About a kilometre north of Manada village, in Odisha’s Jashipur town, lies a row of huts. The black plastic sheets on their roofs that kept out the rains last year have weathered. Inside a thatched shed, draped in a white cotton sari with broad pink checks, 60-year-old Basanti Murmu is seated on a cot. The frail woman’s gaze is fixed on a group of people building houses a few feet away. Lal Bahadur Murmu, Basanti’s youngest son, parks his bicycle near one of the houses. Once completed, the one-room house will shelter his family of five. But for his mother, home will always be elsewhere.
Until a year-and-a-half ago, Basanti’s home was in Kabataghai village, in Mayurbhanj district, 60 km south of Jashipur. Nearly 40 families, including that of Basanti, had lived for generations in the dense jungles of the Similipal Tiger Reserve’s core zone. Members of the Santhal tribe, they depended on the forest for their shelter, food, medicines, work, joy and warmth.
In January 2016, Odisha’s forest department forced the families to leave, undermining their right over the land and forest. Although claims of forced relocations from various tiger reserves have surfaced regularly over the years, a recent order from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has heightened the tensions. Issued in April, the order halts the recognition of the land and forest rights of communities living in the core areas of tiger reserves. This flies in the face of the 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA), which requires the government to first recognise the rights of indigenous people living in forest areas by giving them land titles before embarking on any relocation plans.
Land Conflict Watch, an independent data journalism project, has so far documented 19 cases of violation of forest rights in protected areas. In all, close to one lakh indigenous and forest-dwelling people have been affected. “Forest departments across India have been relocating people, disregarding the laws. Their rights must be recognised,” said Sharachchandra Lele, FRA scholar and a senior fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment in Bengaluru.
Lele’s words mean little to Basanti. What use are rights if they are not respected, her experience tells her. When the Indian government launched Project Tiger in 1973, a main objective was the creation of “inviolate” spaces for wildlife in protected areas. That entailed relocating the people living there. Millions of indigenous people and other forest-dwelling communities did not have any documents that recognised their right over the forestlands that had sheltered and sustained them for generations. The guarantees that favoured tribal people under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 proved ineffective on the ground.
In Kabataghai, Odisha’s forest department asked the locals to relocate in the ’90s. Basanti’s family and others resisted the move. Later, in 2006, parliament passed the Forest Rights Act. Members of Basanti’s community applied for land titles in 2011, but the forest department did not process them. Lal Bahadur remembers the officials telling them that the land papers cannot be given to people living in the core areas of tiger reserves; the community would have no choice but to relocate.
Meanwhile, a central government committee overseeing the implementation of FRA visited Kabataghai. The committee wrote to the government that the Act recognises the right of indigenous people over every kind of forest, be it tiger reserve, national park or wildlife sanctuary. That forced the Odisha government to legalise the rights of the locals over 24,000 hectares of forest land, including Kabataghai in Similipal forest, in 2015. This allowed the forest-dwellers to freely cultivate their land, and collect and sell forest produce like honey, tendu and kendu leaves, as also take decisions to manage their forest — namely, their home.
That freedom, however, did not last long. Barely a few months later, State forest officials arrived with carrots-and-sticks to persuade the communities to leave the jungle. Lal Bahadur says each adult male in every family was promised ₹10 lakh, an acre of cultivable land, a house, electricity and access to a school and hospital, as a bonanza for relocating. After being granted land titles, Lal Bahadur and others in Kabataghai applied to the local government office for benefits like old-age pension, work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), and housing under a State scheme, but they were stonewalled.
Forest officials even took away the poles and solar panels that Kabataghai had received for solar street lights, under a government scheme. Once, when the villagers wanted a bore well dug, forest officials prevented the workers from entering the reserve.
Forced evictions are a routine affair. Last year, two people died in the violence that ensued during an eviction drive led by the forest department from the border of the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve in Assam. At the nearby Manas National Park, hamlets of tribals were destroyed. In Chhattisgarh, forest officials allegedly destroyed the harvest-ready crops of the tribals living inside the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve.
“The pressure was too much to handle, so we agreed to relocate,” said Lal Bahadur. JD Pati, deputy director of Simlipal Tiger Reserve, however, paints a different picture. “All the families relocated voluntarily. They were unable to receive even the basic facilities there, which could have been their motivation for moving out of the forest,” he said.
Under the FRA, the government is required to identify ‘critical wildlife habitats’ through an ongoing consultative process. It asks for scientific studies to show that people and animals cannot co-exist in those habitats, and that is why relocation is needed. However, the guidelines for these studies have still not been prepared by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, even after a decade-long wait. In their absence, the forest departments follow the NTCA’s guidelines, which prescribe relocating all families from the core areas of all tiger reserves for a standard compensation package.
“I do believe that creating inviolate areas can help certain wildlife species. But, these inviolate areas — both under the WLPA or the FRA — need to be created in a manner that is not only guided by science, but also mindful of the livelihood and rights of local communities, especially adivasis, and harmonises the spirit of both these laws,” says MD Madhusudan , scientist with the Nature Con- servation Foundation, Mysore. “It would be quite a travesty if these executive delays in developing CWH guidelines are made the excuse for undermining our parliament’s clear mandate to bring more knowledge and democracy into India’s wildlife conservation.”
At the construction site near Manada village, the cement on the roofing has been levelled. The families are building these houses using the money they got under a government scheme. An adult male in every family has received ₹10 lakh in his bank account and this can be withdrawn only after three years. Meanwhile, life is harder and uncertain in a new place, the residents says.
The daily wage of about ₹100 that Lal Bahadur and the others get under NREGS for the construction work will stop as soon as the houses are built. With barely any construction or development activity in the region, the families might have to travel far for work. After they relocated, they were barred from collecting forest produce for a livelihood. “According to NTCA rules, the people have to relinquish their forest rights if they relocate,” Pati said.
Lele stresses on the need for “informed consent”, especially given FRA’s due diligence — identification of critical wildlife habitats, scientifically ascertaining the damage caused by people to wildlife, and the village council agreeing to the compensation package, none of which however happened. Other than the grant of ₹10 lakh, promises such as an acre for cultivation have not been met. In Kabataghai, Basanti’s family had about four acres, on which they grew rice, mustard and maize.
Some families also raised cattle. “We had sheep, which brought additional income,” said Arjun Murmu, who is among those who relocated. “Most of us had to sell our sheep because there is no space to keep them here. We are left with nothing.”
A senior official of the Odisha government, who spoke on condition of anonymity, points to the NTCA letter to argue that the forest rights of the communities living inside protected areas should not be recognised. And if such communities have already received land papers, those should be withdrawn. “We have released this order using sections mentioned in the Wildlife Protection Act,” said another senior officer, again requesting anonymity. Even the FRA mentions that the Act shall be in addition to other Acts and not supersede them, he added.
According to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, 4.1 million applications for land titles were received from forest communities across the country. Of these, more than 40 per cent have been granted. Basanti’s entire community of 43 families also falls under this 40 per cent. Their rights are unaccounted for.
As Lal Bahadur and the other adults in his community are busy building the houses, some children play with bamboo logs near the shed in which Basanti sits. One of them runs to hide behind the lone tree in this relocation site. Back in the forest, their playground was peopled by hundreds of trees, large and small, thick and thin.
“We used to be the owners in the forest, they turned us into servants,” Basanti said.
Bhasker Tripathiis an environment journalist with the Delhi-based Land Conflict Watch