When conservation efforts collide with policies or actions that are detrimental to the environment, it is an easier choice to pick sides. But when the demarcation of critical wildlife habitats end up endangering the rights of Adivasis, forest-dependent local communities, the government and judiciary have a complicated and delicate challenge. This is not new and yet every time such a situation arises, it merits fresh scrutiny because lives and livelihoods are at stake, along with flora and fauna and precious forest cover.

There are laws, rules and regulations, committees, department reports and numerous cases and petitions in different courts of law. The Dhandekars say they were forced out of their house eight months ago in Pastalai village in Amravati district and have been implicated in a false case about extracting wood from the forest in the district.

Earlier they refused to relocate unless land and livelihood were provided as per relocation norms but that did not happen. What happened instead was constant harassment to evict the few families who stayed put. Phulwanti Gaju Dhandekar, mother of three children, while narrating different incidents in the past year or so, describes how the officials did not let her go home. The Dhandekars moved to Kulangana Khurd village in the district.

The Dhandekar family were forced out of their house eight months ago in Pastalai village in Amravati district and have been implicated in a false case about extracting wood from the forest in the district. Photo credit: Special Arrangement

“They have filed a case of taking wood from the forest against me,” she said. “I told them so many times that I have not been to the forest because my child is very small. They did not listen. They even slapped my child.”

“We could not take our clothes or anything,” she said. “All our poultry must have been hunted/eaten by wild animals. Nobody can go check on our house there.”

In spite of her husband prompting her in the background, they are not able to list or describe the various laws under which their relocation has been “insisted” upon. Lalman Ramlal Dhandekar, another protesting community member but not associated with Phulwanti’s family, has been following up and protesting for several years and has even filed a case in Nagpur against what he calls “forced eviction”.

“We wanted land as compensation and not money. The government was offering five acres of land or Rs 10 lakh as compensation but when our turn came, they refused to give us land. We need land for livelihood,” said Lalman, adding that four villages in the Amravati district were relocated and only a few families are left in Pastalai, who are not willing to go.

Another resident from Malur village, Omkar Kasandekar has a similar experience, “After the village came under the national sanctuary and park area (Melghat Tiger Reserve), we were asked to relocate. But they are not giving us land as compensation.”

These stories are from villages that fall in notified national parks, sanctuaries or buffer areas. These residents belong to the local Adivasi communities. Laws such as the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 seek to protect wildlife and the ecology of the forest. And laws such as Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 and Forest Rights Act, 2006, grant rights to communities, who have historically and traditionally depended on forests to access the same for livelihoods.

While their lives are entwined with forests and the wildlife that inhabit them, legal and administrative challenges have also been part of their lives. Such as this one which has been brewing for almost a decade.

Yet another conflict

The Bombay High Court has been hearing an important public interest litigation that pertains to the implementation of certain sections of the Forest Rights Act. While the Act recognises the rights of forest dwellers and grants them access to use the forest for livelihood, it also has a provision for declaration of certain areas as “critical wildlife habitats” whereby human settlement and activities can be prohibited for aiding survival and thriving of endangered species.

The PIL filed by environmental group Vanashakti sought to declare these critical wildlife habitats to protect the forests. Activists have pointed out that the claims under Forest Rights Act are far from settled and there have been many discrepancies in the implementation of the Forest Rights Act.

The case which has been in court since 2013, picked up pace after 2018 and there has been what is called a “hasty declaration” of as many as 54 critical wildlife habitats in Maharashtra. After an intervention petition was filed, the court stayed this declaration and instead asked the government to first complete the settlement of claims of local communities.

“We have to understand the background of this notification. The critical tiger habitat provision in the Wild Life (Protection) Act is similar to Critical Wildlife Provision in the Forest Rights Act. And it has to be implemented after settling of claims under Forest Rights Act and after all other options are examined and exhausted,” explains Sharachchandra Lele, from Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.

Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment and Kalpavriksh, an organisation that works on environmental issues, recently brought out a report highlighting the “discrepancies” and “exigencies” by the Maharashtra government in declaring 54 critical wildlife habitats before the claims under Forest Rights Act were settled.

Hasty implementation

While Maharashtra has been at the forefront of the recognition of rights of forest-dwellers under the Forest Rights Act, especially the recognition of Community Forest Rights, which is the most crucial step towards giving forest-dwellers a clear role in forest management and governance, it has moved too hastily in the implementation of the critical wildlife habitats provisions in the name of wildlife conservation, resulting in multiple deviations and illegalities, according to the report.

It is co-authored by Sharachchandra Lele, Neema Pathak Broome, Atul Joshi, Akshay Chettri, Meenal Tatpati and Shruti Mokashi for Centre for Environment and Development, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment and Kalpavriksh.

The authors stress that the process of identifying a potential area of serious threat to wildlife and then determining how that threat can be addressed through the critical wildlife habitats provisions is a “lengthy and complicated one”.

“Unfortunately, the Maharashtra Forest Department has launched this process virtually simultaneously in 54 out of 55 protected areas in the state, and implementation activities began in Melghat Wildlife Sanctuary in 2019,” the report states.

In the process, a number of violations of the letter and spirit of the Forest Rights Act are being or have been committed. First and foremost, the process of forest rights recognition is quite incomplete. This is especially true for Community Forest Rights.

