Relocate sensibly

It has never been based on any scientific forest-specific study

By Shankar Gopalakrishnan
Published: Tuesday 31 August 2010

imageThe creation of inviolate areas in protected forests has been a key concern of conservation for decades. It assumes the only way to conserve "critical" areas is to relocate people who live in these forests. In theory, such people are moved and provided higher living standards while the inviolate area remains pristine.

Numerous studies—most prominently the Tiger Task Force report of 2005—have brought out the failure of this model. Relocation has mostly resulted in impoverishment and injustice. Relocation has also been used as a threat and has become an excuse to deny forest dwellers basic rights. Relocation efforts have practically never been based on scientific evidence of the dwellers' impact on wildlife; forest authorities have damarcated "core areas" arbitrarily, hardly ever considering alternatives to relocation.

Following prolonged struggles for forest rights, this policy was finally changed in 2006, when two pieces of legislation—the Forest Rights Act and the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment—laid down conditions required to be fulfilled prior to relocation. These were nothing radical: the concerned critical habitats should be demarcated through a process of public consultations, there should be site-specific scientific evidence that relocation is required, and consent of those being relocated must be taken after their forest rights have been recognised and recorded. Finally, relocation must provide a secure livelihood. All these points were already present either in policy documents or in positions taken up by conservation organisations.

Yet relocation is proceeding in tiger reserves in total violation of the law. No scientific study has been put on record; people's rights have not been recorded; a secure livelihood has never been provided. Unsurprisingly, relocation has led to atrocities. In Achanakmar Tiger Reserve, a Baiga adivasi died of malnutrition and disease at a relocation site where not even shelter, leave alone food or medical care, was provided. In Simlipal Tiger Reserve, an adivasi died of heatstroke in the tinsheds provided as "resettlement".

Relocation efforts by and large ignore the law entirely. In other cases, the illegal process is covered up by claiming people want to move out; the relocating agency merely helps them do so. As for forest rights, people don't want them, and sometimes have signed statements to this effect.

At first sight the latter position appears valid. But there are two problems. The more fundamental is reality of life in protected areas, where harassment, brutality and even killings are commonplace—for instance, in 2009 alone, wildlife authorities killed two adivasis and critically injured four in Buxar. Many then wish to move out. To partially address this, the law now requires recognition (and hence respect) for people's forest rights prior to relocation.

But, say many, there will still be some who wish to move. In that case, there is only one approach can be permitted by law: any community can move anywhere and resettlement can be offered to anyone, but they must be allowed to (and in fact should be assisted to) return to their original homes and livelihoods if they wish. Section 4(2) of the Forest Rights Act and section 38V(5) of the Wild Life (Protection) Act are very clear: rights cannot be modified for relocation except under the specified conditions, and the Wild Life Act extends these conditions to "voluntary relocation."

The writer is with Campaign for Survival & Dignity that advocates forest rights

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