Sato Nagesia was not amused. “How many times will we move?” he asked. “They chased us from there, and now they want to chase us from here as well? We will not go away.”

The elderly Adivasi farmer was reacting to a letter from the forest department in Jharkhand that he received in August, which stated that the state government planned to relocate Gopkhar – the village in the Palamau Tiger Reserve where he lives – outside the reserve in order to increase the number of tigers in the forest. Inhabitants of seven other villages in the reserve received similar letters.

The letter baffled everyone in Gopkhar, a hamlet of Nagesia Adivasis, classified by the government of India as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group, with the smallest population among all Adivasi communities in India. They pointed out that it was the government that had resettled them in Gopkhar in the first place decades ago.

“The administration displaced us from Netarhat forest to make the talaab [reservoir] there,” explained Nagasia, one of the hamlet’s oldest inhabitants. This was a reference to the construction of a reservoir and a prestigious residential school on the Netarhat hill by Bihar’s first Chief Minister Krishna Singh in the early 1950s. Nagesia was just a child then.

“Overnight, our pastures became government’s land,” recounted Nagesia. “The paddy we had planted drowned in their reservoir. The Palamau district collector then got land from the forest department and settled us here, in Gopkhar.”

Several families in Gopkhar possess frayed, yellowed official documents which show that Bihar government officials (the state of Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar in 2000) had recognised their new villages in 1988-’89. At that time, apart from the land for resettlement, the Adivasis had not got any other compensation or assistance from the government.

The government wanted the inhabitants of the villages to agree to be displaced. The forest department letter asked the villagers to formally respond to the letter, signalling their consent to their relocation. The letter cited a Jharkhand High Court order from February to suggest that this was an urgent matter. The court hearing concerned a Public Interest Litigation related to the reduction in the number of tigers in Palamau.

However, during the February hearing, department officials claimed that all eight villages inside the core area of the reserve were remote villages, had poor connectivity to facilities, and that its villagers would like to be relocated out of the forest for their safety and development.

After the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, was passed in 2006 , Gopkhar’s 31 households had filed applications for recognition of their forests rights. However, these applications were rejected. The historic law, also known as the Forest Rights Act, gave back to traditional forest dwellers their rights to access, manage and govern forest lands and resources, which had been controlled by the forest department since colonial times. Under the law, forest dwellers can apply to state governments for either individual or community forest rights.

Anxious about their potential second displacement, the inhabitants of Gopkhar returned the letter to the forest department in August without signing it. Six out of the eight villages have since officially said that they do not wish to be relocated out of Palamau.

Sato Nagesia was displaced as a child. Now, he stares at displacement again. Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav.

Mismanaged conservation

The tiger population in Betla National Park, which constitutes 1,130 sq km of the Palamau Tiger Reserve, has declined over the past decades. There were 23 tigers here in 1973, when the park was declared a tiger reserve. This grew to 42 tigers by 2003. The tiger population subsequently dwindled significantly. In 2006-’10, the number of tigers reduced to 12, say officials. In the 2014 tiger census, it dropped to just three tigers.

In the February 28 hearing, a Jharkhand High Court bench comprising Justices DN Patel and Ratnaker Bhengra ordered state authorities to immediately implement the Tiger Conservation Plan as approved by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the apex body for matters related to tiger conservation in India. The authority mandates that each tiger reserve in the country should have a conservation plan, which includes a scheme of voluntary relocation of all Adivasi families from core tiger areas.

The court also asked the state government to carry out what it called the “re-allocation” of eight villages – Gopkhar, Pandra, Vijaypur, Kujrum, Latu, Ramandag, Henar, Gutuwa – as per the “Voluntary Village Re-allocation Package”, under which each relocated family is entitled to a payment of Rs 10 lakh as per norms set by the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

Sanjay Kumar, Jharkhand’s principal chief conservator of forests, said: “We will relocate eight villages from the core area of the reserve. This is being done in tiger reserves all over India, and Palamau has lagged behind.”

There is anxiety on the ground.

Sulka Nagesia, a middle-aged Adivasi farmer from Gopkhar village, was worried that the families in the hamlet would be cut off from their sources of sustenance if they were made to leave the forest. She said that their families survived on paddy half the year, and on minor forest produce the other half.

Kumar said that as per the Tiger Conservation Plan, all relocation has to be voluntary. “We will ask the communities till they become agreeable to this,” he said. “Even if they say ‘no’ today, tomorrow they may see an advantage and move out.”

Several families in Gopkhar village have documents that attest to the fact that the state government had recognised their homestead land in 1988-'89. Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav.

MP Singh, project director of the Palamau Tiger Reserve, said that the presence of more than 600 Adivasi families in the forest was leading to segmentation of tiger habitats in the forest’s core area. “We plan to to bring more tigers here,” said Singh. He added that in Madhya Pradesh, Adivasi hamlets had successfully been relocated from core areas of wildlife parks.

