Following the publication of the Tiger Task Force report in 2005, the Sariska sanctuary is being decked up for the first ever re-introduction of big cat into a new habitat. And as in so many other instances, here too the conflict between the needs of man and those of the great beast are playing out. While over 12,000 humans and 35,000 cattle reside inside the tiger reserve, some 170 villages exist on the periphery with 150,000 people and 275,000 cattle exerting biotic pressure on the reserve. Villagers who will be displaced from the core area of the sanctuary, as well as those in other locales, are wary of the proposed re-introduction.

Project Tiger reserves

- Nagarjunasagar, AP
- Namdapha, Arunachal
- Pakhui, Arunachal
- Manas, Assam
- Nameri, Assam
- Valmiki, Bihar
- Indrawati, Chhatisgarh,
- Palamau, Jharkhand
- Bhadra, Karnataka
- Bandipur, Karnataka
- Periyar, Kerala
- Pench, MP & Mah.
- Kanha, MP
- Bori-Satpura, MP
- Bandhavgarh, MP
- Panna, MP
- Melghat, Maharashtra
- Tadoba-Andhari, Maharashtra
- Dampha, Mizoram
- Simlipal, Orissa
- Sariska, Rajasthan
- Ranthambhore, Rajasthan
- Kalakad-Mundanthurai, TN
- Dudhwa, UP
- Corbett, Uttaranchal
- Buxa, W Bengal
- Sundarbans, W Bengal
- Source: Project Tiger

 •  Forest fights, Indian style
 •  Ecology for the people

Of the 28 villages in the core area, there are 11 villages with some 493 households that are proposed to be relocated in a phased manner. But much before any village could be relocated out of the tiger sanctuary, protests over the relocation have begun. This time, they are not from the displaced people themselves, but from others near whom they will be relocated. The jat community around Bardoudrundh village on the Delhi-Jaipur highway is up in arms, trying to prevent the rehabilitation of the gujar community from the core area of the tiger sanctuary in their vicinity. The Rajasthan Forest Department has identified 222 hectares of open space along the highway for relocating 125 households from two villages of Bhagani and Kankwadi in the core area of the Sariska Tiger Reserve. It further claims that the villagers have already consented to this move.

But there are other developments that could well belie this claim. While the state forest department has already acquired land and made plans to relocate four villages in the first phase, the newly constituted National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has been of the view that relocation should be done only where it is necessary. The authority has decided to ask the Wildlife Institute of India to conduct a study of all national parks and sanctuaries and prioritise the villages to be relocated over the next five years.

In the 1970s, residents of Kraska village in Sariska were offered land by the forest department in a village outside the reserve's core area. But that relocation proved futile; many villagers chose to sell off their new properties and returned to the core area. Interestingly, Kraska village features in the present round of planned relocations too.

With only Rs.100,000 and 1.78 hectares of land for each household's relocation from Sariska, the terms of relocation are unattractive to communities who rear large herds of milch cattle inside the forest. A five-fold increase in compensation is being demanded, as was paid for relocation from the Bhadra sanctuary in Karnataka. That may well be the 'market price' - a term our economic leaders regularly espouse, but rarely in support of the displaced - but if that's the case, far more funds have to be allocated to meet the costs of displacement. Given that around 300,000 poor people living in 1,500 villages located in the country's 28 tiger reserves may have to be relocated, the Rs.200 crores allocated by the NTCA for the next five years is woefully inadequate.

Though it has been acknowledged that immense biotic pressure has induced serious ecological degradation in some 40 per cent of the reserve area, the reasons for relocating villages from within the core areas remain unexplained. An independent study by the Delhi-based Council for Social Development has revealed that almost 6 times as much biotic pressure occurs from outside Core Zone 1 - the innermost portion of the reserve - than from the 11 villages located within Sariska. Unless biotic pressure from outside the core area is reduced, relocation of villages within the core areas may not free up the space needed for the big cat.

Sensibly, the Tiger Task Force asserted the need for linking local people living in reserves with tiger conservation efforts. The task force also recommended that unless 'islands of conservation' get concurrently developed on the periphery of the park, the biotic pressure from outside the park is unlikely to be reduced. Breaking the vicious cycle of degradation is critical to reviving the reserve area for re-introduction of the tiger! Recognising this, the NTCA has sought an allocation of Rs.100 crores for reviving buffer zones around the tiger sanctuaries.

With its perennial streams, challenging cliffs and deciduous forests, Sariska offers an unprecedented case of the people-versus-tiger debate that may not be representative of what is happening in other reserves in the country. Still, the Task Force has noted that a Sariska-type situation clearly haunts every reserve in the country. And villagers everywhere have become sceptical of the government's promises of better lives in new areas. In Ranthambore, another well-known tiger reserve, villagers facing relocation note that those who've been relocated in the past are facing problems even more severe than theirs. Unless relocated communities' needs are met in the relocation sites, all plans to shift villagers will remain uncertain. Whatever actions are pursued at Sariska will have profound impact on all other tiger reserves in the country.