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Criminalising Forest-Dwellers Has Not Helped India’s Forests or Wildlife. It’s Time for a New Deal.

Criminalising Forest-Dwellers Has Not Helped India’s Forests or Wildlife. It’s Time for a New Deal.

Instead of evicting forest-dwelling communities for engaging in traditional activities in protected areas and reserved forests, the government should use them for co-management.

Representative image of a forest in West Bengal. Credit: Abhijit Kar Gupta/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

In a circular released on March 28, 2017, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) ordered the directors of all tiger reserves to refrain from recognising the rights of forest dwellers within critical tiger habitats.

Since its enactment in 2006, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act or the Forest Rights Act (FRA) has been instrumental in recognising and vesting forest rights and the right to occupation in forest lands of forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who have been residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded. The NTCA circular reasons that since there have been no guidelines laid down for the notification of critical wildlife habitats (CWH), rights should not be conferred in critical tiger habitats (CTHs).

Tribal groups have responded to the order with widespread criticism, and it is important to look back into the context and history of how CTHs came to be declared.

‘Tiger reserves’, initially an operational category of protected areas under Project Tiger, were made a legal category under section 38V of the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA). The amendment allowed state governments to notify areas as ‘tiger reserves’ based on the recommendation of the NTCA. Typically, a tiger reserve has a core, or the CTH – which may previously have been a national park or a wildLife sanctuary – and  a buffer or peripheral area. Many conservationists believe that the CTH should be ‘inviolate’, which they see as free of human presence. According to them, this is crucial for the breeding of tigers and the continuation of the species.

However, the NTCA’s recent circular is illegal on many fronts. First, it violates the WLPA itself, given that according to the Act, a CTH can only be declared when a detailed, scientific and objective study is carried out to ensure that the areas to be declared CTHs really need to be kept inviolate. This is to be done without affecting the rights of the STs and other communities that live in the forest. A clarification issued by the environment ministry in 2011 categorically stated that the concerned agencies of the state government need the consent of the STs and other forest dwellers in the area, as well as an ecological and social scientist familiar with the area, to establish that the activities of the STs and other forest dwellers or the impact of their presence upon wild animals is sufficient to cause irreversible damage to the existence of tigers and their habitat – and so there’s a need for an ‘inviolate’ zone to be formed.

Second, the process of declaring CTHs was rushed and completely arbitrary. Most states began to notify CTHs in late 2007, as the debates over the FRA bill has just started unfolding. Till 2012, out of the 41 tiger reserves notified, 31 had already been notified by the end of December 2007. Thus, this was arguably done to create such areas before the implementation of the FRA began, thereby completely sidestepping not only the responsibility of recognising the rights of forest-dwellers who occupy the reserves, but also alienating them from the democratic process of conservation that the FRA envisioned.

Third, the NTCA has issued no guidelines for the declaration of CTHs, despite repeated attempts by several civil society and wildlife conservation groups. To understand how such arbitrary policy decisions have affected many forest dwellers, and in turn, alienated them from the state’s conservation efforts, we reflect on our experiences visiting North Bengal’s Buxa Tiger Reserve and Jaldapara National Park and what we heard from the people there.

The NCTA circular. Credit: National Tiger Conservation Authority

History of local and indigenous communities in Dooars of north Bengal

The Dooars in north Bengal can very well be regarded as one of the regions wedded to the history of ‘scientific forestry’ and later ‘conservation and protection’ policy experiments in India.

During the later part of the 19th century, around the time when the colonial government realised the forests’ potential for revenue generation, the region was sparsely populated by the forest-dwelling and hunter/gatherer communities like the Rabhas, Bodos or Mech and Garos. Their practice of jhum cultivation, particularly the use of fire, was perceived as a threat to the sal trees that were being heavily extracted from the forest at that time.

Throughout this period until the early part of the 20th century, the colonial state went about ‘reserving forests’ – which inevitably meant the denial of all rights of the tribal communities living in these forests and also the eviction of these communities from the reserved stands. However, the state also realised that forestry operations needed labour and, ironically, the imperial forest department then started ‘settling’ the same evicted forest dwellers in the so-called ‘forest villages’ – which were basically labour camps – for lumbering as well as the raising of plantations, large swathes of which consisted of sal and teak  trees.

However, a new problem arose since there was a complete ban on fire and clear-felling whole forests for harvesting timber within the reserves. These measures led to the growth of a new semi-evergreen/moist deciduous forest since sal forests failed to regenerate naturally, thereby hurting the revenue from colonial forestry. Thus, taungya (derived from words meaning ‘hill’ and ‘cultivation’) villages also came to be established in the area, in which the jhum cultivators’ skills were put to use through clear-felling and then burning the area to be used for plantations.

