India has barely 2% of its land mass under pristine, dense forests, though officially the figure is an unrealistic 19%, with a government mandate to cover 33% of its lands with forests, equally unrealistic, given the country’s immense population and resultant pressures.

And yet, inspite of the acute scarcity of forests, perhaps nowhere in the world has the term ‘forested lands’ caused such huge anguish as in India, splitting the country’s conservation movement wide apart into two camps: those ‘for’ local communities surrounding protected areas using its resources and those ‘against’ people inside forest lands as detrimental to the survival of India’s last remaining vestiges of wildlands and wildlife.

For decades now, tribal communities living on lands belonging either to the revenue or forest departments of state governments, sometimes for generations without documented ownership or ‘pattas’, have been agitating against being evicted from them. In many cases, forest regulations barring communities from using forest resources have caused equal agitation and distress to those using these for survival.

Reports abound of arbitrary and highhanded decisions of forest officials in the implementation of legal orders and rules. But both forest officials and wildlife activists believe that ‘policing’ to keep these areas inviolate is the only recourse currently available.

"The premise that there are vast areas of India where tigers and people must be forced to co-exist through some innovative scheme of increased use of underutilised forest resources by involving local people does not make any sense to tiger conservation."
-- Valmik Thapar, wildlife environmentalist and Tiger Task Force member.

“We need to understand the real situation on the ground. We are asking for the rights of forest citizens. There is terrible suffering amongst them.”

-- Pradeep Prabhu, Kashtakari Sanghatana, Maharashtra

 •  Understanding encroachments
 •  Recognition of forest rights
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 •  "They are people too"
“Activists who ask that communities be given the right to sell fruit, tendu leaves, barks, tubers, firewood and fish from protected forests to feed the insatiable demands of urban dwellers are deluded if they believe this will help either wildlife, or true forest dwelling tribal communities,” says Bittu Sahgal, wildlife environmentalist and editor of Sanctuary magazine.

The ‘people-activists’ however do not see the concept of inviolate wilderness as part of the Indian reality where tribals have lived for centuries in areas now designated as protected areas, and marginalised poor live on the edges of forests, eking an existence out of them.

“We need to understand the real situation on the ground,” says Pradeep Prabhu of Kashtakari Sanghatana in Maharashtra, “We are asking for the rights of forest citizens. There is terrible suffering amongst them.”

The displacement of adivasi and marginalised communities forms another point in the issue. “In Chattisgarh alone, 4.7 million hectares of adivasi land has been illegally occupied by the forest department and 1.5 million adivasis displaced,” according to P V Rajagopal of Ekta Parishad, a tribal rights NGO with a wide following.

Polarisation of Conservation

Though the issue of people and forests has been a simmering one for decades, the rift in the conservationist movement has now manifested itself in the recent outcry on the disappearance of the tiger from India’s best-aided tiger conservation park, Sariska, in Rajasthan. The Tiger Task Force set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in April 2005 to suggest immediate steps to save the tiger has suffered an erosion of credibility due to dissenting views by its members itself.

The Task Force's recommendations include the need for a separate wildlife department within the Ministry of Environment and Forests for more effective administration of wildlife habitats; paying attention to field staff in protected areas; protection against poaching and more inclusion of quality conservation science into administrative policies.

Most importantly, the Task Force asks to ‘repair the relationships’ with people sharing the tiger’s habitat by building strategies for co-existence in the forests, because relocating over 350,000 people from and around tiger reserves is a very expensive proposition, even assuming that rehabilitation was well-executed.

But wildlife environmentalist Valmik Thapar, a Task Force member, has dissented stormily over the co-existence principle.

“The premise”, wrote Thapar to the Task Force Chairperson Sunita Narain, “that there are vast areas of India where tigers and people must be forced to co-exist through some innovative scheme of increased use of underutilised forest resources by involving local people does not make any sense to tiger conservation. The fact is each tiger must eat 50 cow-sized animals a year to survive, and if you put it amidst cows and people, the conflict will be eternal and perennial.”

The unhappy reality is that both views of this divisive conservation movement are not incorrect. The tiger, the elephant and lower order species are as surely disappearing as are large swathes of forests through poaching, encroachments and maladministration. The latter predicament is also leaving poor tribal and marginalised communities in genuine misery.

Farzana Cooper

State responsibility

Additionally, development projects inside forest zones get increasingly eager government help. None of the ‘trade-offs’ seem to be discussed when bringing in industrial activity. Tribal and marginalised communities have been the first to bear the brunt.

In Orissa’s Koraput, Rayagada, Bolangir, Kalahandi districts, the forest department blames tribals for deforestation through their traditional practice of ‘podu’ or shifting cultivation. Yet the state has long usurped their lands through numerous hydroelectric, ferrochrome, aluminum, bauxite and other mining projects. After 1980, compensatory afforestation for lands alienated for such projects caused even further loss of their traditional podu lands. Compensation, if at all it happened, was weak. Homeless tribals, now hemmed into smaller lands for their ‘podu’ are unwittingly exhausting the land by overuse, because scarcity of lands now does not allow for complete soil-regeneration cycles.

In Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Chhatisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, tribals and poor with tiny land-holdings are being summarily evicted, in apparent compliance with a Supreme Court order (Writ Petition 202/95). Karnataka, for example, claims it has reclaimed 36,702 ha of forest lands from 35,815 families, out of a total of nearly 96,022 ha identified as encroached.