“Our analysis for 39 of the 55 protected areas (for which we were able to obtain boundary details) showed that (as per Census 2011 maps and data) there are more than 1,000 villages (with more than 4 lakh people) located inside or adjacent to these 39 protected areas, and likely to have Community Forest Rights rights that overlap with the protected areas,” the report said. “Of these, only 150 villages have received Community Forest Rights rights. The Mumbai High Court had (in December 2019) set a three-month deadline for the completion of the rights recognition process, which was subsequently extended by two months. But this process has not even begun in the remaining villages.”

Melghat has been a tiger reserve since the 1970s. Photo credit: Melghattiger.gov.in

Furthermore, as the report of the Tribal Development Department-appointed Monitoring Committee for Melghat shows, in Melghat Wildlife Sanctuary alone there are “many errors and irregularities in the way the process of rights recognition has been carried out”.

Melghat case

Although these 54 areas are spread all over the state, the current focus is on Melghat for a number of reasons. Melghat has been a tiger reserve since the 1970s and has had a “critical tiger habitat” status since 2007. Local communities have been living within or on the periphery of these “protected areas” for a long time. There has been a robust movement led by the communities to create awareness for Forest Rights Act.

And most importantly, Khoj an NGO has filed an interim application in this public interest litigation (the same PIL filed by NGO Vanashakti) in the Bombay High Court, asking for completion of claims settlement before critical wildlife habitats are declared and notified and people evicted from their homes.

Purnima Upadhyay from Khoj said, “We have been chasing settlement of claims under Forest Rights Act for years.”

“There are many issues,” said Upadhyay. “Sometimes the claims are pending for years, sometimes they are rejected, following which an appeal has to be filed.”

“Sometimes only a part of the land is accepted as Forest Rights Act claim,” said Upadhyay. “While all this is happening at its pace, the forest department is trying to relocate and displace people in the name of critical wildlife habitat. The expert committees are formed to suit their narrative.”

Atul Joshi and Neema Pathak pointed out that Forest Rights Act was enacted to undo historical injustice to forest dwellers. And that relocation has to be the last resort. Lele drew attention to the idea of conservation as making the forest “inviolate” or “pristine” and emphasised that it was a misplaced notion.

Time and again there have been pressure groups that demand pristine forests for the conservation of wildlife and the creation of unobstructed corridors for the movement of wildlife. Conservationists say that any human activity – construction, agriculture or otherwise – is a hindrance in the free movement of animals and the delicate ecology of the forest.

Protection of wildlife

On the other hand, there is evidence that the involvement of the communities is conducive to conservation and not just a matter of their lives and livelihoods as guaranteed by the constitution. Awareness and involvement of tribals have helped in guarding the forest when it comes to illegal hunting, poaching and destruction of flora and fauna. And that is perhaps the crux of the matter.

Stalin from Vanashakti said that they are fundamentally opposed to human settlement in forests. “It is incorrect to say that the forest belongs to people,” Stalin said. “This [Forest Rights Act] is a completely human-centric driven approach. Not all tribals are the same and not all are taking care of the forest. Who will take care of the wildlife? The recent conflicts are ample proof that they cannot co-exist. What happened to the great Indian bustard? The endangered bird has been wiped out from sanctuaries in Maharashtra.”

When asked about Forest Rights Act claims not being completed, he raised that as an important issue, “The Act came in 2006. By now the claims should have been completed.”

“It has been more than 10 years but still, it is not done,” he said. “In the meanwhile, the forests and wildlife continue to be at risk.”

Way ahead

While there is no denying that Forest Rights Act claims should have been settled and sorted, there are two main issues that need addressing. One is the delay and difficulty in settling claims, and displacement of communities in the name of relocation for various reasons.

Not to mention that the tribal department is in charge of Forest Rights Act settlement but the department of forests is concerned with forest and animals. Lack of understanding and clear communication between the departments also leads to delays, say activists.

Experts stress the urgent need to halt the current critical wildlife habitat declaration process in all protected areas in Maharashtra and the ongoing eviction and resettlement processes in all protected areas across India.

The Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment report bats for allowing and actively enabling the process of rights recognition to be thoroughly implemented, and facilitate the creation of Community Forest Rights management plans by the gram sabhas in and around protected areas across India, and re-structure and retrain the entire set of critical wildlife habitats Expert committees formed in Maharashtra and ensure similar processes in other states so that critical wildlife habitat exploration and declaration follows the spirit and letter of the Forest Rights Act.

An outdated “fortress conservation” approach has bedevilled Indian wildlife conservation policy since its inception, and has resulted in enormous social dislocation, distress and conflict, the report’s authors say.

The next date in the High court is yet to come up. But activists and people say in this matter haste in trying to meet deadlines will be riskier than inordinate delays and inefficiency on part of government departments. And far far away from the departments and courtrooms, in Pastalai village, Dhandekars continue to stay away from what they call their home and try hard to explain their plight to anyone and everyone who cares to listen and offers hope.

(This correspondent spoke to a forest officer who did not want to be named and sent presentations of what these laws mean as an explanation. All efforts to contact the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife), Maharashtra, were in vain. The Maharashtra Tribal Development Department too was unreachable)

This article first appeared on Mongabay.