Authorities in India see forest-dwelling communities as threats to conservation efforts

Melghat forest
Article 14
Maharashtra, India

Authorities in India see forest-dwelling communities as threats to conservation efforts

MELGHAT, Maharashtra _ Munni Dhandekar is skeletal, her face weather-beaten, and she talks nervously as she explains how she, her husband and out-of-school teenage daughter have been homeless since September, spending a harsh winter in a half-built room with a tin sheet for a wall.

The room, about a quarter the size of a tennis court, is near a lake in Chikhaldara, a touristy little hill-station eight kilometers east of the home they were evicted from. Munni’s husband Raju earns Rs300 (US$4.12) a day as a boatman on the lake, a seasonal job. Until five months ago they were somewhat better off, living as they did for generations in a teakwood forest, their poultry outside their brick-and-bamboo thatched-roof house a short walk from firewood and forest produce.

On the evening of September 1, 2020, the Maharashtra state government’s forest department arrested Raju and his brother Gaju as they headed home to their village of Pastalai, inside the Melghat Tiger Reserve in eastern Maharashtra’s Amravati district. Both men, from the Korku indigenous community, were charged with violating the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 for allegedly destroying wildlife or forest produce inside a sanctuary.

They denied the charge — the only material recovered at the time of the arrest was a very small quantity of groceries and a borrowed motorbike — and were bailed out the following day but were prohibited from returning to their families in Pastalai.

Munni and Raju
Raju and Munni Dhandekar in their makeshift home opposite the Chikhaldara lake / Credit: Kavitha Iyer

In December 2020, the Dhandekars told the Bombay High Court that their ousting from their home and village is part of a wider “forceful eviction and involuntary relocation” of Pastalai’s tribal residents under the Union government’s Project Tiger programme that, among other things, recommends relocation of villages located inside what are called “core” forest areas, an inviolate area of 800-1,200 sq km large enough for the territories of 20 breeding tigresses.

The logic of relocations is related to reducing human-tiger conflicts and achieving a tiger-prey balance when the population of forest-dependent communities rises in core areas and in an ecologically sensitive “buffer” area of 1,000-3,000 sq km. Since the launch of Project Tiger in 1973, these communities have been encouraged to move out as a tiger-habitat conservation measure.

The Dhandekar brothers and four other Pastalai families, all Korku tribals who traditionally live off the forest, have refused to move until they get adequate compensation for their land and homes and until claims for rights over forest resources under the Scheduled Tribes And Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act, 2006, or simply the Forest Rights Act (FRA) are settled.

The impasse in Pastalai is emblematic of the potential challenges facing an estimated 150 million forest-dwelling Indians, including 100 million Indigenous people.

The FRA was enacted to protect and guarantee Indigenous communities traditional rights to the forest. But poor implementation of the law and pressure from the Project Tiger bureaucracy to get forest-dwellers to move out of core forest areas has made traditional Adivasi lives, livelihoods and cultural practices increasingly tenuous. Meanwhile, the government of India has instructed states to demarcate “critical wildlife habitats” (CWH) within protected areas, signalling another round of conservation-induced displacement of marginalised tribals.

K C Padvi, Maharashtra’s minister for tribal development, said he’s uncomfortable with the relocation and the manner in which original stewards of the forests have been moved out.

“There are indeed serious problems being faced by the tribal communities,” said Padvi. “We are talking to the forest department and will make sure that their rights are not denied.”

Maharashtra minister Yashomati Thakur, who represents the legislative assembly constituency of Amravati, has also received numerous letters from villages that were served relocation notices.

She has asked local administrations and the forest department to ensure that evictions are not carried out without following due the process of law. Yet, local forest officers have continued to evict people, including during the coronavirus-induced lockdown.

Rights to resources benefit conservation

Within Melghat,   as well as examples of sustainable livelihood practices.

About 45 km south of Chikhaldara, Payvihir village wears the appearance of a manicured movie set surrounded by hills, its walls painted with scenes from the Korkus’ customary rituals. Since 2012-13, out migration for work as labourers has dipped from 75% to zero.

A mix of afforestation and scientific watershed management here has led to the greening of a hillside laid barren over 25 years of excessive forest lumbering. Residents have also installed a solar-powered drip irrigation system on a 132-acre tract of forest land, on which stand mango, neem and teak trees. In 2016, villagers harvested and sold 10 tonnes of custard apples.

In 2020, Payvihir’s residents appointed a team of five “forest conservators,” village youth paid by the local self-governing institution to patrol their stretch of forest to prevent unauthorized tree cutting, guard their fruit trees, report sightings of wild animals and keep watch for forest fires.

In 2014, Payvihir also won a biodiversity governance award jointly conferred by the ministry of environment and forests and the United Nations Development Programme to recognise grassroots champions of conservation.

