There are more than 580 national parks and sanctuaries in India. They have been set up with the primary aim of conserving biodiversity, and the rules prohibit human habitation as well as the exploitation of natural resources. However, surveys indicate that there are people living within many of these protected areas (referred to as PAs) who are economically dependent on the natural resources available inside these regions.
Over the decades, there has been a widespread trend towards relocating villages from protected areas, with the forest managers blaming the inhabitants for ‘biomass extraction’ and otherwise posing a threat to biodiversity conservation. Such displacements have been strongly opposed by local communities as being both unnecessary and inequitable. Over the years, there has grown a controversy of considerable proportions, with social activists siding with the communities and pitted against biologists who tend to speak for the forest managers. The conflict has come to a head after the sudden decline of the Royal Bengal Tiger population in India due to poaching, which had the forest departments of many states pushing for ‘people-free zones’. In this, the forestry officials have been egged on by influential wildlifers.
Social activists have been typically opposed to the relocation of villages from wildlife sanctuaries, as the process has historically been a cause of impoverishment and grievous social harm to the ‘oustees’. Numerous studies have shown that displacement invariably endangers the livelihood of forest-dependent people, often leading to destitution. Such impoverishment has been comprehensively documented in the case of Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, from where 24 villages were removed starting in 1998. In another instance, a recently framed village relocation plan in the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve of Maharashtra is likely to take the Gond tribal inhabitants away from their traditional forest resources without development of substitutes. It is true that concerns over forced relocation have recently generated some attentiveness towards the livelihood security of oustees, as has been seen in the case of the Corbett Tiger Reserve (Uttaranchal) and Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary (Karnataka). By and large, however, the humanitarian challenge remains unaddressed in PAs throughout the Indian landscape.
The relocation drive is spearheaded by biologists and foresters who believe that wildlife conservation cannot succeed without large ‘inviolate’ areas of forests from which all human residents have been evacuated. They justify their stance by pointing to drastically declining populations of large mammals — the result, they say, of growing competition between human needs and those of wild fauna. These scientists and technocrats point to habitat degradation due to overexploitation of the forests, which no doubt is rampant even inside the high-profile tiger reserves. The biologists, meanwhile, maintain that the community-run forests, such as in Joint Forest Management areas, have not been ideal for conserving the entire spectrum of flora and fauna.
Yet the justification for village relocation by emphasising the ecological benefits has not been backed by quantitative studies of biodiversity indicators or of endangered species. Apart from anecdotal accounts, there is usually little information on the relative ecological impact of various human activities within the PAs from where relocation is planned. Forest managers are therefore unable to prioritise the kinds of activities that can be sustained within, or that need to be relocated to outside the protected areas. The confusion is exacerbated by the fact that few PAs in India have scientific management plans that clarify the conservation objectives based on ecological studies. Given the prevalence of such an unscientific regime, it seems unconscionable to evict forest inhabitants because of a presumption of ecological damage caused by them. In many cases, for instance, a closer look has revealed that the extent of damage caused by extraction and poaching by outsiders in PAs is several times greater than that caused by local residents.
There is another important humanitarian reason for reconsidering the Indian policy on relocation of people from protected areas. To a great extent, resident peoples have been kept in limbo for years, deprived of both a present and a future. Numerous villages located inside planned national parks and sanctuaries have been denied infrastructural support because PA legislation prohibits developmental activities such as the construction of roads, clinics, schools and even wells. Livestock-grazing, collection of fuelwood, and agricultural activities are usually restricted soon after the notification of protected areas, but the inhabitants are rarely provided with alternatives. Meanwhile, the relocation plans for these villages, usually faulty and inadequate, stay in files for years due to local opposition or simply mismanagement. Villagers within the PAs are therefore forced to live in a state of deprivation for years, with little access to basic amenities and in continuous conflict with the forest authorities. This state of uncertainty is part and parcel of the lives of large numbers of people still living inside conservation areas all over India, and particularly those that are proposed to be upgraded to national parks.
