Pawns in the great forest game

In the context of Project Tiger — India’s flagship programme to conserve the tiger (and other wildlife) — that was initiated by Indira Gandhi in 1973, many observers have noted that the country is now home to approximately two-thirds of the tigers in the world. Simultaneously, given that painful memories of the extirpation of tigers from the Sariska sanctuary remain fresh in our minds, many have sounded a note of caution and said it is too early to rest on our laurels, and that a lot more effort is required before we can declare tiger populations to be hardy over the long term in India. These efforts usually mean increasing vigilance against poaching of tigers and their prey, expanding existing tiger reserves, notifying new tiger reserves, and the likely relocation of people out of forests as a consequence of expansion of forests under state protection.

However, there is an opposing group of public intellectuals that considers social justice to be of paramount importance in India. To these people, the tiger remains an animal that is so much in one’s face that it blocks out the view of the forest. In their estimation, forests are as much cultural and social places as they are a habitat for wildlife. Forests are home to one in eight Indians, and tiger conservation has come at a terrible human cost, they are prone to exclaim, recounting several instances of injustice where tribals have been forced out of forests, uprooted from their social and cultural context, deprived of education, development and livelihoods, plunged into poverty, and remained either unwilling or unable to integrate into the mainstream. That conservation of the tiger and other wildlife should not be at the cost of the fundamental rights of our citizenry is a common refrain.

Short-changed by governments

Casual observers of the debate between conservationists and flag-bearers of social justice might be tempted to tune out this cacophony of voices and emotionally pick a side. But what if this cacophony is, in fact, a concert in counterpoint, or an aggressive jugalbandi, with our government firmly wielding the conductor’s baton or playing the harmonium (thereby setting the tone), depending on what music you like to listen to?

In the last two decades or so, elected governments in India have sanctioned the cutting down of forests to build highways, flattened forests for coal and other minerals, and drowned out forests for dams, significantly devastating wildlife and forest dwellers alike. These sanctions are accompanied by statements of reassurance that it is possible to balance economic development with ecological and social concerns. Notwithstanding these platitudes, both conservationists and social justice activists feel short-changed by a government set on accelerating swiftly towards the edge of ecological destruction.

The last decade has also seen monumental efforts to assure legal rights to bona fide forest dwellers through the passing of the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The FRA recognises historical injustice meted out to forest dwellers, and seeks to undo this travesty by granting land and management rights in forests where they live. Side by side, the strengthening of the Panchayati Raj (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, or PESA, ensures that any developmental activity that destroys forests must have the prior approval and consent of gram sabhas. Both the FRA and PESA have been met with severe opposition from conservationists and the forest department largely because of mistrust, fears of misuse, and fear of the dilution of existing powers. However, the government, with a deft swirl of the baton, has ensured that crony capitalists are not to be bothered by such things as the law of the land. This has come at the heavy cost of wildlife, people, and forests.

Twist in the tale

The great game playing out in the forests of our country continues. A few days ago, the Rajya Sabha passed the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, thereby paving the way for disbursement of funds from to individual States’ forest departments. This fund, established in 2009, is the repository of monies levied upon any entity (government or private) as the charge for destroying forests based on their net present value. This funds balance now stands at Rs.42,000 crore. In a rare show of bipartisanship, or simply callousness, depending on one’s point of view, the Bill passed because a key condition that gram sabha consultation is required for fund utilisation was removed at the last moment. This move is likely to rankle both conservationists and tribal rights activists alike, since it puts too much money (and power) in the hands of the forest department, and because it bypasses democratic institutions like the gram sabha.

The tiger, forests, and forest dwellers will remain pawns in this great game. It remains to be seen if conservationists and social justice activists can reconcile their differences to collaboratively call out the conductor before it is curtains.

Bharath Sundaram is an Assistant Professor in the School of Development, Azim Premji University. He is interested in environment-society relationships and political ecology.

The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill puts too much money (and power) in the hands of the forest department

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