Helping gram sabhas recognise their rights and discharge their conservation responsibilities will do more to ensure long-term wildlife security than forced relocations ever will.
On September 29, 2017, at the inauguration of Global Wildlife Plan, Harsh Vardhan, the Union environment minister claimed that “India is playing a leadership role in management of wildlife through involvement of local communities” and that “five crore people living around national parks and sanctuaries are working as partners in environment conservation”.
This statement contradicts the situation on the ground. Communities living in and around protected areas remain excluded. Their rights and dignity are continuously violated, their livelihoods disrupted. They are often relocated under coercion, with unsatisfactory facilities at the new site – or they’re simply evicted without any notice.
By November 2017, over 700 local families (mostly belonging to the Mising tribe) were evicted from their homes situated on the fringe of Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam, many beaten up. Forest officials escorted by over 3,000 personnel of the Assam Police used elephants and bulldozers to destroy their houses. All this despite a petition filed against their eviction, ordered by the Guwahati High Court in August 2017. These flood affected landless people were applicable for a rehabilitation package under the Assam Special Scheme for Rehabilitation of Erosion Affected Families but instead were left homeless, to struggle through cold winter nights without any notice, dialogue or compensation.
A similar scenario played out in Rajaji Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand, where 300 families were evicted; children, women, and elderly left by the side of the road. While the field director argued that these families had encroached upon the forest, the local people claimed that they were local inhabitants whose names were erroneously left out from the list of people to be relocated and compensated, prepared in 1998. A few kilometres away in Ramnagar block, within the buffer zone of Corbett National Park, the houses of van Gujjar families were destroyed without notice or explanation, and people beaten up by forest officials. Some of them continue to face harassment and face false cases while their common property rights are denied.
At the moment, dozens of adivasi and Dalit people sit on a dharna in Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary, Chhattisgarh, demanding action against a forest officer engaged in unprovoked violence against the local villagers. These families refused to move when the rest of their village was forcefully relocated, and have in the last few years had their employment opportunities eliminated, schools broken down, and access to development benefits denied.
Existing legal provisions
Similar brutalities impacting nearly three million tribal people in 2002 were triggered by a letter issued to the chief secretaries of all states by the environment ministry, directing them to evict all ‘encroachments’ in a time-bound manner. Subsequent local adivasi struggles and a national campaign by various adivasi networks and sangathanas led to the Parliament enacting the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 (FRA).
Among the various provisions related to land and forest rights, the denial of which has led to injustice faced by the scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers (OTFDs), section 4 of the FRA details the conditions under which relocation can take place from forest areas. It states:
… no forest rights holders shall be resettled or have their rights affected for the purposes of creating inviolate areas for wildlife conservation, except when it has been scientifically established that their activities or presence is causing irreversible damage and threatening the existence of wildlife and their habitat.
Also in 2006, the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA) was amended to include these guidelines, stating that relocation can take place only “after it has been established with the consent of the concerned communities that their presence and activities cause irreversible damage and threaten the existence of tigers and co-existence of these communities with tigers is not possible”.
Both laws make the following conditions mandatory for relocation:
1. It has been established scientifically that co-existence is not possible,
2. The process of recognition and determination of rights under FRA has been completed,
3. Free, prior, informed consent of the gram sabhas has been sought in writing
4. Relocation is voluntary and on mutually agreed terms and conditions, and
5. A resettlement package has been prepared to the satisfaction of the people being relocated.
The National Wildlife Action Plan 2017-2031 also asks for speedy recognition of forest rights of communities living inside tiger reserves. It also emphasises that long delays in the settlement of forest rights and payment of compensation have been “a major source of alienation of the local people from wildlife conservation”. It seeks to review past cases of relocation from protected areas and tiger reserves by 2019, stressing that relocations in the future should happen only if essential and if the people are willing.
These provisions are in keeping with India’s conservation commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity, which promotes “… full and effective participation of indigenous and local communities, and also their prior and informed consent to or approval of, and involvement in, the establishment, expansion, governance and management of PAs…”.
Forced by adivasi struggles but not always liked by hardline conservationists, these provisions indicate a shift in the way conservation is being envisioned in postcolonial India: based on coexistence rather than conflict; on respect for fundamental human rights and responsibilities; on justice in the distribution of conservation costs and benefits; and, most importantly, on undertaking relocation only in exceptional circumstances.
In 2017, Kalpavriksh (the NGO to which the authors are affiliated) conducted a survey in 30 protected areas – 22 tiger reserves and eight wildlife sanctuaries and national parks – to understand the extent to which the legal provisions were being implemented on ground.
The survey found few protected area where rights under the FRA had been fully and effectively recognised. In most cases, the people were not even aware of these rights; in some, only one out of 13 kinds of rights under the FRA – individual land rights – had been recognised suo moto, facilitated by the forest department but without following legal procedures, mainly to complete legal requirements for relocation. The Simlipal tiger reserve, Odisha, was one of the few of its kind that had recognised land and community forest rights.
