Beating a rope thinking that it is a snake, is futile - Why evict people from their habitat, their own ecosystems

This documentary and article highlights the issue of displacement among the tribal communities in Maharashtra and questions the rationale for eviction of forest dwellers from their own ecosystems

This article questions the rationale for eviction of forest dwellers from National Parks. This is against the Law. The Wild Life Act was passed when there was no problem regarding poaching. At that time the objective was to create inviolate wilderness areas, a concept that is typically American. Now, we talk about poaching, especially tigers for which we are holding local people responsible, and why? The question of poaching is related to our greed for money and pleasure, amusement and desire to control. The forest dwellers could become a link in that chain but are not responsible for poaching. Why penalise them?


A documentary that traces Kusum Karnik, a social activist's work with the tribals

Video courtesy: Ashutosh Pathak in Vimeo

Uprooted and unhappy

Recently I visited some villages that were evicted from a sanctuary as it was included in the core area of a tiger reserve. I visited this area as an article ‘Happily Uprooted’ had appeared in the renowned weekly ‘Down To Earth’ 1-15 Jan. 2012, which I felt needed to be examined as my experience about eviction from protected areas tells me that the forest dwellers cannot be happy and uprooted.

So I visited the area in February 2012 and later in April 2012 with my colleagues. I could not understand much but I could see that people were not happy and had not received justice. The Forest Rights Act and the Amendment to the Wild Life Act were not followed by the Forest Department (FD). I could not meet the Revenue Department officials who have a role in this matter and so cannot say anything about their actions.


Image courtesy: Protected Areas Update

I must thank the FD for the hospitality they offered me and my co-workers. Then I and my colleague Mr Motiram Gangje were taken in a FD jeep to the newly rehabilitated village at Kasod. These people were previously living in Amona village. Here we could talk to a few people but I felt that they were nervous and did not open up. I knew how it is between the tribals and the FD. I could see that the people were constructing houses on their own, but I wonder where those people are staying at present, as their new houses were still under construction.

I actually wanted to meet Sh. Mungilal Patel Kasdekar who has built a three-storey house and is staying with his three sons and is supposed to be making twenty thousand rupees per month by giving his tractor on hire which he purchased with the compensation amount. I heard that he received an amount of rupees forty lakhs as he and his three sons received the package of ten lakhs each. I also wanted to meet his neighbours Ramvilas Kasdekar and Kalya Pandu Patil who are doing very well because of the compensation money.

All these names are mentioned in the article ‘Happily Uprooted’ in the magazine Down To Earth, 1 to 15 Jan.’12. This is quite commendable for tribals, especially the Korkus who have spent many years in forest-villages and have remained away from the mainstream in very backward conditions without much education. This is really a new beginning for the FD also, to care so much for the tribal people. I was also happy to know that now the new rule is that a boy who has attained 18 years of age is entitled to get a package of rupees ten lakhs and because of which these Kasdekar families got good amounts. Same amount must be paid to the girls of 18 years who are yet unmarried and the widows as well. I still do not know many things and would like to know many more rules and happenings.

The article mentions that the three villages together have 3000 cattle, which they could keep in the old villages but in the rehabilitated site there is no provision for grazing grounds, and so the people are at a loss as to where to graze the cattle. This does not make them happy and able to survive in the new villages, I think. The government could very well make provision for the grazing ground for these villages when they want them to be happily uprooted. A farmer has to have bullocks to farm and so needs cattle and also cow-dung to fertilize the soil, especially when he is poor and hand to mouth.

I have some comments to offer. I am happy that the FD is improving its dealings with the local forest-dwellers and especially with the oustees. In Kanha (Madhya Pradesh) when it was declared a protected area in 1970s, people were simply driven out and now are not even traceable; they have become environmental refugees. From Ranthambhor (Rajasthan) many villages were clubbed together in Kailashpuri, named after the then Park Director Kailash Sankhala, but the people could not experience a community in which they live comfortably even in stark poverty and so the people were miserable. In Gir (Gujarat), the pastoralist Maldharis were forced to become farmers which they could not be, and so they were very unhappy and did not stay in the new villages, but took to roads and are now environmental refugees.

The FD for the first time attempted to make people ‘happily uprooted’ in Wan sanctuary and I am very happy about it as I respect the forest dwellers. Along with this there are some signs that show similar welcome trends. The FD is now accepting researchers from the Wildlife Institute of India - WII on their staff in wildlife areas, which means that there will be some research on the present wildlife problems, which is absolutely necessary. Someone from among FD staff mentioned that the FD is now trying to take some M.S.W. postgraduates on the staff, so it seems that the people who are to be evicted would get a better deal. The FD is also talking about model rehabilitation and so I am hopeful that there will be a better treatment for the forest dwellers. This is very welcome but still people are treated as a nuisance and are not recognised as an asset by the FD.

