As the country watches the turf war between top officials of the Central Bureau of Investigation, yet another battle in playing out – more understated, but arguably more significant.

The Print reported on November 1 that the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes plans to recommend that the “Indian Forest Service” change its name to the “Indian Forest and Tribal Service”. The commission feels this is necessary because the forest service routinely interacts with forest-dwelling tribes and, therefore, needs to consider the interests of both the forests and these communities. The report quoted a forest official, who declined to be identified, as saying that this was a good idea because other government agencies do not have officers on the ground who interact with the tribes. The official, however, cautioned that the proposal may not be easily accepted given the number of name change requests received by the civil services.

It would appear that there is no story here, other than an innocuous, albeit ham-handed, request for a change in nomenclature. Ham-handed, because not all tribes are dependent on forests. Adding “and Tribal” may hark back to negative stereotypes about tribes as primitive or pre-agrarian groups. Also, groups other than Scheduled Tribes – the “other traditional forest dwellers” – have been recognised as rightful claimants under The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. Even if the proposed re-naming is not deft, is invocation of the imagery of a turf war unnecessarily alarmist? It would be, but for existing tensions between the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change – the Indian Forest Service’s cadre-controlling authority – and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. While these appear relatively recent, tensions between forest-dwelling communities and foresters have an even older vintage.

Caught between ministries

Several pre-Independence tribal uprisings in present-day Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and several other parts of India were occasioned, at least in part, by forest laws and their enforcement. Historians Ramachandra Guha and Mahesh Rangarajan have written extensively about the excesses of the imperial forest service against forest-dwelling communities. Rangarajan went on to write about how “the forest” meant different things to the imperial forester and to the forest dweller. While the forester’s focus was on timber and commercial produce, the forest dweller’s relationship with the forest was more complex. Part of the complexity was that each tribe had diverse relationships with the forest. For many communities, forests are sites of religious or cultural significance, sometimes taking on human-like character in their origin stories. Others value forests for their medicinal plants, for providing material for building and for trade, areas for hunting, critical nutritional supplements for subsistence farmers.

Recent tensions relate to concerns raised by Leena Nair, former secretary in the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. In a letter to the chief secretaries of all states in June, shortly before her retirement, Nair spoke of the high rate of pendency or rejection of claims under the Forest Rights Act. The same month, she criticised the draft National Forest Policy for disregarding “the traditional custodians and conservatives of the forests, namely, tribals”. This draft policy, prepared by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, introduces the prospect of commercial plantations in forest areas. It is set to replace the 1988 National Forest Policy, which prohibits commercial exploitation of trees in government forests. The draft policy also undermines the Forest Rights Act, which aims to safeguard the rights of forest-dependant tribes and other traditional forest dwellers.

In proposing the draft policy, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change appears to have given short shrift to the Allocation of Business Rules, 1961. The Allocation Rules were amended in 2006 to make both the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs responsible for matters related to forest-dwelling communities, though the mandate is not neatly divided. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs was not consulted on the draft policy. Its side-lining shrinks its already limited sphere of influence. Critical issues for tribes – such as rural development, culture, education, health, mining, development of the North East region, panchayat raj – were never part of its mandate. Instead, separate Central ministries were assigned these tasks. Therefore, bringing tribes under the Indian Forest Service would erode the ministry’s bureaucratic influence even more.

The stand of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes places the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in a peculiar position. Unlike the ministry, the commission enjoys constitutional sanctity. However, the Allocation Rules place the commission under the ministry. With its suggestion, the commission undermines the ministry. It also provides a potentially helpful plank for the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in its feud with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

Putting forest dwellers first

Given these challenges, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs needs to urgently reinvent itself. Its approach is sometimes anachronistic. Take, for example, the “scheduling” criteria for tribes. In its 2017-2018 annual report, the ministry states that the criteria it adopts are “indications of primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large, and backwardness”. This despite a high-level committee commissioned by the ministry itself saying in its 2014 report that these criteria carried forward “certain paternalistic and pejorative connotations from the colonial era”. The ministry’s silence on the committee’s recommendation to reject these criteria and adopt a broader, internationally recognised notion of indigeneity is inexplicable.

Yet, in the midst of this, there are bright spots. An announcement by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs at the end of October to revamp its tribal museums and tribal training and research institutes is encouraging. Within the constraints of limited funding and bureaucratic apathy, the Tribal Research Institutes have managed to create valuable knowledge resources and networks. In September, an expert committee report on tribal health, jointly commissioned by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, provided telling data on the sad state of affairs. It showed that individuals from Scheduled Tribes have a lifespan three years shorter than that of other Indians. Preventable diseases, drastic lifestyle changes, environmental degradation, want and mental health problems are the factors that exact this heavy toll. The committee recommended greater tribal autonomy and flexible healthcare delivery models.

The bottom-line is this: forest-dwelling tribes and their concerns are far too important to be left to the vagaries of inter-ministerial turf wars. The tribes must be allowed to define their own nuanced relationship with forests. The proposed change in nomenclature obfuscates the historical tension between forest-dwellers and the forest service in how they perceive forests. The new draft National Forest Policy privileges the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change’s commercial view of the forest over the vision of traditional forest communities.

In forest policy, as in all policy concerning tribes, it is imperative that the tribes themselves have adequate numerical representation and a meaningful say. Tribal autonomy and adaptability to local requirements must be hallmarks, not merely policy post-script. By placing “and Tribal” in existing and rigid bureaucratic structures, little is achieved other than the addition of a disingenuous and hollow-sounding suffix to a conjunction.

Nishant Gokhale studied law at NUJS Kolkata and Harvard Law School. The views expressed are personal.