However, the communities whose rights were recognised have subsequently been relocated. The Kharia, a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG), was relocated in December 2016 from Khejuri village in the buffer zone. “After having received the community forest rights, we got funds under MNREGA to build a road,” a local man from the village told the authors. “The forest department came and destroyed all the work, saying that this is a protected area and we are not allowed to stay any more.”
Relocation was found to be either ongoing or planned in at least 23 of the 30 protected areas. In most cases, FRA and WLPA provisions were not being followed. In no protected area – barring pockets around Simlipal – were there any efforts towards coexistence by the forest department. No records were found of any scientific studies to prove that coexistence was impossible, nor had local communities been consulted.
People from Amchang, Kaziranga, Rajaji and Manas were found to have been evicted from lands they owned or to which they were claimants under the FRA without rehabilitation or compensation. In response, the forest department maintained that there had been no evictions and that all relocations had been ‘voluntary’. Debabrata Swain, additional director general of the National Tiger conservation Authority (NTCA), told Reuters, “We are only relocating those people from core tiger habitats who are willing to move; there are no evictions.”
In reality, such ‘voluntary’ relocations were often found to be forced. In Achanakmarg, Nagarhole, Simlipal, Barnawapara, Chondaka and Debrigarh, people reported that police cases had been filed against them; that they had been physically threatened and denied access to basic health and education facilities and livelihood. The process of seeking gram sabha consent was also found to be fraught with irregularities and often deceit.
In protected areas like Rajaji and Kailadevi, people reported inconsistencies in the lists of families to be relocated and compensated. Some families were not recorded, particularly those headed by women. Some lists had also been made long before the date of relocation, thus excluding the names of those who became adults in the interim. In many protected areas, such as Simlipal, Satkosia and Achanakmarg, the facilities at the relocation site were found to be unsatisfactory and sometimes nonexistent.
On March 28, 2017, the NTCA overstepped its jurisdiction and issued a since-criticised letter-cum-order stating “no recognition of rights” be granted in tiger reserves until guidelines for the notification of critical wildlife habitats (CWH) were issued. This completely halted the already limited implementation of the FRA in tiger reserves. In Tadoba, the community forest rights claims of about seven villages had been accepted and were about to be distributed by the collector when the NTCA order came. Understandably disturbed villagers saw this as a conspiracy to sustain corporate tourism supported by the forest department.
On January 4, 2018 the environment ministry issued a set of guidelines for declaring CWHs under section 2 (b) of the FRA. There are widespread fears that this will only increase atrocities unless accountable monitoring systems are installed to ensure existing legal provisions are followed in letter and spirit. These fears emanate from the manner in which ‘inviolate’ has been used in the context of CWH i.e. to mean “absolutely free of human presence”.
The Silent Ministry of Tribal Affairs
It’s surprising that the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), the nodal agency for implementing the FRA has been ineffective in addressing these violations of the rights of STs, OTFDs and PVTGs. Instead of demanding that the NTCA order be withdrawn, the MoTA simply issued a letter to the environment ministry on May 29, 2017, stating that it considers the NTCA order a “temporary measure”. On January 2, 2018, the National Commission on Scheduled Tribes (NCST) called for a meeting to discuss the NTCA order. The minutes of the meeting suggest that even for the NCST, these fundamental violations constitute an issue of “inadequate compensation” to be addressed by doubling the compensation package. Neither the MoTA nor the NTCA have questioned the rationale for relocations, their forced nature, the lack of recognition of rights under the FRA and the absence of coexistence strategies.
The bases of relocation from protected areas and the eviction-based model of conservation need to be reviewed immediately. Otherwise, there are likely to be serious long-term consequences for wildlife conservation itself.
The MoTA and MoEF need to ensure that:
- The NTCA order is withdrawn,
- All illegal relocations and evictions from protected areas are stopped immediately, and
- No relocation is carried out till a participatory review of past relocations and evictions is done and an effective, inclusive monitoring system is installed to ensure that all legal requirements are followed
For situations where relocation may be necessary and has been agreed upon without coercion, the relocation package must be revised based on the ‘Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2013’, and officials must ensure all recognised community forest rights are reinstated at the new location without affecting the rights and with the consent of existing rights holders. The cash compensation must also be in addition to and not in lieu of any individual and community land and forest rights.
Most importantly, in accordance with the FRA and the WLPA, steps need to be taken to build and strengthen the coexistence of human and wildlife communities in all forest landscapes, including protected areas. The first step in this agenda would be to recognise all forest rights per the FRA and use section 5 (empowering gram sabhas to protect wildlife, forest, biodiversity and their own habitats from any destructive practices affecting their cultural and natural heritage).
FRA rules 4 (1) e and f also direct gram sabhas to form a committee to fulfil the above mandate and work out conservation and management strategies for their forest rights. These plans should be incorporated into the forest department’s overall plan, including in protected areas. Helping gram sabhas recognise their rights and discharge their conservation responsibilities will do more to ensure long-term wildlife security than relocations and evictions ever will.
First published by The Wire