“But the most significant success is that we have conserved our identity as Adivasis, our lifestyle, cultural practices,” said Ramlal Kale, among Payvihir’s young team of village leaders.

The reason has much to do with forest access. As per procedures defined under the FRA, the residents' body of Payvihir filed claims with evidence that the people there had traditionally used resources from that region of the forest. Following a three-tier assessment and scrutiny of their claim, the village was granted a title for community forest rights over the surrounding forest tract.

“Getting the title to the forestland helped us become self-sufficient, which means nobody goes away to the city for work. We all gather on our festival days to sing Korku songs and celebrate in our time-honoured way,” Kale said.

Indigenous people often seen obstacles

The FRA can grant formal recognition of traditional rights over “at least 40 million hectares of forest land” being tilled or managed by Indigenous communities, according to a 2015 report by the Rights and Resource Initiative, a global coalition of more than 150 organisations.

And while the central government maintains that relocation under Project Tiger is voluntary, Pastalai’s last remaining residents, including Raju and Gaju, have detailed in a writ petition in the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court the pressures brought to bear upon them.

Elsewhere, in three relocated villages that this correspondent visited, Melghat’s residents said there had been sustained pressure from local forest department officers, who confiscated livestock and filed criminal cases against villagers collecting firewood.  

It’s amid that backdrop that researchers studying forest-rights struggles of Indigenous peoples are wary of the hasty plans to carve out the critical wildlife habitats (CWHs), which are required under the FRA. The existence of Indigenous communities in forests is seen by forest department bureaucrats and conservationists as antithetical to conservation, they say.

Malur, one of the villages in the core forest area of Melghat, was served a notice for relocation / Credit: Kavitha Iyer

In 2018-19, Maharashtra’s forest department assembled 54 expert committees to identify and map CWHs in 54 protected areas. In 2019, the committee for Melghat began work on what would have been India’s first CWH, but the process was halted by the Bombay High Court after activists cited procedural lacunae.

In 2019, responding to a public interest litigation demanding that CWHs be demarcated, Purnima Upadhyay, a lawyer and activist working with tribal communities in Melghat for 25 years, argued in the Bombay High Court that the process being used to identify the CWHs was “haphazard.”

Those relocated earlier under Project Tiger were “suffering,” not used to life outside forests, she contended.

While the FRA indeed allows forest rights to be modified or resettled wherever these lands are within proposed CWHs, this would still require claims to first be filed and assessed.

Sharachchandra Lele from the Bengaluru-based nonprofit Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) said that the FRA offers India an opportunity to rethink conservation as a participatory process with forest-dwelling communities, and that the law lists measures to address tensions between the rights of forest-dwellers and the needs of wildlife conservation.

An August 2020 report by ATREE describes the State’s approach to identifying CWHs as an outdated “fortress conservation” approach that has bedevilled Indian wildlife conservation policy since its inception ... “and has resulted in enormous social dislocation, distress and conflict.”

In addition, Lele said the functioning of the CWH expert committees in Maharashtra is legally untenable.

“In many protected areas where the forest department claims that there is no human habitation and no question of forest rights, there is habitation either inside or adjacent to the protected area that will have Community Forest Rights claims in parts of the protected area,” said Lele. “There are cases where even forest department records show habitations.”

In addition, scientific criteria and data, based on which the expert committees will determine whether there is a threat of “irreversible damage” to forests or wildlife, have not been formulated, Lele said. Until rights are granted and villages decide what activities they will undertake through forest resource management plans, an accurate assessment of potential “irreversible damage” is unlikely.

The committees also do not include social scientists with expertise on forest rights, while even “experts in life sciences” are not qualified as experts in wildlife ecology, said Lele. Some committees include individuals who question the constitutionality of the FRA.

Upadhyay said some of the resettled villages were in a “deplorable” state.

“Importantly, all relocation is outside the Scheduled Area, meaning they are in talukas where the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, is not applicable,” she said. The PESA Act empowers gram sabhas in PESA areas on matters relating to decision-making, and traditional community rights and practices are safeguarded and preserved.

While the CWHs are required by the FRA, the law’s central premise – to guarantee the historical rights of India’s Indigenous communities over the forest, remains far from achieved.

By the end of March 2020, more than 4.2 million claims (41,02,437 individual and 149,108 community claims) were filed by forest-dwellers seeking land titles, a fraction of the estimated beneficiaries.

In a 2016 report that marked 10 years since the FRA came into force, a research initiative called the Community Forest Rights-Learning And Advocacy found that of the potential forest area over which community forest rights could be claimed, only 3% had been granted. The top reason cited was obstruction by forest department officials, who felt granting land rights to India’s Adivasis impinged on forest protection.

