With rural economy in focus in the backdrop of the new farm laws, Union minister for tribal affairs, Arjun Munda, shares the road map for mainstreaming the forest dwellers in India’s tribal belts in an interview to Ambika Pandit:
What will be the impact of the new farm laws in the tribal belt?
In the light of these new laws we, in coordination with the agriculture ministry, will focus on organic agricultural produce and create seed banks. We want states to encourage products like organic rice from the tribal belt, which have a market. Also the minor forest produce (non-timber) is the strength of the tribal belt and a subject under the purview of my ministry. We will be working on how to link MFPs to cash cropping and build a market for the produce. The thought behind these farm laws is to create opportunities for the marginal farmers, who are unable to directly establish a link with the market and lack the capacity to produce large quantities in small land holdings. The new laws create an option that now allows the farmer to sell in the market of their choice.
What is the government’s plan to bolster the economy around tribal produce and minimum support price for non-timber MFP?
The forest dweller has traditionally always had a right over the forest and its produce. Later the FRA [Forest Rights Act] was enacted to reinforce that right legally. However, somewhere the tribal was not able to associate with that constitutional rights legally given to him. What we are trying to do is bridge the gaps by connecting the dots. By expediting the grant of community forest rights we want to reinforce the community ownership of the forest, of the produce and the market for that produce, starting from the haat bazaar in the village. Once the community forest right is granted in an area, the forest dwellers taking their produce to the self-help group led Van Dhan Vikas Kendras for value addition will have a greater sense of ownership.
We have to create a market through community involvement to ensure that the tribal is able to get a fair price for the produce. The learning from implementation of MSP for MFP has reinforced that only if the role of the gram sabha and panchayat increases in the working of the haat bazaars at the village level can the forest dweller get the required boost.
Hasn’t the implementation of FRA been a matter of concern?
I have met the Union minister for environment, forests and climate change on the matter and we have decided to work together on implementing the FRA to seal the gaps in on-ground implementation. At the minister level we plan to jointly hold quarterly review meetings with officials concerned. Steps will be taken by MoEFCC to implement the rules and guidelines framed under FRA. Advisories shall be issued to all states to make this happen. Letters have already been sent to states. As far as progress on the grant of community forest rights is concerned it is currently in the range of 8-10%. This will now be hastened in mission mode.
What about the claims for individual land ownership rights (patta) under FRA?
Since the matter is in Supreme Court I will not comment on the details but I can assure that regular reviews are happening and all pending claims are to be expedited. The chief secretary at the state level is the final authority leading the review on the implementation of the FRA and the status of claims. As per the feedback we learnt that this matter was not reviewed adequately at the chief secretary level so we asked them to review the land rights claims thoroughly. Our final directions to states have been that no tribal should face unnecessary harassment as they cannot exist without and outside the forest.
During the lockdown we saw an exodus of migrants. Is your ministry preparing a database of migrants from the tribal belt?
A national database is being made by the government. There is a group of ministers that is discussing and working on this issue. What our ministry plans to do is to study and segregate the data for the tribal belt from the overall data being collected on migrants to understand the scale of tribal migration – including those who went back to the villages and those who returned to the cities after lockdown. This will help us plan what needs to be done in terms of skill development and upskilling possibilities. We also plan to study the skill potential in the areas the migrants have returned to and do a mapping of the same.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.