Hira Ram, 62, was born and raised in Garasia Colony village of Pali district’s Desuri block. From his two-room stone-walled house, he points towards the lush green forest, which was once his source of food, fodder, and livelihood.

According to the villagers, Garasia Colony was established by the erstwhile king, Jyot Singh, almost 90 years ago. Garasias are known as a wandering warrior tribe and the village was set up inside the forest area to chase away dacoits and protect the estate from smaller estates. Since then, the villagers had access to the forest and its resources. But over time, with changes in control over forest land and area, the village that now stands within the boundaries of the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary fears displacement as the sanctuary is soon to be converted to a Tiger Reserve area.

The creation of tiger reserves has led to the eviction of thousands of indigenous peoples and other traditional forest-dwellers from their traditional habitats, and “it cannot be said that they are better off after displacement”, a September 2022 briefing paper by the Indigenous Rights Advocacy Centre, a New Delhi-based nonprofit organisation that advocates for the rights of indigenous people in India, has said. Indigenous people have are continued to be seen as encroachers, and subjected to various types of human rights abuses, including forced eviction, killing, false prosecution, torture and harassment, the paper says.

As many as 18,493 families in 215 villages across protected areas in India have been displaced in the 48 years since the inception of Project Tiger, the Union government’s flagship scheme for tiger conservation. Apart from evictions, there have been instances of conflict between the forest department and the villagers over access to common resources like fish, Non Timber Forest Produce, etc.

On August 22, Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary received in-principle approval for upgrading to Kumbhalgarh Tiger Reserve by the National Tiger Conservation Authority. It has taken the total tally of the country’s tiger reserves to 55. The announcement was made by Bhupendra Kumar Yadav, Union Minister for Environment, Forest & Climate Change, on the platform X (formerly Twitter).

While the announcement is being hailed as a boost to the state’s tourism, many local communities stand at the crossroads of losing their lands and livelihoods, we found.

Local communities fear displacement

There are 24 villages within the boundaries of the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary and 138 on the periphery. The communities living within and on the boundaries of the sanctuary comprise Adivasi communities, namely Bhil, Meena, Garasia, and non-adivasi agro-pastoralist communities like the Raika. They are mainly dependent on livestock keeping, agriculture, and the collection of minor forest produce. Many have migrated to other parts of the country in search of work.

Hira Ram’s is one of the only 44 households to have received an Individual Forest Rights title under the Forest Rights Act, in 2009, of the 100 households in Garasia Colony village. On the less than one acre of land that he is entitled to under the Forest Rights Act, he grows maize and peanuts.

The Forest Rights Act, introduced in 2006 aimed to recognise and rectify the historical injustice perpetrated against forest-dwelling communities. It recognised the symbiotic relationship that forest-dwelling communities had with forests. It created a set of community and individual rights to access and use the forest. The Individual Forest Rights title under the Forest Rights Act ensures rights of self-cultivation and habitation.

But for years, he and the other villagers depended on the forest not only for resources that they could sell but also as a grazing ground for their cattle. He recollects how there was a gradual restriction placed on farming, collection of minor forest produce, grazing cattle and using the access roads after the sanctuary was declared first in 1971.

Adivasi communities including the Bhil, Meena, Garasia, and non-adivasi agro-pastoralist communities like the Raika live within and on the boundary of the sanctuary. These communities are mainly dependent on livestock, agriculture, and the collection of minor forest produce. Credit: Aishwarya Mohanty via IndiaSpend.com.

The forest, which was easily accessible to them, is now a two-kilometre trek away with barricading and fencing. The accessible area has also reduced over time, they claim. With limited natural resources for grazing, most of them were forced to sell off their cattle.

“There was a time when we could enter the forest without restrictions. We brought custard apples, mangoes, and dry wood [from the forest],” said Hira Ram. “We used to sell the fruits to make a living, and could take our cattle inside too for grazing. But over the years, access to the forest has been restricted.”

For Hira Ram, the number of livestock has reduced from 30. Now, he only owns 10 cows and buffaloes and 10 goats.

“With a tiger reserve being declared and the presence of a tiger in our periphery, our own existing access will also reduce. We do not want a tiger,” he said.

Around 10 km from Garasia Colony, the Kharni Tokri hamlet paints a similar picture. The villagers say they have learned about a tiger reserve in the area and their subsequent displacement through the news media. However, since the idea to expand the sanctuary into a tiger reserve was floated, the villagers claim that they have never been approached for the same either.