It is important to note the significant and disturbing changes brought on by colonial forest policies in the lives and livelihoods of the local people.

Settlement in these villages was often a coerced affair. There was no wage labour; instead people were given small landholdings in exchange for unpaid and compulsory ‘begar’ labour. Sometimes these villages were made permanent (without tenural security, however), while others were shifted to new plantation sites every two to three years, once a forest patch had been entirely raised and felled. Over time, these settled villages were made to sign annual agreements with the forest department. In exchange for labour, they were given certain privileges and facilities including limited amounts of free timber for their living quarters, drinking water, limited medical assistance, free firewood and fodder, in addition to cultivable land of not more than five acres. Over time these plot sizes were reduced due to the increasing population. Today, there are more than 250 such forest villages spread across the Dooars and Darjeeling.

This exploitation of north Bengal’s forest people continued – and in fact intensified – post independence and no steps were taken to settle the rights of the people living in the forest villages. There was unrest and frustration among people and several people’s movements sprang up in the Dooars’ forest villages between the 1960s and 1970s, mainly against the infamous institution of begar or compulsory unpaid labour.

One consequence of this was direct confrontation with the forest department. Besides resisting begar, people started establishing new villages inside the reserved forests – some of which they were later evicted from forcefully. For example, the village of Bala came up within the reserved forests but its residents were evicted in 1975 with the village’s houses and fields destroyed by the department. Finally a petition was filed in the high court in 1976, after over a decade struggling to stop people being evicted from occupied forest lands. In 1977, when the Left came to power in West Bengal, the issue of eviction was finally settled and villagers were allowed to keep the plots they had occupied in previous years.

Protected areas in the Dooars

After the WLPA was passed, the Buxa Tiger Reserve was declared in 1982-83 and its CTH notification was issued on December 31, 2007. The reserve spans an area of more than 700 square km and is located in the confluence of three major bio-geographic zones of the lower Gangetic plains, central Himalayas and the Bramhaputra valley – and is therefore also witness to major floods and alterations in its geo-physical landscape.

Prior to it being declared a tiger reserve, the landscape used to be a site for dolomite mining, boulder and sand mining as well as clear-felling coupe operations. After the enactment of the FRA, there was no attempt by the administration to create awareness regarding the new Act, nor have there been any efforts to create viable livelihood opportunities in the co-management of the park. Most of the titles given under the FRA are over individual land under cultivation, and the titles are faulty and illegal, so that no government agency outside the tiger reserve recognises these as valid.

Most villagers seem to be completely unaware of the community forest rights provisions of the FRA and appear resigned to the fact that in the absence of livelihoods (due to restrictions placed by forest policies), increasing conflicts with elephants and the marginalisation of cultivable land due to floods, they would be better off receiving compensation and relocating. However, relocation does not seem to have changed the situation of these communities at all.

We visited the partially relocated Bhutia Basti forest village (relocated at Poro 11 forest compartment near Patkapara tea estate), shifted in two phases beginning in 1993. The agreement with the wildlife authorities was that the relocated families will get seven bighas of land and a house each, along with a school and community hall for the village. However, most families had to construct their own houses, the school is nearly 4 km away and the nearest hospital is 40 km away from the village. The biggest loss, however, the villagers told us, is the loss of forests, since even procuring firewood has become a problem for them now that they’re outside the tiger reserve. Most villagers are dependent on wage labour and migrate to cities in search of work. Meanwhile, institutional harassment continues within the tiger reserve. The Buxa tiger reserve has witnessed horrible atrocities and the killing of tribals at the hands of officials – all for access to resources.

Elephant bathing in the river in Jaldapara Sanctuary, West Bengal. Notice the electric fencing in the foreground. credit: Priyadarshi Chaudhuri/Flickr CC 2.0

Contiguous to the Buxa tiger reserve is the Jaldapara National Park which was first established as a WLS in 1941 and then a national park in 2012. It is situated on the banks of the river Torsha and is spread over 216.51 square km. It was declared a WLS for protecting the one-horned rhinoceros and a great variety of flora and fauna. In Jaldapara National Park and the nearby Chilapata forest (which forms the elephant corridor between Jaldapara and Buxa),  the administration has never made an effort to create awareness about the FRA since it was enacted in 2006. The DFO of the Jaldapara Wildife Division Bhaskar J.V. and the project officer at the backward classes welfare department, Abhirup Bose have both acknowledged that the government has been slow in implementing the Act.

