Seven villages are set to be evacuated for the expansion of the Sanjay National Park in Madhya Pradesh, ostensibly for wildlife conservation.
“The problem is that the government is chasing us out,” laments Phulwait Singh. Singh is one of 15,000 people, indigenous forest dwellers, living in villages bordering Sanjay National Park forests in Madhya Pradesh. Nibhiya, where Singh lives, was settled in fifty years back. The villagers depend on agriculture, raising cattle and collecting forest produce for their livelihood. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Recognition of Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA) guarantees the right of these communities to land and forest produce, denied them under the continuation of the erstwhile colonial forest laws. The villagers have documents giving them right to their land and yet they are set to be dispossessed and displaced from their land.
Traditional forest dwelling communities were deprived of their rights and denied access to the forest under the Indian Forest Act of 1927. This colonial law, under the garb of conservation, was enacted to further the British exploitation of timber. In post-independence India, this law continued despite the detriment to forests which were often transformed into commercial timber plantations and cleared to aid ‘development’ in form of environmentally harmful dams and mines. The FRA reinstated the rights of the traditional forest communities and also gave them a voice in the maintenance and conservation of forests and wildlife. Contrary to what shortsighted conservationists feared, this, in many cases, has resulted in the preservation of biodiversity by foiling the government’s plans to fell traditional trees and create artificial plantations to be used for the timber trade.
In Madhya Pradesh, the government is planning the expansion of the Sanjay Tiger Reserve. Under Clause 4 of the FRA, the government can only remove villages when it can prove beyond doubt that human habitation is directly the cause of harm to wildlife. Community Correspondent Kailash Singh is of the opinion that the government has no real reason to evict the villagers. “There have been no cases of human-animal conflict here,” he says. The FRA further stipulates that in such cases, where the government has established that eviction is needed in the interest of wildlife conservation, they need the people’s consent and provide them with adequate rehabilitation that guarantees their livelihood. Back in 2008, in a meeting with the Gram Sabhas (village councils), the officials agreed to a compensation of Rupees 10 lakhs per family. The villagers have repeatedly petitioned the government for land in exchange of their present land titles to no avail.
“The forest is the source of sustenance for the people from these seven villages. They collect fodder for cattle, medicinal herbs and forest produce like tendu leaves and mahua. They are afraid of their future with this meagre compensation. They’ve been living in a pristine environment that they’ve maintained. It’s not like they use gadgets like refrigerators and air conditioners--they have a simple lifestyle based on whatever is accessible in their natural surrounding,” asserts Kailash. Villagers are under a lot of pressure and feel they have no choice. Phulwait Singh says “The compensation is not sufficient, but what choice do we have?” Her husband Talvir Singh adds “We want the land so we have secure livelihoods. We’ll leave if we are resettled and given land in exchange for what we are giving up.” Even the compensation amount, agreed upon in 2008, has not been adjusted for inflation.
There have been numerous instances of administrative feet dragging regarding the implementation of the FRA as well as blatant violations of the provisions by officials from across the country. The Forest Advisory Committee has recently sanctioned a large dam (77 meters in height) in the heart of the critical tiger habitat in Panna in Madhya Pradesh. This ‘development’ project will require the felling of 18 lakh trees and seriously imperil the conservation of the endangered national animal. Moves like this cast a shadow on the real intent of the officialdom when they use wildlife conservation as an excuse to deprive marginalised communities of their rights. Some villagers have already accepted the meagre compensation in Sanjay National Reserve because they fear eviction. These are not unfounded fears as the government has repeatedly transgressed laws and trampled upon the rights of the most marginalised. As environmental activists across the country are gearing up to campaign against the destruction of the tiger reserve in Panna, will they remember these forest dwellers in the neighbouring district of the same state?
Article by Madhura Chakraborty with inputs from Abhishek Shah.
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