However, civil society activists argued that the construction of a 11-foot wide concrete road through the Betla forest to facilitate the movement of thousands of paramilitary troops posted in Maoist-violence affected Latehar district of the state was leading to fragmentation of the habitat of elephants and other wild animals.

Denial of Adivasi rights

In Latehar, George Monipally, an activist with the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a forum that campaigned for the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, said the forest department’s letters to relocate the Adivasi villages was in conflict with Adivasi rights.

“The British reserved the Betla and Saranda, two of the largest forests in Jharkhand, in the late 19th century,” said Monipally. “When forest officials could not get labour inside the forests, they settled these villages here. After the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, forest villages such as Gopkhar were converted to revenue villages [an administrative region].”

Though provisions in both the Wildlife Protection Act and the Forest Rights Act say that no Scheduled Tribes or other forest dwellers may be relocated unless the process of recognition of their forest rights is complete, the forest bureaucracy at the Centre and in the state had failed to follow the law, he said.

“Not wanting to engage with forest rights claims, the environment ministry amended the Wildlife Protection Act [in September 2006, months before the Forest Rights law was enacted] mandating that it would identify ‘critical tiger habitats’ in existing tiger reserves, where experts scientifically prove that wildlife could not co-exist with humans,” said Monipally. “But in practice, the process was neither scientific nor consultative, the government notified 20 critical tiger habitats, of which one was Palamau, in a hurry, one day before the Forest Rights Act became operative” on January 1, 2008.

He added: “In Betla forest, villages such as Gopkhar that were in the buffer area till then overnight were identified as ‘critical tiger habitat’ as [part of the] core area, and the surrounding areas became buffer areas of the tiger reserve.”

The Betla forest. Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav.

The status of Forest Rights Act claims

Under the Forest Rights Act, forest dwellers cannot be relocated without their claims to forest land being settled first. However, inside the Palamau Tiger Reserve core area, even where the rights of inhabitants on homestead land is recognised by the government, their claims to forest land, essential for their food and livelihood, were rejected in most instances.

Forest dwellers said that though the Gram Sabha or village assembly had approved their forest rights claims, the claims were repeatedly rejected at the next stage by the forest range officers, who are members of a sub-divisional level committee to determine claims.

“We have applied five to six times, but not one claim was accepted,” said Batua Kisan Nagesia in Gopkhar. “In the meeting, the range officer said, ‘You have a lot of land already and there are big trees close to where you live’, and he rejected it.”

Inhabitants of another village, Pandra, said that only eight out of 61 families received titles under the forest rights law over the years.

RP Shukla, the Forest Range Officer (Garu East), said that in Kujrum, one of two out of eight villages whose forest dwellers have agreed to re-locate, all 49 families’ claims had been accepted. “These forest dwellers have a lot of lobh [greed] for land,” he said. “Most families started cultivating land after 2005, but they collude in the Gram Sabha to claim otherwise.”

Further eroding the rights of these communities, in March, the National Tiger Conservation Authority, which comes under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, wrote to state forest departments saying no Adivasi rights may be settled till guidelines for “critical wildlife habitat” are formulated. But these guidelines have not been formulated for 10 years, since 2007.

Civil society activists have questioned why a body under the environment ministry issued orders on a matter that relates to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

Earlier this month, reported that the tribal affairs secretary wrote to the environment ministry about this letter, but eventually allowed the environment ministry to have its way, further violating the rights of Adivasi communities living inside tiger reserves for decades.

‘We were used as forced labour’

A few kilometers from Gopkhar, in Pandra and Vijaypur villages, where more than 150 Adivasi families have also been asked to re-locate, there is growing anger against the forest department.

The inhabitants of these villages said that for years they have been used as “bitthi begar”, or forced labour, by the forest department.

Dhaneshwar Oraon, a frail elderly man, said that decades earlier, forest officials had brought his family and other Adivasi families to Pandra inside the Betla forest to perform what he called “forced labour”. He said they were either not paid at all, or were paid as little as Re 1 a day.

He rattled off a list of tasks forest department officials routinely made them do: “Dig trenches in the forest, carry the range officer on a cot on our shoulders to the resthouse on top of Netarhat hill, and carry him back downhill, build their offices on top of Netarhat, work on teak plantations.”

Oraon added: “We have had to work as bonded labourers for them.”

Dhaneshwar Oraon says he is not going anywhere. Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav.

He added that even now when forest fires break out, forest officials order the village men to douse the fires, and if there are no men in a household, forest officials asked the women, he said.

He was livid when he spoke about the forest department letter asking villagers to relocate. “After all this forced labour, if they hit us with sticks, we will not leave,” he said. “I am about to die now, and I will not leave.”

In Ranchi, principal chief conservator of forests Kumar said: “The department settled the villages, that is why we are taking the responsibility to resettle them.”

He declined to comment on the issue of settling forest rights inside the tiger reserve.

A protest regarding land issues and displacement was held in Jharkhand’s Latehar district on October 6. Photo courtesy: George Monipally.