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NEARLY two years after legislating the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, the UPA government at the Centre has finally notified the rules to help concerned tribals gain formal entitlement to land. Ostensibly, despite serious misgivings both within sections of the government as also concerned environmentalists and those associated with wildlife protection, the step was taken to ensure that the Congress regains lost support of disaffected tribal communities. Much, after all, was made of the fact that the failure to act on this front had cost the party dearly in the recent elections to the Gujarat assembly.

Whether or not the move helps the Congress regain electoral support in a base that it has long taken for granted, it is increasingly becoming apparent that populist and knee-jerk steps could as easily increase its troubles, if not leave the situation worse off than before. This is because not just the UPA government, but regimes across parties have consistently failed to set into motion a transparent and participatory process of policy formulation and implimentation that might meaningfully involve all stakeholders to ensure success.

It is for instance well-known that land records, whether belonging to the revenue or forest departments, are in a mess. To expect, therefore, that local self-government machinery and gram sabhas will be in a position to verify and settle land claims by conflicting groups and individuals does appear a little stretched. Worse, the government has even acquiesced to lobbies to open up otherwise formally protected areas under national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, thereby placing already endangered zones under even greater risk. In all likelihood, what we might encounter is a further spate of land title disputes clogging our already dysfunctional courts.

To those who have been struggling for decades to ensure land rights to the marginalized, such arguments might appear just another ploy to deny justice. It has long been claimed that ‘elite’ wildlife and environmental lobbies are anti-development and anti-people. There is also little doubt that an inordinate amount of land, though formally classified as forest, has for decades been under cultivation and thus the ground reality should be regularized. Nevertheless, if the rules remain hazy and amenable to conflicting interpretations, and the agencies charged with implimentation ill-equipped, what may result is greater conflict and violence and not justice.

Let us not forget that other high-profile schemes designed for the aam aadmi have already run into trouble for much the same reasons. The recent Comptroller and Auditor General report on the working of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has recorded numerous instances of corruption, leakages and non-implimentation. And surprisingly, the worst performance is not in BJP controlled states but those run by the UPA and the Left. One wonders how the ‘progressive’ politicians and parties explain their lackadaisical performance in implementing a scheme specifically designed for the landless poor?

The situation vis-ŕ-vis elementary education is similarly depressing. Years after education was ostensibly made a fundamental right after amending the Constitution, the UPA government has been unable to even introduce the corresponding legislation to make the right juridically enforceable. In part it appears to have been frightened by the fiscal requirements of actually ensuring meaningful elementary education for all. Though some months back the education ministry circulated a model Right to Education Bill, proposing that state governments could on similar lines formulate their own respective legislations, subsequently even this exercise has been given a quiet burial. It is now being claimed that a combination of private enterprise and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan scheme have together resulted in a substantial improvement in the situation. Clearly, there is now to be no further talk of any enforceable responsibility of the Indian state to ensure that every citizen receive at least eight years of meaningful education.

It is possible to detail out similar developments afflicting most schemes ostensibly designed to provide succour to marginalized people, despite being launched with great fanfare. For a country whose leadership sees itself as an emerging global power, such shoddiness is unacceptable. To believe that mere slogans and announcements without putting in the necessary hard work to evolve the necessary rules, regulations and implimentation mechanisms will win the concerned regime and party electoral support is not only short-sighted but over time helps develop a legacy of despair and rage fuelled by betrayal. Our political leadership has only to look at what is happening in neighbouring Pakistan to get a glimpse into its own future.

Harsh Sethi

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