Blame the villager
In considering the question of relocation in relation to ecology and human rights, we must not forget the larger politics of protected-area management. Uprooting resident villages is a favoured management tool in most PAs, while the forest authorities habitually ignore the other sources of pressure on the habitat. Officials commonly come down heavily on the local subsistence-level inhabitants while overlooking the damage caused by hydroelectric plants in the conservation areas, commercial tourism, mining and quarrying. A particularly egregious instance of misplaced priorities is to be found in the case of the Narayan Sarovar Sanctuary in coastal Gujarat, where 90 percent of the PA (originally 765 sq km in area) was denotified by the state government in 1993 to make way for mining, although residents were not ousted from the area.
In another instance, the right of private companies to mine marble at the periphery of the Sariska Tiger Reserve was defended by the Rajasthan State Forest Department, which pleaded in court that the exact boundaries of the reserve were still unclear. The deleterious effects of unrestricted commercial tourism on tiger behaviour, mostly by city-based operators, have already been well documented in places such as the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan.
Conservationists make the valid point that in the rush to relocate communities, the authorities rarely look at how people and wildlife can coexist. For example, there is no serious attempt to funnel tourism profits to local communities to compensate for their loss of livelihood from bans on grazing and collecting forest produce. In the meantime, decades after the official notification of protected areas, oustees have yet to receive even the legally mandated settlements in the majority of Indian PAs.
The Tiger Task Force, set up by the government of India to suggest solutions vis-a-vis controversial conservation issues, recommends minimising displacement. It suggests using the relocation of villages as a last resort when it comes to reducing extractive pressures on PAs, emphasising the selection of other alternatives to achieve conservation objectives. For this, the role of biologists becomes crucial — in determining the management objectives for a protected area, assessing impacts of various uses on forest habitat, and quantifying relative importance of activities on biodiversity. The decision as to which villages are to be shifted from within a protected area is clearly one that must be taken on the basis of sound scientific and socio-economic study, through consultation between village representatives, environmental and social scientists, local NGO representatives and forest authorities. Along these lines, conservationists have suggested the establishment of a properly mandated Protected Area Advisory Board for each PA. Such a body would be given the task of transparently deciding which villages, if any, would need to be relocated, and would also be required to search for innovative ways to mitigate the impact of extractive activities through more participatory means.
If one challenge is to protect the forest communities from being unfairly evicted from their traditional spaces, the other deals with the rights and livelihoods of those who have been displaced — the unfortunately-named oustees. It is a sad commentary on the priorities of the Indian government that, despite wanton displacement over the years, there is so little legal backing available to fight for oustees’ rights, including the right to just and equitable rehabilitation. The only law relating to displacement remains the Land Acquisition Act, based on a 19th century colonial law that does not allow dissent on the part of the oustees. The National Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy, which attempts to set right many injustices to proposed oustees of development projects, is yet to be finalised or converted to a law, even after two decades of discussion. The Settlement of Rights provision in the Wildlife Protection Act, which is sometimes invoked during the relocation process from PAs, is so vague that it is prone to be misused. Beyond the matter of existing laws, there is no binding mechanism that places the onus for an effective rehabilitation on either the Forest Department or the District Administration, and the whole matter of resettlement is often left to the individual commitment of local forest officers and district officers to carry out a just resettlement programme.
Indeed, the process of rehabilitation of oustees tends to be faulty from start to finish. The government departments’ views of rehabilitation are limited to monetary compensation and land allotments. There is almost no sensitivity towards the matters of skill development and social adjustment among the oustees, nor towards the quality of land that is allotted or infrastructure that must accompany relocation. All of this stems from the attitude of the forestry establishment and others towards the oustees, most of whom belong to the marginal Scheduled Caste or tribal communities.
