The media has been abuzz with news about the arrival of cheetahs in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park on the occasion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 72nd birthday on September 17.

However, the resulting displacement of the Adivasi residents of Bagcha village located in the national park and the legal validity of the resettlement processes being carried out under the Wildlife Protection Act have not received quite as much attention.

The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 aims to conserve wild animals, birds and plants in forests by establishing protected areas such as sanctuaries and national parks such as Kuno.

Madhya Pradesh holds some of India’s largest protected areas and has a large population of Adivasni and other forest-dwelling communities who have borne the brunt of wildlife conservation.

A bill passed in the Lok Sabha on August 2 to amend the Wildlife Protection Act has sought to increase the number of protected species in line with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and increase penalties for violations of the law.

While the amendment has been discussed in the context of wildlife conservation in Lok Sabha, it leaves out much of the lived realities in which the act operates. It has scarcely touched upon how the amendments will affect forest-dwelling communities. The Wildlife Protection Act has been responsible for the large-scale relocation of tribal communities. The advent of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, has had little impact on community rights to their forests being recognised.

In an upcoming study, the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project, of which the authors of this article are a part of, has studied the implementation of the act beyond the haphazard resettlement processes. We looked at associated criminalisation through arrest records, first information reports and forest offences.

An analysis of FIRs registered by the police in Madhya Pradesh from 2016-’20 for the offence of hunting shows that over 32% of the accused were from the Scheduled Tribes, over 12.5% from the Scheduled Castes and about 12% from other oppressed caste communities.

Forest Department data for 2016-’20 showed that nearly 40% of all those accused of hunting were from the Scheduled Tribes and totally 75% of all the accused belonged to oppressed caste communities.

The allegation of hunting automatically attracted the registration of other offences, such as the destructing of the boundaries of sanctuaries, dealing in animal articles and wrongfully transporting wildlife species – despite no evidence for this.

The ‘wild boar’ problem

During the discussion on the bill in Lok Sabha, several members demanded that wild boar be declared a vermin species. Such a step would not only decriminalise the hunting of boar but also address the conflict that has emerged because of the animal’s burgeoning population.

In the data from Madhya Pradesh that we analysed, wild boar is the single-most hunted animal in protected areas and territorial areas. In our dataset, more than 24% of the cases registered by the forest department under the Wildlife Protection Act pertain to wild boars.

Findings from the field indicate this arises from the problem of wild boar destroying crops and attacking human settlements. When the animals are caught in fences erected to protect the crops, the farmers are liable to be prosecuted under the hunting provisions of the Wildlife Protection. This is even when the damages they have incurred due to crop loss are scarcely compensated for.

As early as 2003, the Madhya Pradesh government had formulated rules for the culling of wild boar where their population had increased and they were damaging crops. Despite these rules, forest department officials confirmed during interviews with the project team that permissions to reduce the population of wild boar have rarely been granted. The problems caused by wild boar have been documented in the past decade across states such as Kerala, Goa, Punjab, Telangana, Rajasthan, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.

To address this problem, states have either resorted to designating the species as vermin for a limited period or granting permission to hunters with licences.

Despite the significant damage caused by wild boar, they remain protected by the Wildlife Protection Act. Killing such animals in self-defence has led to forest-dwelling communities attracting criminal action.

Ironically, traditional practices by these communities to maintain diversity in the forest have run into conflict with the state-accepted practice of fortress conservation.

Criminalisation in such cases has resulted in lengthy prosecutions – where cases go on for six to seven years. Sometimes, the accused people even face violence at the hands of forest officials. Despite the guidelines of the Wildlife Protection Act, it is difficult for the accused people to get bail. Our fieldwork showed that in some cases, the accused were in custody for up to one-and-a-half years.

The effort to protect their crops is being equated to the serious offence of disturbing ecological security in protected areas, something that has significantly limited the use of the forest for indigenous communities.

Recognising rights of forest communities

While discussing the amendment bill, Union Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Bhupender Yadav made a passing remark that the settlement rights of tribal and other traditional forest dwellers would be adhered to before national parks and sanctuaries were notified.

The process of the settlement of rights that is involved in marking a protected area currently does not recognise community forest rights of forest-dwelling communities recognised under the Forest Rights Act of 2006 even as individual forest rights are recognised. Research has repeatedly underscored that instead of recognising forest rights, protected areas have led to forced and induced displacement of communities without resolving the conflict between the two acts.

This has resulted in the criminalisation of the rights of tribal communities in accessing the jungles to collect forest produce and nistaar – the concession granted to communities to remove bamboo and fuel wood at stipulated rates. The same pattern is being repeated with the displacement of Bagcha’s Adivasis whose lives intertwined with the forests and its animals will be changed dramatically.

Nikita Sonavane, Mrinalini Ravindranath and Harsh Kinger are associated with the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project.

Also read:

Cheetahs are back. But what about the long-displaced people of Kuno?