Hope sets in

the process of drafting the proposed Scheduled Tribes and Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forests Rights) bill started with the first meeting of the technical support group (tsg) to the Union ministry of tribal affairs (mota) on February 7, 2005. The bill, being monitored by the prime minister's office and managed by mota, will give land ownership rights to nearly 10 million people living in and around forests. In January 2005, the Union cabinet agreed to the resolution, proposing the bill initiated by prime minister Manmohan Singh.

The tsg is required to complete the draft by February 17, 2005, so that it is tabled in the budget session of the parliament. Singh has directed mota to be the bill's custodian in place of the Union ministry of environment and forests.

The tsg discussed the contentious issue of who would be the bill's beneficiaries in the first meeting itself. Due to ambiguity in the definition of tribal population in non-scheduled areas in states like Himachal Pradesh or Uttaranchal, it decided that the entire tribal population will be included in the bill's jurisdiction. It also agreed to include the scheduled castes in the bill's purview. Another proposal that found favour is about making poor people, who don't belong to scheduled castes or tribes but live in and around the forests, the bill's beneficiaries. The tsg's next meeting will define these groups.

The tsg is still debating the issue of the cut off year for settling land rights inside forests. As of now, it is 1980, when the Forest Conservation Act came into force. The government earlier tried to make it 1993 but the Supreme Court stalled its effort. The suggestion to keep protected areas and sanctuaries outside the bill's purview is also being debated.

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