Tribals vs tiger conservation

It need not be an either-or option


Janaki Lenin | February 25, 2011

The media leaves little doubt about the dire straits that we find the tiger in today. Millions of dollars are raised at home and abroad to secure the future of this magnificent beast. But the people who are paying dearly for the conservation of the charismatic big cat are the unglamorous local people who have had to quietly forsake their homes and traditional livelihoods to make way for the tiger. Here is an example of what’s happening across tiger reserves in the country.

In November 2010, the Soliga tribals of the Biligiri Rangaswamy temple sanctuary wrote a bitter letter to Jairam Ramesh, the minister for environment and forests, asking to be poisoned first before turning the sanctuary into a tiger reserve. The adivasis are not opposed to tigers, nor do they begrudge the enormous financial allocations being made every year for wildlife while their own lot remains depressingly the same. The real core of their anxiety is the 370 sq km that is destined to be declared a ‘critical tiger habitat’ under the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA). Should this happen, about 1,000 tribal households belonging to 18 hamlets have to be relocated to create an exclusive zone for tigers. It is worth noting that over the last few years, the number of tigers in the sanctuary has increased even with the presence of these people and it is therefore debatable if such a radical move is necessary for tiger conservation. Be that as it may, at the very least, the tribals have to get a fair deal as is mandated by law.

Section 38-V (5) of the Wildlife Act says that before the notification of a critical tiger habitat, the rights of local forest dwellers have to be honoured, the possibility of coexistence ruled out, their impact on wildlife assessed, and if irreversible, only then shunt people out with the approval of the gram sabha (a village assembly that includes all the adults). Further, they need to be provided a package to resettle in a place that has all the basic amenities. A fair law. On paper!

In reality, there is a gaping fracture between words and action. Had the Soliga adivasis been taken into confidence from the beginning, when the proposal to make their forest a tiger reserve was being drafted, it’s unlikely they would have taken such an antagonistic stand. In this vitiated atmosphere, it’s doubtful if their gram sabhas will provide “free informed” consent to their own transfer of residence, one of the prerequisites for declaring an exclusive tiger haven. But resistance hasn’t deterred eviction of forest dwellers from other tiger reserves. When a range of basic amenities are lacking and hopes of making ends meet recede in the distance, their defiance eventually breaks down. Often, this is how “free informed” consent is obtained.

In addition to critical tiger habitat, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, 2006, popularly referred to as the Forest Rights Act (FRA), mandates declaration of critical wildlife habitats under Section 4(2) which stipulates the same actions as WPA.

The twin towers of critical habitats – the Wildlife Act and Forest Rights Act – mention fuzzy concepts such as, ‘irreversible damage’, ‘coexistence’ and the more problematic ‘inviolate’ without defining them. In 2007, a consortium of public service-minded organisations and institutions took it upon themselves to not only elaborate on these terms but also set out the criteria and protocols for declaration of these exclusive habitats. To this day, the advice stands ignored.

Even within the 20-member joint ministry of environment and forests-ministry of tribal affairs committee, set up to investigate the implementation of the FRA, two contradictory views prevailed. One said ‘inviolate’ does not mean free of humans and that pursuit of activities not inimical to conservation could be allowed, while the other maintained that ‘inviolate’ meant free of humans and their activities; the ministry of environment and forests appears to tacitly accept this latter, narrower definition.

The joint committee report also exposed a range of governance issues which stirred up a hornet’s nest. The director general of forests and the central unit of the Indian Forest Service officers association have cautioned that if the law is implemented as suggested by the report, it would lead to “a land scam of gargantuan proportions”, that local forest dwellers had no wherewithal to stand up to well-muscled external forces and emphasised that the integrity of the forest department officials ought not to be questioned. The successful fight by the Dongria Kondh tribals against one of the biggest corporations in the world over their sacred mountain, Niyamgiri, puts a lie to that belief. On the contrary, while the Karnataka State Forest Department has drawn up plans to move the Soligas out of the Biligiri Rangaswamy temple sanctuary, they confess helplessness in revoking the leases granted to large companies for 1,800 acres of commercial coffee plantations smack inside the sanctuary!

In order to aid the states in identifying and creating critical wildlife habitats, the ministry of environment and forests had issued guidelines in October 2007 and when no further progress was made, revised them on February 7, 2011.

Although the joint committee rued the fact that the states were setting deadlines for the settlement of rights of forest people, often with an eye on upcoming elections, in reality no such deadline is set by law. Yet, the ministry’s new guidelines demand that states identify exclusive wildlife zones within three months. It would also like to extend these people-free zones to adjoining areas of protected forests although the FRA makes no such allowance. If any of the people living in the neighbourhood have to be moved, it is not clear which law governs their rights.

The guidelines further urge that local people be consulted, but that doesn’t mean an open discussion of the proposal. Instead, the forest dwellers will be told what is in store for them. While the FRA elevates local people to full-fledged partners in wildlife and forest management, the ministry seeks to keep them under the thumb of the forest department.

To determine if people need to be shifted, two major criteria are outlined in the FRA – proof that local people are causing irreversible damage and are incapable of coexistence – but these make a mere guest appearance in Annexure 2 which deals with the financial outlay for rehabilitation of people. Why engage in the farce of determining if people have a negative impact on wildlife and if there was no scope for coexistence, when the decision to move people has already been made? The inescapable truth is that the guidelines are only concerned about identification and notification of the exclusive zones with the clear mandate to rid the area of people.

According to the FRA, the decision-making body is the gram sabha; the guidelines urge “even if only a few families” are willing to relocate, the proposal is to be submitted. One does wonder then how the mandatory consent of the gram sabha will be procured if only a few families agree. Divide and rule?

Were these guidelines an attempt to restore powers to the forest department that had been taken away by the FRA? Was it a reaction to the devastating criticism by the joint committee? Has the FRA made any difference in forest governance and treatment of local people?

When protests hit the fan, the environment minister issued a press statement “clarifying” the guidelines that only succeeded in confounding the problem further. Contradicting the guidelines, he says that these special wildlife zones will be declared only inside protected forests, not a squeak about the area “around” them. So what is a park manager to follow: the guidelines or the minister’s communiqué?

The press statement then gets into a twist by suggesting that “consultations” meant “consent”. Consultation is a process of seeking opinion which could either lead to agreement or refusal. How could local people’s sentiments be taken for granted to assume that consultation was the same as assent?

In the meantime, the planning commission has slashed the budget for the National Tiger Conservation Authority by 25%, and it is likely that relocation of people from tiger reserves will be put on hold. This reprieve is the time to take stock of the next steps forward as there is no doubt that serious redressal is needed to bring policy in line with the laws. The promulgation of FRA promised a breath of fresh air: open and transparent decision-making. In its implementation, however, the heel of the forest department boot continues to squash the marginalised.

In this day and enlightened age, can we rightfully protect the tiger by impoverishing the people who have lived with it until now? Ironically, conservationists bemoan that the public is not more engaged with protecting wildlife and yet, they condone an undemocratic system that serves to turn any wildlife-tolerant tribal into an ardent opponent. Is it really so difficult to save the tiger without being unfair and callous to fellow human beings?



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