The National Wildlife Action Plan released by India’s environment ministry has asked for the speedy recognition of the forest rights of communities living inside tiger reserves, months after the ministry itself stalled the process.

India has designated 50 parks and sanctuaries as tiger reserves. More than 400,000 people, including Adivasis, live here. In March, the environment ministry passed an order that put on hold the settlement of the forest rights of these communities until guidelines are drafted for identifying critical wildlife habitats, which are legally defined as areas required to be kept “inviolate for the purposes of wildlife conservation”.

Under the Forest Rights Act, which was passed in 2006, Adivasis and other forest dwellers can apply for legal titles over the land and resources traditionally owned and used by them. The law also asked for the scientific identification of critical wildlife habitats, where human settlements and wildlife cannot co-exist. But a decade later, the environment ministry, which was tasked with identifying these areas, has failed to even draft the guidelines.

While the law does not make settling Adivasi rights contingent on the formulation of such guidelines, the ministry used their absence as an excuse to legitimise the position that forest departments had taken for decades – of holding back from recognising these rights in protected parks and sanctuaries.

The National Wildlife Action Plan, which is meant to guide government policy on conservation between 2017-2031, however, has taken another view. It has asked for the forest rights of people living in tiger reserves and protected areas to be determined by 2020 in accordance with the Forest Rights Act.

The plan goes a step further and states that long delays in the settlement of forest rights and the payment of compensation to people living in protected areas have been “a major source of alienation of the local people from wildlife conservation”.

Released on October 2, the plan was approved by the National Board for Wildlife in July. The board, which is headed by the prime minister, governs wildlife-related matters in the country and its decisions are legally enforceable. emailed queries to the environment ministry asking whether the National Wildlife Plan’s view made its March order untenable. The ministry did not respond.

The National Wildlife Action Plan has also asked for a review of past instances of the relocation of villages from forest areas. While this may have been done with the aim of creating inviolate spaces for wildlife, the relocation may have resulted in the forcible eviction of Adivasis without the settlement of their rights and rehabilitation claims. Forest officials have justified such displacement as “voluntary relocation”, but as reported, this is often not the case.

The review proposed by the plan comes as the first formal admission by the Union government that the environment ministry and forest officials may have acted in violation of the forest rights law in such cases.

Over 50 million Adivasis and other forest dwellers live in and around India's 700 wildlife sanctuaries, parks and reserves and depend on the forests for their livelihood. (Credit: Reinhard Krause / Reuters)

Exclusionary conservation

India has more than 700 national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and conservation reserves spread over 16 million hectares or about 5 per cent of country’s geographical area. Collectively, these are called “protected areas”. They support majority of the 8% biodiversity of the world found in India. At the same time, more than 50 million Adivasis and other forest dwellers live in and around these forests and depend on them for livelihood.

The forest-related laws enacted in the colonial period, such as the Indian Forest Act, 1927, gave legal control over large tracts of forests to the government by turning these into ‘nationalised’ forested lands. As a consequence, millions of tribals and other forest-dwellers either suffered a severe restriction on their rights or were termed encroachers.

In 1972, the Union government enacted the Wildlife Protection Act. National parks and sanctuaries with a higher degree of protection were created under the law to safeguard the biodiversity rich areas of the country. The law required people to be either relocated from these forests or restricted their rights in such areas. The government tried to remove people from wildlife reserves but many resisted and continued to live inside the reserves with severely restricted rights.

New regime, old problems

India altered this legal regime for wildlife conservation and forest protection in 2006 when it enacted the Forest Rights Act. The law requires restoration of traditional rights of tribals and forest dwellers on forestlands including the wildlife reserves. It empowers gram sabhas or village councils to protect the biodiversity and mandates that no Adivasi or forest-dweller can be relocated or removed or his rights curtailed for any purpose until they are first formally recognised.

This was done to address ground level demands from tribal communities and activists who ran a campaign for recognition of their rights. It was also in tune with global recognition that exclusion of local people from conservation schemes resulted in their deprivation and in many cases failed to protect the environment. Global conservation bodies like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the World Wildlife Fund and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity have recognised in their policy documents that for effective protection of wildlife areas, people dependent on such areas should be involved in their management as legally empowered rights holders.

Under the Forest Rights Act, the government is required to first settle rights of tribals over their traditional lands inside sanctuaries and national parks, besides all other forests. Once that is done, the government can then create “inviolate” spaces for wildlife by relocating people and compensating them for their recognised rights. This is, however, only to be done in the areas where state has scientifically, and with consultation of local people, proven that the wildlife there cannot coexist with humans. For this process the law required the government to formulate the “critical wildlife habitat” guidelines.

But, for more than a decade the ministry failed to do so. In parallel, forest officials across most tiger reserves held back from settling rights of tribals. Formalising this impasse, in March this year, the environment ministry’s National Tiger Conservation Authority told state forest officials to not settle tribal rights in over 50 national parks and sanctuaries that are designated as tiger reserves until guidelines for critical wildlife habitats are formulated.

Forest dwellers demand rights to their lands at a rally in Delhi. (Credit: Parivartan Sharma / Reuters)

Action plan admits the fault line

While one arm of the ministry passed these orders, the ministry set up a committee under retired forest officer J C Kala to draft the new National Wildlife Action Plan. It admitted that “forcible relocations or poorly executed resettlement projects have resulted in the ill-will of the affected people towards wildlife conservation”.

“A number of villages have been shifted out of protected areas, particularly tiger reserves, since the 1970s either for fulfilling the legal requirements of a National Park or for reducing anthropogenic pressure on the core area of tiger reserves. There is a need to review the whole gamut of relocation of villages to make it voluntary and people friendly,” it said.

It asked the environment ministry to conduct a review of the past relocation cases in collaboration with state forest departments, scientific institutes and non-profit organisations to assess the impact on the relocated people as well as wildlife habitats so that good practices could be developed for future relocation projects by 2020.

The plan also called for the involvement of forest-dwelling communities in wildlife protection. “The exclusionary models of forest and wildlife management made the local people hostile towards the State Forest Departments,” the plan said. “Public support is no longer a matter of choice but an absolute necessity in the emerging scenario of wildlife management in the country.”

There are already examples like the BR Hills Tiger Reserve in Karnataka and Yawal wildlife sanctuary in Maharashtra where Adivasi communities have contributed significantly in the protection of wildlife after their forest rights have been recognised. The new plan suggested such involvement could take the form of eco-tourism which could enhance the earnings of local communities. The plan also proposed a greater role of Joint Forest Management Committees, through which forest departments have been claiming to work with local communities for the management of forests in return of sharing of benefit from forest resources.

Environmental scholars, however, strike a note of caution. “The action plan is progressive in identifying that conservation needs people’s support and current policies have not been able to do so,” said Neema Pathak Broome of Kalpavriksh, a non-profit in Pune. “However, it falls way short of suggesting concrete actions to address it and does not go beyond the conventional methods of Joint Forest Management and eco-development.”

Broome pointed out that the National Wildlife Plan ignored community institutions created under the Forest Rights Act and the conservation plans already drafted by hundreds of gram sabhas across the country. These should be at the premise of any collaborative conservation plan, she said.