Simply handing out money and plots of land does not guarantee security of livelihoods, nor does it equip the uprooted oustees with skills to help them cope in an alien physical, economic and social environment. In fact, a dedicated relocation effort must perforce engage with oustees on deciding their new mode of living, energy substitutes and educational /skill development that will allow them to make a satisfactory transition. The absence of such a planned relocation has impoverished numerous oustee communities, with the result that many uprooted families ‘illegally’ seek to return to their original homesteads. In the case of the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, despite a relatively progressive package, many of the oustees have made their ways back to the reserve. There, the traditional sustenance system, balanced between grazing and agriculture, has also broken down. Successive years of drought exacerbated the situation and, in 2004, the oustees faced a starvation crisis.
Studies also indicate that the existing financial packages for rehabilitation of oustee communities need to be made much more realistic. According to the Beneficiary-Oriented Tribal Development Scheme, INR one lakh has been pegged as the upper limit for expenditure per household for relocation, including personal costs and community works (but excluding cost of land). Given the wide diversity in needs of different communities in different geographic contexts, this ceiling seems both low and needlessly limiting. The Tiger Task Force has recommended that at least INR 2.5 lakh be set aside per household, apart from land costs. It is noteworthy that the relocation from the Bhadra Tiger Reserve in Karnataka, where the process is said to have been relatively successful, cost over four lakh per household, excluding the land. Since relocation must include at least three years’ income compensation, and allowances for fuel and fodder requirements (among other needs), this higher figure seems much more realistic.
Yet another lacuna in the rehabilitation packages is the lack of income compensation to tide the oustees over during the transition period, as they try to carve out a new life in an alien environment. When a semi-nomadic grazing community (such as that of the Gujjars in Sariska or Maldharis in the Gir Protected Area) attempts to shift to an agriculture-based living, it is likely to take at least a few years for a family to learn and adjust to the new livelihood. During this period, it is critical that their incomes are compensated; otherwise, oustees are prone to destitution. The inability to provide income security in transition appears to be a systemic problem of most relocation projects implemented in the country.
It is obvious (except to the relocation authorities) that beginning agricultural livelihoods in new areas requires expensive inputs in the form of seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, apart from irrigation works, for which no provisions are generally made in the relocation plans. The only allotment made for agricultural livelihood is usually under the heading of ‘land development’. Sometimes crop compensation allotments are also made, but these are usually paltry (in Sariska, it stood at INR 6000 per family overall) and are supposed to be disbursed only in the case of crop failure. In semi-arid zones, provisions for irrigation facilities are a must if the oustees are seriously expected to develop agricultural livelihoods.
The problems in relocation plans for protected areas throughout India have their genesis in the planning stage itself. After all, a just and equitable transfer of communities can happen only if the programme takes popular aspirations, needs and constraints into consideration and rationally evaluates the requirements before relocation. In most cases, there is no logical assessment of the needs of the villagers who are to be shifted. Part of the reason for this is that oustees are hardly ever consulted before the plans are drawn up. If the principles of ‘prior informed consent’ or ‘voluntary displacement’ are to be adhered to, the target population, must be provided with full information about the new site before their consent is solicited. This almost never happens. Thus, the most basic and obvious needs of oustees tend to be ignored with impunity, such as the substitute for fuelwood, what is to be the fodder for livestock, and what are the alternatives to incomes in relation to non-timber forest produce.
Apart from socio-economic and anthropological studies of the communities to be relocated, social and ecological assessments of the new site are also required. For example, the local social dynamics at new sites in terms of caste play a significant role in deciding whether the settlers are to experience an easy or difficult transition. Conflicts with existing communities over water sources, grazing lands and forests must be foreseen and averted. Neglect of such issues, for instance, has led to explosive situations at the relocation site for former inhabitants of the Sariska Tiger Reserve, where oustees are competing for access to drinking water with prior residents, who, additionally, belong to a different caste.
The lack of involvement of the district administration with the relocation process is another identifiable weak link. Dovetailing existing rural development policies and schemes with the relocation project would surely reduce the overall cost of the relocation package, since many of the infrastructural needs could be met through these programmes. This is important, for most relocation takes place on forestland that has been ‘denotified’ for the purpose of resettlement, after which its development becomes the responsibility of the district authorities. The inability to make the link between the park management and the district administration has proven to be a key bottleneck that makes oustees’ lives exceedingly difficult.
