Abright future for conservation in India depends on providing improved protection for flora and fauna in different habitats. At the same time, the imperative is to safeguard the livelihoods of millions of people who traditionally rely on forests. In a major step towards reconciliation of these key goals, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has come up with a new draft implementation protocol for the determination and notification of Critical Wildlife Habitats (CWH). The guidelines in the protocol will help the MoEF meet its obligations under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA). What makes the protocol important is the due process it proposes to institute for resettling forest dwellers. Significantly, it provides for participation of gram sabhas, social scientists, and ecologists in the panel responsible for identifying critical habitat in a national park or sanctuary. This decision is consistent with the provisions of the FRA that require prior recognition and vesting of forest rights. The Act also requires the States to prove the likelihood of irreversible damage to species and habitat from the exercise of forest rights, and to demonstrate availability of a resettlement package. Finally, those who are to be resettled must give free and informed consent. The MoEF protocol will create a tangible, transparent legal framework to implement these provisions.
In the new draft of the protocol, the MoEF has done well to address the issues raised by conservation experts and social activists, primarily the need for better protection of forest communities. These concerns will now be handled by a National Steering Committee and State-level Expert Committees, giving all stakeholders a say in the process. What needs to be emphasised is that creation of Critical Wildlife Habitats is an achievable goal. For only a small part of the land is to be notified as off-limit to people. A flagship species such as the tiger can be expected to survive in only about one per cent of the country's land which is effectively protected. It is eminently feasible, therefore, to handsomely compensate forest dwellers who are ready to be resettled elsewhere. The Nagarahole tiger reserve in Karnataka convinced tribals that they would benefit from voluntary relocation, and they have. The package of land and incentives provided to them, including education opportunities, could serve as a model for other States. Finally, States need to gear up administratively, and the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs needs to develop its infrastructure rapidly, to implement the Forest Rights Act in a way that harmonises the goals of conservation and livelihood support.