Forest Rights

How the tribal affairs ministry allowed tiger reserves to get away with displacing Adivasis

The news comes as India attempts to project itself as a global leader in involving local communities in conservation.

Reversing its long-standing position, and in violation of the law, the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs has allowed the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to continue denying Adivasis and forest-dwellers rights to their traditional lands in India’s tiger reserves.

Consequently, the illegal prohibition on settling tribal rights, imposed by the environment ministry in March, now covers 50 tiger reserves spread over 40,000 sq km. The prohibition has not only led to thousands of Adivasis and forest-dwellers being denied their rights, news reports and studies from across the country show they are being evicted from their lands in violation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

More than 4,00,000 Adivasis and forest-dwellers live in India’s tiger reserves, according to a 2005 report by the environment ministry’s Tiger Task Force, and the Forest Rights Act secures them rights to their traditional lands. This applies to all lands the Adivasis have legitimate claims to, whether in protected wildlife zones or elsewhere. But for over a decade, the environment ministry and much of the forest bureaucracy has held back from recognising these rights in areas designated as protected areas under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 – sanctuaries and national parks.

The tribal affairs ministry, which is charged with implementing the 2006 law, had been, at least on paper, telling the environment ministry not to delay the settling of Adivasi claims even in wildlife parks. Yet, in March this year, the environment ministry’s National Tiger Conservation Authority legitimised the position the forest bureaucracy had quietly taken for years: it told state forest officials to not settle tribal rights until guidelines for “critical wildlife habitat” are formulated. The guidelines were to be drafted by the environment ministry in 2007. It never did.

The law, of course, does not make settling Adivasi rights contingent on the formulation of such guidelines. 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 – this process is to be carried out as per the critical wildlife habitat guidelines that were never formulated – for the claimants to be voluntarily relocated and compensated.

This provision is meant to ensure that Adivasis are not just thrown off their lands without proper compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement as used to happen previously. In fact, the law explicitly states that no Adivasi or forest-dweller can be relocated or removed or his rights curtailed for any purpose until they are first formally recognised under the Forest Rights Act.

This used to be the tribal affairs ministry’s position as well. In July 2012, government records accessed by Scroll.in show, the ministry clarified that forest rights must be recognised in tiger reserves irrespective of the critical wildlife habitat guidelines being put in place.

Now, though, the tribal affairs ministry has allowed the environment ministry to have its way. In a letter to the environment secretary in May, a copy of which was reviewed by Scroll.in, the tribal affairs secretary did question the environment ministry’s authority to issue an order on the Forest Rights Act without consulting her ministry, but she did not ask for the prohibition on settling claims to be withdrawn. She also did not ask the environment ministry to stop states from relocating people from tiger reserves without settling their rights first. Referring to the environment ministry’s ban, the secretary’s letter stated:

“I believe it is only a temporary measure in the absence of meeting the requirement of section 2(b) hence may I request ministry of environment, forest and climate change to initiate due process under section 2(b) of FRA so that guidelines for notifying Critical Wildlife Habitats can be formalised at an early date.”  

This u-turn by the tribal affairs ministry came despite scholars, activists and conservation scientists asking it to get the environment ministry to withdraw the March order, warning that it was illegal.

The revelation that the two Union ministries have quietly agreed to continue the ban on recognising Adivasi rights in tiger reserves comes at a time when the Narendra Modi government is projecting India as a global leader in involving local communities in conservation. Speaking at a conference of the Global Wildlife Programme in Delhi on October 2, Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Harsh Vardhan claimed: “India is playing a leadership role in management of wildlife through involvement of local communities...Five crore people living around national parks and sanctuaries are working as partners in environment conservation.” The theme of the conference, in which 19 Asian and African countries are participating, is “Peoples’ participation in wildlife conservation”.

Siddhanta Das, director general of forests in the environment ministry, defended the National Tiger Conservation Authority’s March order. “Protected areas are the storehouse of carbon,” he said. “Plantation is not going to help us as much as the forests in protected areas in fighting climate change. We issued that order to reach a win-win situation where forests are protected and tribals get a chance to live better lives outside the forests.” Asked if the government planned to withdraw the ban anytime soon, Das replied, “There is no conflict with tribal rights. People are voluntarily relocating from the tiger reserves.”

Ground reports suggest otherwise. Last year, two people were killed allegedly during a violent eviction drive by the forest department near Kaziranga tiger reserve in Assam. In the nearby Manas National Park, hamlets of Adivasis were ransacked. In Chhattisgarh, forest officials allegedly destroyed standing crops of Adivasis in Achanakmar Tiger Reserve.

The ministry of tribal affairs did not respond to emailed queries from Scroll.in.

Doubtful intentions

In 1973, when the government launched Project Tiger, the creation of “inviolate” spaces for wildlife inside protected areas was one of its main objectives. That meant relocating people living there. But the millions of Adivasis and forest-dwelling communities living in and using forests for livelihood for generations often did not have legal documents to prove either ownership of lands or their traditional rights. The government tried to remove the people from some tiger reserves but many resisted and continued to live inside the reserves with severely restricted rights compared to citizens living outside.

In 2004, the civil society, tribal rights activists and parts of the government began working on a draft for the Forest Rights Act, only, records show, to face resistance from the environment ministry and forest officials. So, as the drafts were revised, the environment ministry was permitted, as a compromise, to partly ringfence tiger reserves from the Forest Rights Act. Accordingly, the ministry brought an amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act requiring the government to identify “critical tiger habitats” from existing tiger reserves as “inviolate” areas to be kept free of humans. This exercise was to be “scientific and consultative”.

The understanding was that forest officials would identify all tiger reserves as critical tiger habitats. It would be in keeping with the Forest Rights Act in letter, but on the ground it would mean that scientific assessing of wildlife zones would not really be required to remove the Adivasis. However, in November 2007, the National Tiger Conservation Authority asked all states to demarcate critical tiger habitats within 10 days. In almost all cases, entire reserves were declared as critical tiger habitats.

In 2008, the Authority asked that Adivasi families be relocated after giving them each a compensation of Rs 10 lakh. It, however, clarified that “voluntary relocation need to be done only in the core or critical tiger habitats of the tiger reserves”.

But this still required settling of Adivasis’ rights first, and to take their consent before relocating them under the Forest Rights Act. In order to avoid this, the Authority has now raised up the bogey of the non-existent “critical wildlife habitat” guidelines. The data journalism initiative Land Conflict Watch has documented at least 27 ongoing conflicts relating to protected wildlife areas, including tiger reserves. Almost all the conflicts are over displacement and eviction of communities or denial of their forest rights.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.