The village has no electricity, school or an all-season motorable road and becomes inaccessible during monsoons.

The government has not approached villagers for their consent. Often, the forest department releases rescued leopards in the periphery of Khari Tegri village.

“We live in constant fear as they harm our cattle and can even harm us. But if a tiger is brought in, it could be catastrophic for us,” Kishan Lal Gameti (24), a resident of Kharni Tokri said. The village with less than 30 households has not been granted any rights under the Forest Rights Act. Many are yet to apply for titles, and there is intervention from civil society groups and the government.

In Heeravav village of Udaipur’s Sadri block 20 km from Hira Ram’s village, on the periphery of the wildlife sanctuary area which is home to the Raika community, many camel herders are now forced to graze their herds on the roadside with limited access to the forest.

A worried Dhanaramji Raika, 67, is forced to graze his herd on the roadside ever since new fences have restricted movement. “It is extremely risky, as there is always a fear of accidents,” he said. “Since the 1960s, we have been getting grazing permits. The permits were stopped after the declaration of the wildlife sanctuary. But there was an area demarcated for us where we could graze. In the past few months, we have seen fences coming up restricting our movement further.”

Hira Ram, of Garasia Colony village in Rajasthan's Pali district, goes through his land title received under the Forest Rights Act. His is amongst the 44 households of over 100 in the village who had received the titles in 2009. Credit: Aishwarya Mohanty via IndiaSpend.com.

Despite these apprehensions, the committee report by the National Tiger Conservation Authority has maintained that “support of local people for the creation of a Tiger Reserve exists”.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority’s claim of local support is contested by activists. Despite having written memoranda and letters to concerned officials, there has been no response, said Jagdish Paliwal, a local activist. “Villages have passed a resolution against the project. We have held rallies and protests but they all landed on deaf ears,” said Paliwal. “The communities that have lived here all their lives should be consulted before such a project is undertaken. There has been a gradual displacement and alienation of people from their core areas.”

But the forest department said that they are trying to not displace any villages within the sanctuary area. “Some technical work is still underway. We are charting out the villages from within the sanctuary, but we will also try to not displace them,” said Fateh Sinh, Deputy Conservator of Forests, Kumbhalgarh.

No tiger sightings

A major contention over the announcement has been that there have been no tiger sightings in the area for the last 60 years or more.

After the idea was first floated in 2016, a meeting held by the State Board for Wildlife in Rajasthan also raised serious concerns over the proposal for the tiger reserve.

The board had observed that “there were no recent records of tigers in the area, a low prey base, and a long process of village relocation”.

They had also pointed out that Kumbhalgarh does not fall under the tiger corridor, and even those that do and are connected with Ranthambore like Mukandara and Dholpur still do not have a tiger base. The State Board for Wildlife had then suggested that no new areas without tigers should be made critical tiger habitats till Mukandara Tiger Reserve achieves success. The sanctuary is known for Indian wolves, four-horned antelope, and leopards, but has never been part of any tiger corridor.

Despite these contentions, there had been a repeated push to declare the sanctuary as a tiger reserve area.

Diya Kumari, a Member of Parliament from Rajsamand, who belongs to the Kumbhalgarh region has been at the forefront of pushing for the tiger reserve to create employment and boost eco-tourism. She is also a member of the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

Kumari pushed for the tiger reserve during the annual meetings of the National Tiger Conservation Authority. In the meeting held in May 2023, one of the agenda items put forth by Kumari was that “The declaration of Kumbhalgarh Tiger Reserve is required to be followed up and expedited.” IndiaSpend reached out to contact Diya Kumari for comment. This story will be updated when we receive a response.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority had also raised issues around the tiger reserve. In September 2021, the National Tiger Conservation Authority had sent an expert committee to investigate the feasibility of developing a tiger reserve in the landscape, looking at the status of human settlements, habitats for tigers, landscape connectivity, etc.

The committee report by the National Tiger Conservation Authority had put forth the challenges regarding the feasibility of the project while stating, as we said, that “local support exists.”

The committee had observed that the existing geographical shape of these protected areas needs to be redesigned. The landscape also does not connect to other tiger-bearing areas. Other shortcomings pointed out by the committee include the presence of invasive Prosopis juliflora; the existence of steep terrain; lack of personnel; and anthropogenic pressures.