Revenue lands, with forests within them since colonial days which should anyway have remained forested or been handed over to the state forest department decades ago are now being reclaimed by the Forest Department. Most invariably, they have inhabitants on them facing eviction through no fault of theirs, for two reasons.

One, inhabitants prior to 1980 (when the Forest Conservation Act came into force and set a cutoff date for who amongst forest dwellers were liable for eviction and who isn't) are being evicted because they do not have any documented papers of ownership, since no forest official gave them any decades ago. Two, many are being evicted even if they have pattas because the Forest Department has found that the pattas given to tribals by the Revenue Department are erroneous because the land is actually forest land; consequently, the FD is now taking over these lands from the Revenue Department under the SC order. For instance, in Karnataka, both the RD and the FD were apparently unaware that 100 ‘pattas’ or land-deeds the RD issued in Belthangady in Dakshin Kannada taluk were on forest lands, till they looked at old maps after the SC order and got cracking thereafter.

Caught in the middle of this faulty administration is a whole swathe of poor people in a recurring pattern through several states, some small-time encroachers, and some legal landowners who have become handy statistics for the states to show the apex court that they are complying with its orders.

Though the overall conservation policies of forests are a central government matter, with states not allowed to denotify or notify forest lands without central permission, each state administers its forests according to its priorities, keeping central policies in mind.

Active complicity in forest degradation by India’s rich and powerful?

And yet, amidst this morass lies a huge swathe of encroachments running like a cancer through India’s forests, perpetrated by rich and influential individuals that neither the wildlife nor the ‘pro-people’ camp have paid any serious attention to.

Tamilnadu's official machinery has gone out of its way to vicitmise those officials who have tried to do anything about the ‘rich encroachments’, a fact that the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court has corroborated.

The encroachers include the present Tourism Minister cum Gudalur MLA Andrew Millar and past Government Pleader, ironically for forests, P R Chandramohan.

In Belthangady for instance, two families are sitting, one illegally and the other through a court injunction, on over 15,000 hectares of rich forests in Neriya. In the meantime 2756 acres lying with 1358 families, less than a fraction of what these two families are illegally occupying, are being reclaimed by the FD in the same forest range.

In Gudalur, in Tamilnadu, nearly 53,000 ha of forest lands taken over in 1974 by the government from the Kerala-based Nilambur Kovilakam royal family has given rise to continuing controversy. The Nilambur lands include 91 plantations, 11 of which are major that face questions over the legality of their ownership in private hands. As per original leases signed with Nilambur Kovilakam, the area under plantations should be 19,644.19 acres, with a further 32,356.52 acres as ‘undeveloped forest’.

This latter 32,356.52 acres together with 12,928 acres declared forests under section 53 of the Janmam Lands (Abolition and Conversion into Ryotwari) Act 1969 supposedly under government protection, are now facing rampant encroachments through fraudulent leases, illegal pattas, direct usurpation and increased plantation-acreage, all through active connivance of officials and plantation-owners. The encroachers include names such as the present Tourism Minister cum Gudalur MLA Andrew Millar and past Government Pleader, ironically for forests, P R Chandramohan.

Not one case has been penalised so far. In fact, as the Central Empowered Committee set by the SC has corroborated, Tamilnadu’s official machinery has gone out of its way to vicitmise those officials who have tried to do anything about these ‘rich encroachments’.

What is now irking local communities is that small-time livelihood encroachers are being evicted in apparent compliance of the ‘forest case’ orders, whilst nothing is being done about these ‘big-timers’.

In Amekula village at Devala, for instance, where rampant large-scale encroachment including those of ex-Government Pleader Chandramohan exists, 66 Sri Lankan Tamil repatriate subsistence families with an average 3-5 cents (100 cents = 1 acre) of land, encroached in ignorance or desperation, narrate tales of harassment as a tool for eviction, by forest officials.

The few examples of rich encroachers illustrate a pattern of powerful encroachments running right through practically all of India’s forest states. And what is amazing is that none of the wildlife or people activists, barring very select and rare instances, have turned their stridency towards opposing these encroachments, equally vital for wildlife survival.

Time to engage?

The current divide between the two opposing conservation camps have given the bigger encroachers a convenient opportunity for hiding behind the public controversy over tribal lands and sharing of forest resources. Whilst both sides argue and bicker, the rich sit, plump and pretty, on encroached forest lands. So instead of targeting the poor, why not target the rich instead? There’s plenty more land in their hands than in the poor’s, and they’re hiding behind all this noise. Why should these poor people be suffering whilst illegal richer individuals are sitting squat and pretty, and quietly?

Also, the view that all encroachers must go as equals under the law – rich and poor -- is rather simplistic, precisely because the issue is not black and white – it’s grey. As pointed out earlier, if a pre-1980 tribal owner of land cannot prove residence for no fault of hers does she become an encroacher? There are of course many poor encroachers coming in through politics post 1980. It is these that need re-settlement moves by the government.

Campaigning for the eviction of these rich forest encroachers could thus become a very valuable conservation tool : both conservation camps would thus find a common thread in their activism, whilst the recovery of these precious lands would benefit wildlife, forests and people. In the interests of the country’s conservation, is now time for both camps to engage. Buttonholing the big-timers first could well become a good strategy along with preventing anyone, rich or poor, from sitting on forest lands post-1980 as the law has defined.