Not really. Over the last three years, notified tiger forests have seen a 22 per cent increase. But lack of adequate, prescribed compensation for the tribals living in these areas has only turned these forests into conflict zones…

Jairam Ramesh, the indefatigable Minister for Environment and Forests, exhorted the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister on July 15, 2010 to ‘consider the possibility of proposing the Sathyamangalam Wild Life Sanctuary as a Tiger Reserve, vis-à-vis the provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972' as ‘ the area is contiguous with the forests of Chamrajnagar-Bandipur-Mudumalai'. This came on cue and with clockwork precision after it was reported early this year that the tiger numbers had doubled to 18 in a year. The ground was prepared when a good 36 per cent of the 1455.31 sq km of Sathyamangalam in Guthiyalathur and Talamalai Forests, an area of 524.35 sq km, was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 2008 itself.

Connecting corridor

The Sathyamangalam forest division is contiguous to the Biligirirangan Temple Wildlife Sanctuary in the neighbouring Chamarajanagar District of Karnataka. This forest links the Eastern and Western Ghats. It connects to the 321 sq km Mudumalai, the 872.24 sq km Bandipur and the 643.35 sq km Nagarhole Critical Tiger Habitats (CTHs). All that remains now is the 344  sq km Wayanad Wild Life Sanctuary. Together, this will constitute the biggest tiger and elephant habitat in the country! Already, the proposal to notify 580 sq km of the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary as a CTH has been approved close on the heels of the approvals in Sunabeda in Orissa, Shahyadri in Maharashtra, Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh and Ratapani in Madhya Pradesh.

The 25,551 sq km of tiger forests in 2007 rapidly expanded to 32,878 sq km, a whopping 22 per cent increase in just three years! The number of Tiger Reserves jumped from 28 to 39, spread over 17 states. Already the buffer zone spans a vast 11,029.0781 sq km in just 13 CTHs. There are 26 more yet to figure out the buffer zone. Those who had all along coexisted with tigers are to be pushed out from the CTH. The 2006 amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act requires the CTH to be ‘inviolate', freed of all human activity. Once depopulated, the tiger habitats are to be the secured enclosures for the exclusive delight of the prosperous class for whose ‘development' and ‘growth' the forests and its wildlife are primarily decimated.

Jairam Ramesh in his press statement of May 4, 2010 was categorical: ‘there is no such proposal' to ban tourism in tiger reserves. In fact, he assures us that ‘tourism is essential' for the tiger conservation though ‘tourism in the 39 Project Tiger Reserves, particularly in core areas, will be strictly regulated'. Wildlife officials collaborating with the tourism industry and the self-proclaimed wild-lifers, who normally never cohabit with tigers, will take total control of these ‘inviolate' areas. A new tiger-forest dependent community for their livelihood is created in and around this free of all human activity CTH! You might say it is an oxymoron; it surely is!

On the fast track

Tigers spell money and lots of them. From a mere Rs. 12 crores per year during 1972 to 2004, the Project Tiger budget leapfrogged to Rs. 201.53 crores during 2009-10. Project Tiger got fast-tracked and is showcased as a national obsession and pride.

It all started in early 2005 when the tigers in Sariska of Rajasthan turned out to be just paper tigers, a ploy to extract funds. The tigers had all vanished. By then Rs. 2 crores had already been spent per tiger. The outraged nation, at least the influential urbanites, took the government to task. The result was ‘Joining the Dots' on what ails our tiger reserves, the 2005 Report of the five-member Tiger Task Force. It found that the current approach of guns, guards and fences is simply not the answer. The forest and wildlife bureaucracy relationship with those who coexist with and share the tiger's habitat had turned from bad to worse; less than 10 per cent of the families in tiger reserves were relocated in 30 years. The simmering anger was a sure recipe for disaster for both conservation and wildlife.

The Manmohan Singh government quickly moved in within months of the damning Report, quite unusual though, with an amendment to the rather colonial and archaic anti-people Wildlife Protection Act. This amendment of 2006 created the National Tiger Conservation Authority. Tiger Reserves, until then an administrative category of Project Tiger, became a statutory one. The Left parties in the Parliament introduced the much-needed democratic procedure for determining CTHs. This itself was an outcome of the raging misplaced tribal versus tiger debate that followed the introduction of Forest Rights Act in the Parliament in 2005. The rapidly swelling tide of discontent in the forest areas forced the political parties and the governments to sit up and concede that a ‘historic injustice' had been perpetrated on forest peoples. They agreed to resolve this once and for all. The Forest Rights Act of 2006, a much-delayed decolonisation of forest legislations, was the outcome. It influenced the amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act in 2006.

Everything seemed to be going swell; the number of tigers was increasing, and the forest dwellers were happy that finally their traditional rights in the forest were recognised and that they were central to the conservation strategy. But upsetting this flagship political project of tribal and tiger of the UPA government, the forest bureaucracy and the newly constituted National Tiger Conservation Authority went about systematically subverting the process. Old habits die hard it seems!

Bypassing the law

The law requires that CTHs are notified through a public consultation, with scientific evidence and opinion of experts, the consent of forest dwellers in the area, and an agreed-upon relocation package. This was to prevent arbitrary declarations of areas as “critical tiger habitats” and “buffer zones”. The forest bureaucracy and the state governments instead by-passed all these and notified CTHs, mostly in December 2007 itself. The implementation of the Forest Rights Act itself has been tardy in all the three southern states with none getting any title as yet in Tamil Nadu.

Unrest spread throughout Mudumalai with protests, bandhs and blockades peaking in December 2009, when over half a lakh tribals protested on the streets of Gudalur in Nilgiris. The Soligas of Biligirirangan Temple Wildlife Sanctuary have vowed to oppose the CTH declaration. Wayanad has long history of Adivasi struggles for land rights. Nagarhole has seen protests against eviction and non-compliance with the Forest Rights Act. Will Sathyamangalam too join in this spreading unrest? The largest tiger habitat has been successfully turned into a conflict zone by the state and forest bureaucracy endangering both the tribals and the tigers.