Environment
Is the forest and wildlife protected better with its people co-existing inside, or do they have to be evicted?

This is the third story in a four-part series on the Forest Rights Act (FRA). Read part one and part two.

The choice in front of Balan alias Manju epitomizes the adage, ‘between a rock and a hard place’. Does he go to work and take his children to school? Or does he stay back home and make sure that his small farm of coffee and jackfruit is not pillaged by wild elephants?

“On the days I don’t work, I don’t know if there’ll be food for my family that night,” says Balan, a Kattunayakar resident of the village of Chambakolly. This village, located in the buffer zone of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, is susceptible to constant raids by pachyderms, especially when there is a scarcity of food within the core forest area.

“After six at night, we can’t leave our homes. A few months back, even the balwadi was damaged by an elephant. The officials came and saw this, but they haven’t done anything after that,” adds Balan.

Despite this constant conflict with wildlife, Balan, much like other adivasi residents here, prefers to stay at Chambakolly and not move elsewhere.

His cousin, G Manickam, was shy to talk at first; but hearing our conversation, he weighed in: “We’ve been here forever, and everything we know is here. We can’t survive outside.”

“We just hope that through Forest Rights Act (FRA) - or by any other means - they provide us electricity, a water line, and maybe build a school for our kids here; most importantly, I hope they provide titles for our land,” he added.

Both Manickam and Balan, go into the forest to collect honey - a Kattunayakar tradition - only occasionally nowadays. They earn their living through coolie work and daily wage labour, much like the other 150 or so residents of their village.

Even though the FRA guarantees rights for the adivasis and other forest dwellers, they still face a constant threat of eviction, especially if they live within or near a Protected Area, such as a tiger reserve.

A house destroyed by an elephant attack in Bokkapuram. 

A constant tug of war

At the root of this threat are laws that are incompatible with each other.

On the one hand is the FRA, that states that it will correct historical injustices meted out to the schedule tribes and other forest dwellers, and facilitate a transfer of governance.

On the other hand are various legislations such as the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority Act and statutory bodies under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), which seem to repeatedly undermine the rule of law as dictated by the FRA.

On March 28, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the nodal body for tiger conservation that functions within the ministry, wrote to all tiger range states, asking for implementation of the FRA inside critical tiger habitats to be stopped.

The letter stated:

“In the absence of guidelines for notification of critical wildlife habitats, no rights shall be conferred in Critical Tiger Habitats which is notified under section 38 V (4) (i), of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972.”

Forest rights experts say that this denial of rights by the NTCA is grossly illegal.

“NTCA has no jurisdiction over the recognition of rights of the forest dwellers as all FRA-related matters are the domain of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA). The order has no legal or scientific basis, and should be withdrawn with immediate effect,” says Sharachchandra Lele of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE).

He adds, “Governments often seem to be irrational. For every progressive law, there’ll be other regressive laws. When it comes to the FRA, the rules are clear about provisions for recognition of rights of the forest dwellers in all forests of India, including the Protected Areas. Unfortunately, recognition and settlement of the rights of the forest dwellers is yet to be done in most Protected Areas, including Critical Tiger Habitats.”

Letter from NTCA to all Tiger Range states

This letter from the NTCA is only the latest in a series of what can be considered violations of FRA by various arms of the government. While the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) has the responsibility to make sure that FRA is implemented, a short-staffed ministry with limited powers doesn’t seem to have the capacity to do this.

As Lele says, “Without any punitive powers, they can do little more than breathe down the necks of departments and states that are not implementing FRA.”

Cases of violation

In Tamil Nadu itself, there are several recorded cases of FRA violations, both in Protected Areas and otherwise. In 2009, the Kanikarar adivasis living inside the Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve were served eviction notices. They managed to refute the claims made in the eviction notice and continue to stay on inside.

There is a perennial cloud of uncertainty though, not only with regards to implementation of FRA rights, but also on whether they will be asked to leave their ancestral villages again.

Rajan S, a lawyer from the Kanikarar tribe and a vociferous advocate for the FRA, says, “I believe that the bureaucrats from the forest and other departments feel that if they give FRA rights, people whom they treated no better than slaves will suddenly stand up to them. There is also no education about the FRA among the officials, and this needs to change immediately.”

