to “other traditional forest dwellers”.

Other changes in the revised bill are the removal of the earlier cut-off date of 1980, allowing claims by even those dwellers who occupied forest land until 2005, and abolition of the 2.5 hectares upper limit of areas.

Many NGOs have opposed the bill on the ground that it will sound the death knell for the unique bio-diversity of various forest regions.

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