Tiger reserved: Fiftieth anniversary of Project Tiger means little to forest-dwelling communities

The fact is that despite amendments, our policies still follow the fortress conservation approach where the strategy is to “exclude and protect”

By Akshay Chettri
Published: Friday 19 May 2023

Illustration: Yogendra AnandIndia is celebrating a milestone in its conservation journey with the completion of 50 years of Project Tiger—a flagship conservation programme for the country’s flagship species.

To mark the occasion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bandipur tiger reserve in Karnataka on April 9 and released the latest tiger census data that highlights a successful conservation story:

India now has 3,167 tigers and 53 tiger reserves, spread over 75,796 sq km or 2.3 per cent of the country’s geographic area.

Only 1,827 tigers were left in the wild when Project Tiger was introduced on April 1, 1973, by then prime minister Indira Gandhi.

The project thus began by notifying eight national parks and wildlife sanctuaries as tiger reserves.

Tiger numbers reached 3,700 in 2002, but then hit an all-time low of 1,411 in 2006, with Sariska tiger reserve in Rajasthan reporting a wipeout of the animal.

That year, the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 (WLPA), was amended to offer legal protection to tiger reserves and to allow the establishment of National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), a statutory body to oversee tiger conservation efforts.

The number of tigers and tiger reserves have steadily increased since then.

But this success has come at the cost of communities who have traditionally lived in and around these tiger reserves.

The fact is that despite amendments, our policies still follow the fortress conservation approach where the strategy is to “exclude and protect”.

As per WLPA, tiger reserves are overlaid in protected areas. This means existing protected areas such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, suitable for the viability of tiger population, are notified as core areas or critical tiger habitat (CTH); the forests peripheral to CTH are notified as buffer areas, which act as a transition between CTH and non-tiger reserves.

The definition of CTH states that such areas are to be kept inviolate, which has been translated to mean that it has to be kept free from humans, leaving relocation of the villages as the only option. While the law stipulates informed consent of the Gram Sabha before relocation, this provision has seldom been followed.

Data with the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change shows that since 1972, of the 751 villages in the CTH identified for relocation, 177 have been relocated and several others are proposed for immediate relocation.

It is important to note that the data does not include relocation of unsurveyed villages, those evicted from tiger reserves or villages and families displaced from non-tiger reserve protected areas.

Even in some villages identified for relocation, communities are disgruntled and are opposing the shift. The NTCA guidelines of 2012 state that every family to be relocated is entitled to a minimum compensation of Rs 10 lakh, either through monetary relief or a combination of land, housing and other facilities.

The amount was increased to Rs 15 lakh in April 2021. The Act and guidelines lay down certain procedures to be followed before the relocation process. However, the promises remain unfulfilled in most cases.

A study of 26 protected areas by Kalpavriksh, a non-profit, and The Environmental Justice Atlas, an online research portal, blames such poorly executed relocation to institutional apathy towards forest-dwelling communities.

In most cases, it was seen that the relocation procedure had not been followed, leaving the communities in a worse-off situation than they were earlier.

This is the reason that Jenu Kurubas, a traditional honey gathering community, have been protesting against their evictions from Nagarahole tiger reserve in Karnataka by the state forest department.

In Melghat tiger reserve in Maharashtra, families in 2019 demanded that their land be given back to them. In Corbett tiger reserve, 157 Van Gujjar families were rehabilitated in 2013 with only 12 bigha (1.58 ha) with no assistance from the forest department to build houses.

The relocation of Van Gujjars from Sonanadi wildlife sanctuary, which forms part of the CTH of Corbett, is not displayed in the official data of voluntary relocation from tiger reserves.

In Achanakmar tiger reserve in Chhattisgarh, poor conditions in the relocation site led to the death of one individual in 2009. As many as seven villages in Bhoramdeo wildlife sanctuary in Chhattisgarh were uprooted for a tiger reserve, which was never created.

The post-relocation status of communities also paints a grim picture. According to a 2019 report of the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), constituted by the Supreme Court in the case of T N Godavarman Thirumulpad versus Union of India, 122 of the 177 relocated villages have been resettled on forest land.

But the legal status of the forest land to revenue land was changed only in 42 villages. This means families in remaining 80 villages, where the land status has not been de-notified after relocation, are not able to access government welfare schemes.

Based on the CEC report, the apex court on January 28, 2019, ordered that the land status for all 122 villages be de-notified and that the provision be applied in case of future relocations.

Where attempts have been made towards inclusivity, the response of the state towards the strengthening of such processes has not been convincing.

In 2006, when WLPA was amended, the Union government also enacted the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, which allows for recognition of rights of forest dwelling communities in all forest lands, including protected areas.

However, it appears WLPA has failed to include the recognition of rights process. Moreover, there have been attempts to undermine implementation of the Forest Rights Act.

In 2017, NTCA published a circular stating that the Forest Rights Act cannot be conferred on CTH in the absence of guidelines for the same. The circular, though, was superseded in 2018 by another circular that said the process under the Forest Rights Act be followed while settling rights in CTH.

Yet the process of recognition of communities’ rights in tiger reserves has been slower compared to other protected areas and non-protected forests.

So far, forest rights have been conferred to communities only in a handful of tiger reserves, including Odisha’s Similipal tiger reserve, Karnataka’s Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple tiger reserve and Chhattisgarh’s Achanakmar tiger reserve.

Even here, the state governments have not incorporated the management plans formulated by these communities in the overall tiger conservation plans. This is against India’s commitment for an inclusive approach to conservation under the global biodiversity framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

For long-term sustenance of tiger populations and habitats, conservation efforts need to go beyond the protected area-model and follow a landscape approach through inclusion of communities in decision — making and management processes.

The latest tiger census also points out that many tiger reserves are approaching the threshold limit to hold more tigers while a few, especially in the north-eastern belt, are facing paucity of tiger population.

Additionally, developmental activities have led to fragmentation of corridors. The crores of rupees being spent to relocate villages need to be utilised to secure connectivity of corridors by promoting coexistence and harmony between communities and wildlife.

The cultural and traditional practices of communities that promote human-wildlife coexistence need to be incorporated within existing management structures.

Akshay Chettri is a member of Kalpavriksh—Environmental Action Group, Pune. Views in the article are personal

This was first published in the 1-15 May, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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