Cultural Trends/Popular Culture

India's Forest Law Leaves Women Feeling Cut Out

Sunday, April 20, 2008

India's land rights act enacted Jan. 1 was considered a major milestone for tribal and forest - dwelling communities. But women's activists say it fails to protect the property rights of women, some of whom are forming collectives to hold on to land.

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Local Councils Lacking

Activists also criticize the law's failure to reserve an equal place for women on local councils, which have been set up to decide which plants get planted in the forests, an issue that has been raised by the Forest Department's clearance of tribal lands to plant commercially valuable crops such as teak.

Hardikar says women often have distinct tasks to carry out in the forests, such as collecting firewood, and the councils tend to be male-dominated. Without women on the councils, she says, fewer trees for fuel might be planted. She wants the law to be changed to require that women be involved in deciding the species that should be planted.

Kanta Marathe, a tribal activist from Chhattisgarh, in central India, agrees.

"Traditionally women are the ones who have worked in forests, protected and managed them and have the requisite knowledge about harvesting and regenerating," says Marathe. "The act should provide for maximum possible representation for women in all decision-making bodies depending on the local situation."

Soma KP says the law should be changed to require that local councils include a mix of people who depend on the forest and those who don't. "It needs to be specified that at least 50 percent of the female membership should be from forest-dependent communities," she says. "Otherwise these women will surely be left out in favor of women from more affluent sections."

Baiga women sit in a local council meeting.

A coalition of women's groups has written the Ministry of Tribal Affairs about these concerns. Women's rights activists are proceeding cautiously, however. Although their cause has been embraced by the broader forest rights movement, the law is under legal and political assault from the conservation lobby, as well as the Forest Department, which is unwilling to relinquish control over resources. That has made a riskier political climate for calling for amendments to take in gender concerns.

Some women--skeptical of the official response they might get--are taking matters into their own hands.

Roma--a land rights activist who has dropped her caste-based surname and goes by a neutral single name--says women's collectives in her area of Kaimur, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, are taking control of 15,000 acres.

"They refuse to have the lands made out in their names individually, preferring collective control," Roma says. "The reason is that they know that neither their families nor the state will grant rights to them."

Aparna Pallavi is a freelance journalist based in Nagpur and writes on development issues. She was a recipient of the National Foundation for India Fellowship for the year 2007.

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