Leaf storm

THE seething controversy over local rights to collect forest produce in national parks and sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh may force a review of wildlife legislation. These local rights were challenged recently in the Supreme Court by Vanya, a Panchmarhi-based conservationist group, following the revoking of a ban order on forest produced collection by the state governorder and instead directed the Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF) to advise on the matter and submit a report within a month.

While MEF officials are tightlipped about how the act would be interpreted to the Supreme Court, environment minister Kamal Nath is sceptical of a rigid interpretation of the law. He told Down To Earth, "If we put a ban legally, it will cause greater damage to man-forest interface."

Just 6 months after imposing a ban on the collection of forest produce in nationa.1 parks and sanctuaries in order to enforce the Wildlife (Protection) Act (1972) and its 1991 amendment, the Madhya Pradesh government withdrew the ban in the last week of March in the face of intense opposition from local people. Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh admitted, "The ban has been revoked keeping in view the traditional rights of the tribals and villagers living in these national parks and sanctuaries."

Madhya Pradesh Some officials hint Minister Digvijay that it may now prove to be even more difficult to plug the legal loopholes unless the act itself is revised. A senior official of the MP state forest department says, "The act provides for acquisition of rights in case of a claim over any land falling within the limits of national parks and sanctuaries, but does not say anything about compensating the rights of the people to collect minor forest produce."
Controversy highlighted The controversy has highlighted even in 'ore startling facts: only 5 of the 32 sanctuaries and 12 national parks - with tribal populations of 22,497 and 1,77,895 respectively - have been legally notified for the settlement of rights. The rest have only been announced, not legally notified, which means that the initial attempt made by the state government to impose a ban on collection of minor forest produce seems without legal sanction. There is a sign of political heads uniting on a more flexible enforcement of laws as against the conservative, hardline reacti,on of the forest officials. Supporting Singh's move, Kamal Nath says, "The rights of the forestdwellers have not been settled and if they are denied their right to collect minor forest produce for their subistence, how will they live?"

But the ponderous bureaucratic tribe is uneasy about the order. A Union forestry official says that the "state government will have to conform with the Wildlife (Protection) Act." M F Ahmed, inspector general (forests) said that he had not seen the order, only heard about it. Additional inspector general (forest$), S C Dey, said that the issue was too "Qicate" for comment.

Kamal Nath said in no uncertain terriis, "Madhya Pradesh cannot do anything illegal," indicating that once the, notifications are through, MEF Will force the state government to impose a ban.

Singh may not find such a move politically expedient. His decision to lift the ban was based on a personal experience during a visit to the Panchmarhi national park, where the tribals had "raised the issue of restoring their traditional rights". The Congress party views the tribals as its vote bank.

The tendu leaf-pluckers emerged as important electoral capital for the Congress in 1989, when the Arjun Singh government had initiated a cooperative system for the trade in tendu patta and eliminated contractors by forming 1,947 tendu leaf-pluckers' cooperatives. Madhya Pradesh produces the highest quantity of tendu leaves with an average production of 45 lakh standard bags annually (each standard bag has 1,000 bundles of 50 tendu leaves). The state government earns Rs 140 crore from the trade annually and the tribals earn about Rs. 1.5 crore.