Tigers and tribals

Tigers or tribals? Tribals versus tigers. This is how the discussion on the tribal forest rights act is being framed. The law, which was enacted by parliament a while ago, is aimed at conferring land rights on people who already live in forested regions. The government says it wants to correct a historical wrong against people on whom rights were never settled when forest areas were earmarked for conservation. Quite right. But these homes of the poorest also house the country’s magnificent wild animals, like tigers. It is critical that their habitat should be protected and future safeguarded. This is also quite right.

Is it possible to reconcile the interests of what seems to be two competing groups?

Two years ago the debate was stormy. The draft forest rights bill was being worked upon by a government just sworn into power. Around this time, it was discovered—to everyone’s horror—that all tigers from what was supposed to be a protected area, the Sariska National Park, had been poached. Opposition to the draft bill mounted; conservationists argued that this “populist” measure would be the last nail in the tiger’s coffin.

I was asked to head a task force to suggest how tigers could be safeguarded. Over three months the specialists we met believed that it was important to reserve areas for wildlife. These would need to be inviolate areas—exclusively earmarked for animals where human interference would have to be kept at its minimum. Otherwise, they said, the tiger would not survive. They believed that if the forest rights bill gave people ownership over these lands it would be disastrous.

I approached the issue from different perspectives. I had for long understood that the future of people and forests is entwined. I also knew from experience that regeneration of forests is not possible unless local people benefit. But I was willing to listen to the experience of those who believed in the tiger. If co-existence was not possible, we needed to find strategies to relocate people who lived in the tiger’s territory.

The issue seemed simple, but the replies shocked me. After 30 years of wildlife conservation efforts, fronted by the country’s most powerful, we had forgotten people. In these 30 years we had managed to relocate 80-odd villages from protected reserves. We estimated that another 1,500 villages existed in just 28 tiger reserves. Worse, relocation was done in the most ham-handed and inhuman manner. We met families who had decided to return to the harassment and poverty of their homes within the sanctuary as their resettled parcel of land was full of stones. The authorities had done just about everything to make people trespassers in their own land; everything to turn them against the tiger we want to protect. This would not work we concluded.

Our answer was two-pronged. One, we agreed that inviolate space was important for wild animals. But the people who were making space for the tiger needed to be given a good deal—not marginal forestland which would make them more destitute. Two, we said that we needed to be realistic. We suggested the need to identify and prioritize relocation of those villages that were in the most critical of wildlife habitats. This had to be done within a time-bound schedule. In the remaining villages, which would have to live in the reserves, we suggested a new bargain—sharing benefits of conservation with local communities—from preferential shares in tourism to collaborative management of our reserves.

This led to some developments. The government agreed to enhance the package for relocated families from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 10 lakh; it agreed to conduct a census of tigers in the country, which would pinpoint their presence in different habitats. The tiger census is the first step to identify the critical habitats that need to be protected and to list the human settlements that need to be relocated. With this done, the agenda of co-existence will need to kick in.

But unfortunately, the tribal versus tiger paradigm will keep the fires burning. It would seem that the two lobbies are bent on scoring points, not building consensus. First, the tiger lobby blocked the bill. Then, an uneasy truce was brokered to provide for relocation of people and maintain their rights. In late 2005, the bill presented to parliament included a provision that temporary pattas (land deeds) would be given to people who were to be relocated from sanctuaries and national parks. This would ensure that their rights were protected, but also it would ensure that government would undertake their relocation within a time-bound schedule.

Then the tribal lobby, which has the upper hand in parliament upped the ante. In late 2006, the act, finalized by a joint parliamentary committee, dropped this clause. Inside, it inserted an altogether new term, critical wildlife habitats, which would need to be established as areas to be kept inviolate for wildlife. In the rules for the act to go into force, they have rubbed in this point. They want ministries to issue guidelines regarding the nature, process, validation and interpretation of data to be collected and roles of expert committees who will now designate critical wildlife habitats, virtually questioning the legality of all protected areas.

This has led conservationists to react. They want all wildlife areas (some 600-odd) to be re-designated as critical wildlife habitats and removed from the ambit of the act. Now they have the upper hand. For now, the act is stalled. The next round belongs to the tribal lobby. It is after all a wrestling match.

In all this, let us be clear, the losers are tribals and tigers. It is not tigers versus tribals. It is everyone against them.

Sunita Narain