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 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, 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

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.