Tiger balm

Published: Thursday 31 January 2008

in the 'Tribal Vs Tiger' wrestling match, the first round has gone to the tiger. May its tribe increase. Activists lobbying for tribal and non-tribal forest dwellers rights had agreed that inviolate space in forest for wildlife would be mapped scientifically before the act was to be notified. This was a demand that had been made by the wildlife lobby, rightly led by the top predator, the tiger lobby. They feared the implementation of the forest rights act before marking essential wildlife territory might help forest dwellers settle in wildlife space, armed with rights. Introduction of 'critical wildlife habitat', a new wildlife term, and the anticipation of a long process to identify it probably made forest rights activists think it wouldn't get done. But there was political compulsion. So, a 'critical tiger habitat' was notified fast, in place of 'critical wildlife habitat'.

Critical tiger habitats, as notified by the government, has virtually made it impossible for any forest dweller to stay in a tiger reserve. It was originally envisaged that a part of the core area in tiger reserves would be cliamed as inviolate space. Though the core area in tiger reserves is around 17,000 sq km, foresters have come up with an area of more than 30,000 sq km as critical tiger habitat, which is almost equal to the total tiger habitat in India. Tribal rights activists may criticize the manner in which this habitat has been marked, but it doesn't really matter anymore. The critical habitat has legal sanction. What they have to realize is that this is just the opening of the door--to be followed by critical habitats for a host of other animals.

This result defeats the very purpose of the act: to provide tribals legal recognition of customary rights. That is why the original draft suggested that tribals be given provisional rights in the core area of protected area for five years and be relocated within that period. The new scenario has made forest dwellers vulnerable and subject to the usual process of relocation without a piece of paper to prove customary ownership.

This episode underlines the character of our polity, trapped in binary mode. One that rides roughshod over multivalence and nuance. It speaks of a society that does not engage in critical dialogue, in which institutions have failed and academia is passive. 'Politicking' is a national pastime and decisions are arrived through school debating skills. Tribals have lost. Let's hope tigers multiply with their new roaming facility.

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