NEW DELHI (Reuters) -- Millions of India's marginalized poor won rights over the remote forests where they have lived for centuries when Parliament passed a landmark bill late on Monday.
The Recognition of Forest Rights Bill 2006 -- which requires presidential approval to become law -- will grant land ownership and the right to live off minor forest produce to those who have lived in the forests for at least three generations.
More than 40 million people depend on the country's resource-rich forest areas, which can include protected wildlife reserves, eking out a meager living from simple farming, picking fruit and collecting honey.
But for generations they have had no legal right to the land nor any use of forest resources.
The dwellers say they have been treated as criminals by forestry officials and mining and logging firms, often beaten, tortured, forcefully evicted or jailed for refusing to leave the land their forefathers cultivated.
Speaking in the upper house of Parliament, Tribal Affairs Minister K.R. Kyndiah said the bill, expected to be approved by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in the coming weeks, would give impoverished communities more protection. "The forest-dwelling people had not got their due share and land rights. They had been living with a sense of uncertainty and alienation," said Kyndiah. "This empowers traditional forest-dwelling communities by giving them security of tenure (and) access to minor forest produce."
Under the new legislation, forest dwellers will be able to use non-timber produce such as bamboo, stumps, cane, honey, wax, medicinal plants and herbs, stones, and fish, but they will be prohibited from hunting wild animals.
"It's a victory because India has overturned a century-old colonial law and recognized the rights of people living in forests," said Shankar Gopalakrishnan from the Campaign for Dignity and Survival, a union of forest community groups.
But he noted the bill did not extend to many dwellers who live on the outskirts of forests but still cultivate the land.
Conservationists also expressed concerns, arguing that proving forest inhabitants had lived there for generations would be difficult and that many illegal settlers could take advantage of the law which would be disastrous for the forests and hamper efforts to save endangered species.
"This will lead to a boost in poaching of all wildlife species and of particular concern are tigers," said Tito Joseph of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
India was home to about 40,000 tigers a century ago, but decades of poaching and depletion of their natural habitat have slashed their numbers to 3,700.