As relocation plans are carried out, the required roads, wells and health posts are almost never built before the people — the victims — are moved. Such is the lackadaisical attitude towards the displaced that even the formal allotment of plots and infrastructural development are often found uncompleted decades after the actual shifting has taken place. It should be obvious that connecting roads, schools, health posts and panchayat buildings must be in place before the relocation has begun, and that land allotments and the assignment of pattas should have happened prior to the physical relocation.
Because the translocated population does not participate — and with poor management of the relocation exercise almost a given — even relatively generous allotments for community works or fuelwood and pasture development rarely result in satisfactory completion. For instance, in the Kuno case, as much as INR 8000 was allocated per household for fuelwood plantations, a similar amount for pasture development, and INR 9000 per household for community works. A study showed that none of these goals were realised on the ground, whereas the involvement of village panchayats or gram sabhas from the initial stages might have led to efficient implementation of pasture and watershed management programmes.
It is problematic that the relocation exercise is generally left to the Forest Department, whereas it should involve both local non-governmental groups and development agencies with expertise in rehabilitation, apart from local government entities. Indeed, there are well-established NGOs in and around most protected areas, which can work jointly with the Forest Department and district administrations in effectively rehabilitating the oustees.
A socially just relocation can take place only in the context of a coherent and rational PA management strategy. It is unfair to promote the biological diversity agenda with sole reliance on relocation of forest communities, when action on other ‘extractive pressures’ on conservation areas are not planned or are tardily addressed. Neither should something as drastic as relocation of a human population be started in the absence of attempts to reduce local extractive pressures. A number of improvements are required in PA management across India for increasing the probability of effective rehabilitation, where undertaken.
Before jumping onto the relocation agenda, for example, have the authorities tried to minimise the impact of the forest-dwelling communities on the ecology and biological diversity? Has thought been given to creating livelihood alternatives for villages that currently depend on firewood and other biomass from the forest? This can happen through non-consumptive use of the protected area — the best example of which is eco-tourism, in which the income must be diverted to local communities rather than to tour operators in faraway cities (See accompanying story “Jungle raj tourism vs. the people”). The authorities must also develop systems for controlled extraction of fuelwood, fodder and other forest products through licensing systems.
Improving the relationship between the human population within a protected area and the forest authorities might create a live-and-let-live situation that reduces the need for translocation. For example, compensation for injuries and crop-raiding by wild animals, and controlled access to forest resources via a transparent permit system would help to develop a positive attitude among the population. Currently, the relationship between that populace and park management is marked by distrust and conflict, where local residents are unlikely to submit to the types of controls required for conservation or to help protect animals against poachers.
Relocation is, then, not simply an ‘either-or’ question. It has to be evaluated in the context of the larger nature-conservation models that have been adopted since Independence. There is a clear need for the forest authorities and wildlife managers of India to move away from the hitherto exclusionary paradigm, towards more participatory, science-based models. This vexed issue also requires sensitivity from all sections for a clearer and consensual resolution. While scientists and forest managers need to understand the socio-economic and cultural needs of resident peoples, so are social scientists required to understand the ecological demands of endangered species. Surely there will be instances when moving people out of a forest tract is the only way to save an endangered habitat or species, but such decisions need to be taken via scientific and democratic processes. Most often, this is not the case. For too long, the shortcut that authorities have taken has been simply to penalise the forest communities because it is the easiest thing to do — the traditionally disadvantaged forest dwellers do not have the voice to create a political reaction.
Relocation must be the method of last, rather than first, resort. When there is no way around it, the transfer of population must happen scientifically and with full respect to humanitarian principles. This requires the coordinated thinking of social scientists, biologists and forest managers on such critical questions as how and where to relocate existing villages. Conservationists owe this to the thousands of people who are likely to be displaced from protected areas during the coming few years, as well as to those who remain in limbo from the failed relocation efforts of the past.