The residents of the forest villages in Jaldapara National Park and neighbouring forest ranges claim that they received no intimation when Jaldapara was declared a national park in 2012. They never received any notification regarding the same and till date the notification has not appeared in the government’s online archives. Some villages within the park, meanwhile, have filed for community forest resource (CFR) rights. However, despite this, they are subjected to gross violation of their various forest rights by forest officials, including obstruction from exercising their rights to enter their forests and graze their cattle, intercropping in the forests, collection of firewood and fishing.

There have been instances where gram sabhas have not been consulted before undertaking clear felling operations in forests, like in the case of North Khoirbari forest village in the Madarihat forest range. In other cases, consent has been coercied from gram sabha for clear felling operations by threatening to withdraw other benefits, like in the case of Mantharam forest village in the Kodalbasti forest range. Besides, there have been serious incidents of violence –  like forest officials shooting at women collecting firewood in South Mendabari forest village. These are all violations of the FRA, since the rights of the local and indigenous communities have not been recognised. Additionally, the forest department and other governmental institutions have not treated these communities as stakeholders in important decisions, including deciding which areas are declared protected. A few villages from the national park and forests around it have now filed an RTI questioning the process that led to the extension of the national park network within Jaldapara.

People in the forest villages like North Khairbari and Holapara Titi in the Madarihat forest range within Jaldapara National Park also live in constant fear of eviction. According to the villagers, the forest department always threatens them with eviction and it does so with the help of some agents. These agents are other forest villagers whom the department has lured with money and facilities like houses. These agents act in the interest of the department. This has also created divisions within the villagers and affected the momentum of the community forest rights struggle in their villages.

Community efforts at conservation

Since 2008, 13 forest villages within Jaldapara National Park and Chilapata Forest have organised their gram sabhas and various committees, including a forest governance committee, forest management committee and joint wildlife conservation committee to ensure the protection, management and conservation of their forests. These villages are part of the Uttar Banga Ban Jan Shramojibi Manch, a coalition of several forest villages in north Bengal, which lobbied with national groups for the FRA to be enacted, and have since worked tirelessly in ensuring implementation of the FRA in the area. Since then in Uttar Mendabari, Bania and Kodalbasti forest villages, which lie in the Chilapata forest range and the latter in the Kodalbasti range, rhinoceros poaching was completely stopped as the villagers kept a careful watch. The villagers have also actively formed patrolling groups to patrol the forests and keep an eye on wildlife and illegal extraction of timber. Apart from this, the forest villagers possess vast knowledge on the biodiversity of the area. Conversation with them during a field visit in January 2017 revealed their observation and understanding of wildlife and their habitats, activities and behaviours as well as medicinal properties of plant species found in their forests.

Why the FRA can help

Both the colonial and post-independence forest administrations created policies, laws and governance systems which were top-down in their approach. The policy framework criminalised entire communities who continued to engage in traditional activities within the boundaries of protected areas and reserved forests, disrupted their cultural practices and beliefs, caused loss of traditional livelihoods and led to misery and deprivation in the Dooars of north Bengal, just as it did in the rest of India. Firstly, hunter/gatherer and forest dwelling communities were made to live as settlers and depend on sedentary cultivation and livestock rearing for their livelihood. Secondly, in the days post independence, landholdings were fragmented because the state did not recognise the second generation of forest settlers. They were also denied other entitlements like free firewood, grazing and intercropping. All of these affected their very basic methods of subsistence.

The livelihood crisis that has been developing because of such unfair practices, and the kind of stress that it has put on the ability of the present generations of these tribal communities to survive, makes the Forest Rights Act of 2006 a very welcome piece of legislation.

This historic Act tries to restore the traditional and customary rights of tribal and other forest dwelling communities, has enabled communities to take their own decisions and also unleashed a new wave of conservation practices whereby local and indigenous communities, and their gram sabhas, engage in forest management and biodiversity conservation to ensure cultural, livelihood and food security. These efforts, if supported by the administration and the forest department, could also be directed towards understanding and dealing with the changes in the geo-physical landscape of the river valleys in the Dooars. Therefore, it is of vital importance that the NTCA circular be withdrawn and a process of genuine recognition and the vesting of rights be carried out in all our tiger reserves and that processes of co-management are arrived at with the help of the communities living inside these reserves.

Meenal Tatpati and Sneha Gutgutia work at Kalpavriksh, Pune. The authors would like to thank Soumitra Ghosh of NESPON, Siliguri for his valuable comments and suggestions.

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