I have been working with the tribals, Mahadeo Koli, since 1981 in Bhimashankar area of Pune district in Maharashtra. I stayed in the tribal houses eating the food they eat, worked with the women in household work, roamed in the area and thus learnt about their culture, strength, assets, knowledge-systems, their forest-management practices and techniques. Thus I have developed a deep respect for them. Unfortunately the FD has no such sentiments and treats the forest dwellers as things, thieves, poachers, and such other things. This, of course, is the colonial legacy which we must now get rid of. The Prime Minister of India says that “the Government is trying to redress the historical injustice done to the tribals in India.” And then why the FD is lagging behind, is a question.

Relationship of forest dwellers with the forests

We along with people from Bhimashankar area studied the relationship of forests with the people’s lives under the aegis of ‘People’s Forest Research Institute’ (PFRI). In this study, we documented the biodiversity of the area like plants, animals, birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, fish etc., which the people knew. For this document we created a group of resource persons who were scientists of different disciplines like botany, zoology, anthropology, forest science, etc., and got our findings checked and corrected.

We were then surprised to learn that people have developed some management techniques over the centuries of their inhabiting in this area so as to survive in the inhospitable area and with the wildlife that is there. They love their area and do not want to relinquish their homeland. The management techniques are special to their area.

Traditional forest management techniques

The rules of a temple grove are specific to each grove and they are observed very strictly even now. There are climbers in these temple groves one of which is 46 inches and one in village Kondhwal is 56 inches girth and they are about thousand years old according to botanists. There are fire-lines (res patta) that prevent fire from entering the forest from down the hills. Vir (marking the place where the panther and human encounter had taken place) is offered yearly community-worship, so that everyone knows the danger and is cautious while going there. Vaghoba (panther) is regarded a god (this is similar to treating it as an apex species) and is given full protection and is never hunted by the tribal people. There is a temple dedicated to Vaghoba where 40 villages come to offer worship on a particular day of the year. Two species of trees which shed leaves during rainy season are given protection by regarding them as deities, as they are considered weak.

There are many such rules and regulations followed by people that have helped them survive in the dangerous forest habitat and also conserved it for centuries. The FD and the nature lovers should come together to study such cultural practices which lead towards peaceful co-existence of wildlife and humans. The people must have developed some management techniques in order to survive there.

I worked in Melghat long back in late 1980s to early 1990s for a few years. Then I was invited to help an organization working with people in Kanha National Park. I worked there from 1995 to 2001. I understood the problems of people and could help in some small ways but I could not know their relationship with their forest.

In Bhimashankar, I have been working since 1981 and there I could understand the people and forest relationship, which took 30 years of hard work. I now know that one will have to work for so long to understand the problem and the solution to it. I know some organizations that have devoted so much of time, put up so much of struggle and have achieved some results. And now I think we must raise the question “Is eviction of local people from the Protected Areas the real solution?”

I would like to mention one important point. In 1992 the IVth World Congress on National Parks and Protected Areas was held in Caracas, Venezuela. Such conferences are held every ten years to discuss the problems regarding these areas. In this conference the outlook seems to have undergone a great change, from excluding local people to including them. The book ‘The law of the mother’ was then published by Sierra Club, WWF and IUCN, which is a compilation of papers presented in this conference. Almost all the papers are talking about how local people protected their own eco-systems and subsisted on them for centuries. Our dear FD officer Kailash Sankhala ji wrote a paper on Bisnois “Prospering from the Desert” proving that the local people - the Bisnois - protect and conserve their ecosystem. This book is a treasure trove for people working in forests and with forest-dwellers.

We must work together along with the local people who regard the forest as their mother and subsist on the milk of this mother and not on her blood. Sh. Kondiba Talpe from village Pimpergane from Bhimshankar sanctuary taught me this long back and that is one of the reasons that I have great respect for the forest-dwellers. I think this book “The law of the mother”, should be made available to all the FD officials and other functionaries, as well as the nature lovers and such other people.

