The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) recently ordered that there would be no tribal rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) in critical tiger habitats. This direction is not only bad in law, but is also symptomatic of defective conservation practices that India has clung to since colonial times. It has added to actions that are trouncing environmental protection and hard-won rights under the FRA everyday.
Both the ‘Guidance document for preparation of tiger conservation plan’ and the ‘Protocol/guidelines for voluntary village relocation in notified core/critical tiger habitats of tiger reserves’ issued by the Environment Ministry acknowledge that although there is a need to keep forest reserves as inviolate for the purposes of tiger conservation, this ought to be done without affecting the rights of traditional forest dwellers. The NTCA and the relevant expert committee constituted to ensure tiger conservation under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 (WPA) have a mandate to ensure conservation along with human coexistence. Compromises on the rights of tribals can be made only where there is proof that the tribal/right holder’s presence in these protected areas will create irreversible damage to their ecology. While on paper the process adopted or recommended for creation and maintenance of critical tiger habitats appears fairly just, in effect its functioning is arbitrary.
Neither the FRA nor the WPA has ever made a case for circumscribing the rights of tribals in the name of environmental protection. Yet this takes place as the practice of conservation is predicated on exclusionary logic. Even in the face of significant evidence that tribals have helped in increasing the tiger population, whether the Soligas in the BRT Tiger reserve in Karnataka or the Baigas in the Kanha National Park in M.P. (in photo), they have been periodically evicted, even as corporations and developmental projects are given a free hand to generate an environmental crisis on an unprecedented scale.
Recently, a place of worship for Huligemma, one of the indigenous deities of tribals in Bandipura, was ‘renovated’. The earlier modest shack, occupying little space, was replaced by a temple that was nearly three times its size. This will not only obstruct the passage of animals to waterholes but also allow expansion of commerce. Even as questions are being raised about the breach of law in allowing the structures to exist, the government has feigned ignorance. This reveals the hypocrisy embedded in environmental governance where the strictness of law is manifest only in excluding people whose presence has nearly negligible impact on environmental security.
According to the Global Environmental Justice Atlas data of 2016, India registered the highest number of environment-related conflicts (222) in proportion to the population. It is thus necessary for civil society and peoples’ collectives to forge an alliance to prevent dissociating indigenous communities from the environmental conservation narrative. Strengthening the FRA and eliminating instances that marginalise people in the name of conservation will require greater policy attention.
Sakshi is a Research Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi. Views are personal