The committee recommended “phased implementation of the project with the initial emphasis on the delineation of Critical Tiger Habitat with an improved shape; removal of invasive species; inclusion of areas outside the existing sanctuaries; eco-restoration; soil and moisture conservation; habitat improvement; prey base augmentation; improvement of protection infrastructure; filling of staff vacancies; training of staff; voluntary relocation of villages; improvement in monitoring; and mitigation of linear infrastructure”.

In phase two, the committee recommended that tiger reintroduction could be initiated.

But villagers fear this reintroduction. In Singadha gram panchayat of Udaipur district, Daili Devi, 60, said that they have over the years lost smaller animals to leopards which live in the jungles, but the presence of a tiger might make the situation worse. “We do not fight leopards. They prey on smaller animals at night. A tiger is a bigger cat and would need more prey,” said Daili Devi. “Do we give up all our animals to feed the tiger?”

She has not received any rights under the Forest Rights Act and fears that she could be displaced. “But even if they do not uproot us from here, can I live with a tiger in our immediate surroundings? How would we ensure our safety?” she asked.

A gate to the Kumbhalgarh wildlife sanctuary along a commutable road in between Pali and Rajasmand districts of Rajasthan. The gate warns of the presence of leopards in the forest area. Credit: Aishwarya Mohanty via IndiaSpend.com.

Community-inclusive approach

Hanwant Singh, an activist in Pali district, who has been fighting for the land rights of the agro-pastoralist communities in the area under the Forest Rights Act, feels that conventional traditional practices and occupations are fading away because their interests and livelihoods are not being taken into consideration in such projects.

“Even if they do not uproot them and declare it a buffer zone, there is a systematic displacement, with people moving farther away from the forests due to such developments and their rights being curtailed,” he said.

A detailed study by Kalpvriksh, a nonprofit organisation working on environmental and social issues, also calls for the “forest department to halt its expansion activities in the area immediately”.

According to the study, “... situation of land rights of local communities in KWLS [Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary] is quite unclear and remains unresolved. In such a scenario, the continued onslaught of expansion plans of the boundaries of the protected area by placing stricter categories of control over the area and bringing in a carnivore is bound to raise severe conflict.”

Experts on the Forest Rights Act also claim that a thorough scientific study on the aspects of co-existence is a must.

However, there have been overriding issues with the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, especially in “protected areas”. According to the Wildlife Protection Act, protected areas refer to a National Park, a sanctuary, a conservation reserve or a community reserve as notified under some of the sections of the Act.

The Forest Rights Act mandates that once the rights to traditional lands inside a sanctuary or national park are settled, the state must scientifically prove that the wildlife there cannot coexist with humans. Sections 2(b) and 4(2) of the Forest Rights Act says that the government should first determine whether coexistence is possible and if there is any permanent damage being caused to forest animals and their habitat. In case of resettlement, the packages must be proposed and accepted by the local gram sabha.

“As per law, a committee must be constituted to undertake a scientific study on whether or not coexistence is possible when a big cat like a tiger is being introduced in a geographical area that has a considerable human population,” said Y Giri Rao, Executive Director, Vasundhara which works on the FRA and has fought for the rights of people in the Simlipal Tiger Reserve area in Odisha. “A tiger demarcates it’s own territory, and when we are talking about introducing tigers into a new territory, there is a possibility of a human-animal conflict. The report should then be presented before the Gram Sabha. When such procedures are not followed, local communities are completely uprooted and denied of their rights.”

Wildlife experts, however, feel that community co-existence would be easier than anticipated.

“Tigers have lived in this territory long ago, so they will be ‘re-introduced’. It would not be brand new territory in those terms. And for community members who have survived living with leopards, there are good chances that they will survive with tigers as well, considering that tigers will be placed in the interior core areas,” said Aditya Panda, a wildlife conservationist.

The Rajasthan government is now planning to form a committee to assess the requirements of the reserve. “We are determined to work towards tiger conservation while keeping the interests of the local communities in mind,” said Shikhar Agarwal, additional chief secretary of the department of environment, forest and climate change, Rajasthan government. “Since we have been granted in-principle approval of the tiger reserve, we are forming a committee that will undertake an assessment of the requirements of the reserve to make it suitable for the tigers.”

This article was first published on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.