Tourism over rights of forest stewards

Passing within earshot of Pastalai are vehicles following the newly launched safari route in Melghat Tiger Reserve, the Vairat safari, advertised as venturing to the highest point in the tiger reserve at 1,178 m above mean sea level.

A signboard for the Vairat safari stands metres away from the gated forest department check post where Raju and Gaju were detained on 1 September. Pastalai is a short walk from here, but no visitors are allowed.

Entry and exit restrictions apply to the last four families living in the village. This correspondent was not permitted to enter, despite requests to forest department officials. Even activists carrying relief supplies for Pastalai’s residents during the COVID-19 lockdown struggled to gain access.

The densely forested Melghat Tiger Reserve, notified in 1973 as one of India’s first nine tiger reserves, occupies 2,000 sq km, the size of four-and-a-half Mumbais, in the Satpura range of mountains cutting across the girth of the Indian peninsula. The Satpuras are home to several tiger sanctuaries and hill stations.

One of these is Chikhaldara in Melghat, where a 407-metre “skywalk” of glass and steel is being built on the edge of a plateau, to be suspended on concrete columns, offering a glass-floored view of a 180-metre deep valley. The project’s estimated cost is Rs35 crore. In 2016, the state government approved a Rs500-crore plan for the development of Chikhaldara.

“They chased us out of our own home saying we are a danger to wildlife, but they’ll bring tourists into the same village, correct?” asked Gaju, whose family lost poultry worth Rs5,000 when they were debarred from returning home.

The NTCA’s guidelines for village relocation require compensation for immovable property but residents must provide documentary evidence of property and rights. Following their father’s death and a family feud, the brothers found they had no proof of residence or ownership of the land they tilled. This meant that under the relocation programme, the brothers were deemed ineligible for compensation.

Since their eviction, Gaju and his wife Phulwanti have been living in her maternal home in Kulangana village, 45 km away from Pastalai.

Phulwanti was arrested too, and beaten, she said as she was being taken to meet senior officials on November 9 to discuss a proposed compensation plan if the Dhandekars vacated their homes.

Later that day, she was charged for allegedly having two stumps of teak wood in her pile of firewood, a crime that attracts a maximum punishment of six months in jail or a fine of Rs500 or both.

Phulwanti Dhandekar with her children at her maternal home in Kulangana village, 45 km from her home in Pastalai village, Melghat, where she is not allowed to return / Credit: Kavitha Iyer

The bail order did not restrain Phulwanti from returning home but forest guards would not allow her back into Pastalai, she said.

“We are fighting for our rights, that’s why this is happening,” Phulwanti said.

Pastalai’s villagers had also applied for community forest rights under the FRA, which gives villagers collective rights over forest land they have traditionally used for grazing, plantations and collecting forest produce. Their application was rejected, a fact they found out in 2018 when forest officials began to insist that they relocate.

On September 15, 2018, the villagers wrote to the district collector, declaring they would not accept compensation for relocation unless their community forest rights were settled. With no assurance forthcoming, some villagers slowly began to accept what they saw as inevitable.

‘We will make you disappear’

On a written plea from the people of Pastalai, government officials made notes that said claims under the FRA were pending and that the villagers could not be evicted until these were settled.

Told of the Dhandekar brothers’ eviction in September, the divisional commissioner of Amravati also stayed evictions from Pastalai, directing the forest officer to wait until all claims under the FRA were settled. Yet, the Dhandekars have not been allowed back into their native village.

Twice Gaju tried to return to Pastalai.

“They told me gaayab kar denge [we will make you disappear],” he said, quoting forest guards at the check post outside his home village.

“The tigerwaale [tiger people, the name locals use for staff of the Melghat Tiger Project] have resorted to harassing us to force us to leave,” said Lalman Dhandekar, 50, one of the petitioners. “They won’t allow us to graze our cattle or cut grass or fetch firewood.”

Dhandekar said the cattle of another petitioner, Sakharam Dhandekar, were impounded by forest officers in June from a water source and released only in mid-September on the order of a sessions judge. For three months, the animals were tethered in a forest department office with grossly inadequate care.

Lalman said villagers were also refused work under the national employment guarantee law, another pressure tactic.

“The forest department gets labourers for its work from 50 km away instead. The voluntary decision of those who agreed to be relocated was similarly driven by such measures,” the petition says.

In Kulangana, Gaju and his eldest son, not even 13, work as daily wage labourers whenever work is available.

“We don’t have a home now. We are trying to survive,” Gaju said.

Kavitha Iyer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. This story was first published in Article 14 on 19 Feb. 2021. It has been edited here for length and clarity. Reporting for this story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

Banner image:  A concrete pillar for a viewing gallery is being erected at Chikhaldara’s best vantage point, part of the push for tourism in the Melghat region / Credit: Kavitha Iyer

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