As the Forest Department works to keep the Valmiki Tiger Reserve free from all human activity, forest dwelling communities inhabiting the reserve area struggle to eke out a living.
The Valmiki Tiger Reserve in West Champaran is the only national park and tiger reserve in Bihar. Ever since its establishment in 1990, it has been hailed as a model for tiger conservation. But over the last ten years, the Tharu community, indigenous to the forests of the region, have seen their rights over the forest being snatched away by the state in the name of tiger conservation.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006, commonly known as the FRA, gives traditional forest-dwelling communities the right to procure minor forest produce. The Tharu community of West Champaran is a notified Scheduled Tribe, and they depend on agriculture and forest produce for subsistence. Historically, the Tharu community’s ownership of land has only dwindled with colonial rule and independence.
“It is a matter of survival for us,” says Santresha Devi, unhappy with the way Forest Department staff keep the community out of the forest. Community Correspondent Tanju Devi, who belongs to the same community, explains that the Forest Department tries to implicate those procuring minor produce as smugglers, and if challenged, the Department pushes them into long legal battles which forest dwellers cannot afford.
The Forest Department, armed with forest conservation policies and rules often drafted by overriding the FRA, is infamous for creating trouble for forest-dwelling communities.
“The Forest officials, rangers, cattle guard..they all stop us from entering the forest. It is the cutting of timber for commercial purposes that should be stopped, we should be allowed to use timber for essential purposes like firewood,” says Anil Mahato.
Depriving the community of resources essential to their life is one way the state is asserting its power over them, the direct threat of forced eviction is another.
In March 2017, the National Tiger Conservation Authority, a body under the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), issued a circular saying that forest-dwelling communities did not have the right to land or resources in critical tiger reserves; the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes argues that the circular is violative of the FRA and has constituted a panel to look at rehabilitation before any displacement takes place.
Adivasi rights activists have also opposed the MoEF’s guidelines on critical wildlife habitats which mark ‘inviolate’ zones of 800-1000 square kilometres in these habitats; they have instead asked for coexistence strategies to ensure that communities are not kept away from crucial resources.
Although the Forest Department is not threatening the community in Gaunaha with displacement right now, the MoEF’s and stand on community rights under the FRA gives them the power to harass forest-dwelling communities like the Tharu community.
The state keeps Adivasi communities out of forests on the pretext that they use and destroy forest resources; the communities, however, have a history of co-existence with the forest, conserving it in the process.
Mahato explains, “We only take the fallen trees for timber, we never cut down a tree. But they don’t even let us take the fallen tree trunks that are simply going to rot there.”
If evicted, affected families are entitled to a compensation of 10 lakh rupees per family, an amount that the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes wants doubled. But it is traditional means of living and livelihoods that will be lost when Adivasi communities are cast away from the forests that have called home for generations.
In West Champaran, the problem has been a long-standing one, and Tanju has consistently been reporting on the deprivation of forest rights and other issues that the Tharu community faces. Support her community by calling the District Magistrate, Nilesh Deore, at +91- 9473191298 and apprising him of the scale of the problem.
Video by Community Correspondent Tanju Devi
Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team