Rajan, who belongs to the village of Pechiparai in Kanyakumari district, about a 100 kilometres from Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, adds, “In the reserve, our people are still there but they are hardly able to assert themselves and ask for their rights under FRA. Everything is under the forest department’s control.”

There have also been attempts to evict people living in and around the Mudumalai, Sathyamangalam and Anamalai Tiger Reserves.

Lacking initiative

One of the biggest hurdles when it comes to the FRA is that those whose prerogative it is to take the law forward are either unaware of it, or unable to dedicate the resources it requires.

“In the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, there is no particular wing that looks at FRA. To my knowledge, they have only come up with knee-jerk reactions so far,” says Sreetama Guptabhaya, program coordinator at Oxfam-India, who has worked as a FRA consultant with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

“The FRA doesn’t have a budget attached to it, while all of the other MoEFCC projects such as the Joint Forest Management program, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority Act etc., have huge money involved. I think there was an interdepartmental effort to establish guidelines as to what role the forest department and the community should play in managing forest area and establishing Community Forest Resource (CFR) rights guidelines. This has not come out yet to the best of my knowledge,” Sreetama says.

The other side

The forest department officials though feel that the finger is pointed at them for the problems with FRA in various spheres, without enough backing.

“It is mostly because of a communication gap. Whenever we relocate from Protected Areas, we make sure the FRA is adhered to,” says Srinivas Reddy, Field Director of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in the Nilgiris.

“Land is a precious commodity in India and laws such as FRA can be misused,” Srinivas adds. “For example, in the Nilgiris, there are certain tribal communities who are claiming stretches of land in which they have no stake at all. They are also practicing agriculture on lands which should be left as high-altitude grasslands. So we want to make sure such situations don’t arise,” he says.

Despite acknowledging the risk of misuse of FRA, Hrusikesh Panda, a retired IAS officer, who served as secretary at the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, feels that the price administrators and governments pay for dragging their feet on this Act is bound to be high. Apart from being a land rights issue, he emphasized on FRA being looked at through the national security prism.

“There is a threat of insurgency and left wing extremism (LWE) in south India as well. Any sensible state which has insurgency issues, either presently or has potential for such problems in the future, should implement FRA. It makes sense because it will take the problems away,” he says.

“Odisha is a case in point,” Hrushikesh adds. “After FRA, LWE has come down significantly there. Other states should learn from this.”

A panoramic view of the fringes of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve on the Gudalur side.

Precariousness continues

Nearly a decade has passed since the FRA was notified, yet it is still a long way away from making a significant change to the lives of forest people.

“We’re losing hope because we have to keep on protesting,” says PT Varghese, a resident of Masinagudi, just outside the Mudumalai Tiger reserve.

PT Verghese of Masinagudi at his tea stall.

The lanky and weatherworn Verghese is a key figure in the fight for FRA in the Nilgiris, and while his day job is running a tea stall in Masinagudi, he has also been vital in coordinating the communities in and around Mudumalai to speak out for their rights.

“For us, living here with the forest is casual. There can’t be destruction of forest because of us. It has been so long, and nothing’s changing. No political party or organisation supports us, and the NGOs and the Forest Department are always in our way. We’re vexed,” says Varghese.  

In the village of Bokkapuram, again in the Tiger reserve’s fringes, the about 2,500 Irular and Kurumbar residents are hoping that there will be some kind of certainty soon.

A broken down house in Bokkapuram village. A Irular family still resides here due to lack of an alternative accommodation.

“After Kamaraj’s time, there’s been no development here; although many resorts have come up, they don’t provide us anything,” says Kunmasi, an Irular resident here, and a member of the village gram sabha.

“People are still living in broken houses here for decades. Only if the FRA comes will something change around here. For us adivasis, this is our only strength,” Kunmasi says.

The fourth and final part of this series will look at how the people of Vazhachal in Kerala used the FRA to prevent a dam from coming up in their forests, that would have submerged large tracts of land in their region.

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Chennai. He tweets @sibi123.

All images by Sibi Arasu.

Also Read: 

Part 1: Whose forest is it anyway? Tamil Nadu’s disastrous disregard for the Forest Rights Act

Part 2: Tamil Nadu govt turns a blind eye to Forest Rights Act, but the law is empowering forest-dwellers