Evictions in Wan sanctuary

I think the FD should have had a dialogue with the forest dwellers instead of dictating them and uprooting them. In my recent trip to Wan sanctuary I was taken to a village Somthan-Bk by FD officials. I was told that the villagers here have been persuading more than requesting the FD officials to take them out of the sanctuary area and settle them anywhere outside, where they would have their neighbouring villages. They told us that in 2008 a survey was conducted by the FD to collect information, about the villages in Wan sanctuary and then the people were told that one of those days they would be evicted. I am curious to know what must have come out of the survey that resulted in the decision to evict people. Immediately after we reached the village Somthan-Bk people gathered for a meeting; surprisingly women were the first to come out for the meeting which is not a usual scene in any tribal village. Then people told us that they wanted to be shifted out immediately. They were very impatient and insistent about this issue.

When I said that they have been very brave in staying in such remote and forest area with tiger, panther and bear around, herbivorous animals coming to destroy their crops, with all the inconveniences like lack of transport, no medical, and educational facilities etc., then the people said that they had been very brave so far but now they cannot afford to be brave because their neighbouring villages like Nagartas, Barukheda, Amona are not there to provide support to them. With these villages around they could share their problems, manage the marriages and funerals; also the herbivores and other wild animals did not target them alone but were also scattered in surrounding villages. They had their kith and kin in those villages, who were great asset at the time of any celebration or calamity. Now in the absence of these villages they were feeling helpless and hapless. They said this again and again.

The meeting was covered with video shooting, which amazed me. I did not think that my visit will be so meticulously organized by FD. Some NGOs were invited and one of them participated in the discussion and tried convincing people that they should shift out as they did not have any facilities like education and health. The people did not need any convincing; they knew their helpless situation in the custody of FD.

The people were given two options viz. that they can get rupees ten lakh and shift out; or the FD would help them to rehabilitate themselves in the outside area with the same amount. I wonder why they were not told about the option of coexistence which is there in the law. When I talked to one of the ground level staff, he confessed that he did not know that such an option existed. However the Melghat Park Director, Mr. A. K. Mishra and I had discussed this option which is there in the law and he agreed that such an option is there. But it seems that it had not percolated down.

This is a very important option which makes people responsible in making a choice. I feel the people could have been given such an option and a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) could have been signed between the people and the FD along with some witnesses. Many a time people will opt for this choice if given the chance. I think the forest-dwellers must be given the opportunity to be active members of the decision making process. In Botezari, which was evicted from Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, some 16 people decided to go back to their original village Botezari to get some income through collection of Tendu leaves as they were facing starvation; they were arrested and are facing criminal charges now. This exemplifies that people would take up this choice if allowed.

Other villages in  Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve  are still fighting for their rights to coexist in the forest though I hear that Jamni and Navegaon have opted for relocation and may be they will be happily uprooted or otherwise. I do not understand why the Government does not take them as responsible citizens of this country and make a serious experiment with this option. We as a group working in Bhimashankar Sanctuary have been putting forth a plan called four cornered and four fold process where there will be four groups as follows:-

  1. The local people at a ground level and then there will be representative of these groups.
  2. The officers of different concerned departments like forest, revenue, irrigation, tribal-development, agriculture, fisheries, animal-husbandry, etc.
  3. A voluntary organization working in that area and which people approve of.
  4. A group of independent observers like scientists of concerned disciplines like botany, zoology, ornithologists, anthropologists, sociologists, social work, and journalists, social thinkers, naturalists, environmentalists, ecologists, etc.

These four groups should participate in the four processes viz. planning, execution, monitoring and evaluation. Each ecosystem should have such organization that will study the particular area and come out with a plan. I realise that this will be a lengthy and time consuming process. The local people should have a veto power. In Bhimashankar we initiated such a process though we did not get cooperation from government but we held two meetings in the FD office in Pune where the FD did not invite and allow the local people, but in several public meetings FD, journalists, scientist, social thinkers participated. The result is that no eviction took place though it is still lurking in the minds of FD officials (Ref: Management plan for the Bhimashankar Sanctuary- 2008 to 2018.)

While going to Somathan-Bk we drove through the Wan sanctuary. Most of the ground was burnt black. It was a grass fire that had taken place. There was no ground flora or the leaf litter which could have helped me to identify the species of plants. Because of fire, all the micro-organisms must had been burnt and destroyed. The trees looked white like dried bones there were no leaves on these deciduous trees and so I could not even identify the species. I am now not conversant with the forest composition of this area which I knew long time back.

Teak is an anti wildflife species

I have read in the book The Forests of India (by E. P. Stebbing) that the teak can be given favoured treatment in which grass fire plays an important role. I wonder if the FD is planning to make this area teak dominant. I would strongly put it that teak is anti-wildlife species as it does not have anything edible for the living being, barring may be some disease germs on teak. I have some more anxieties that if there is fire anytime and no villages to take care, who would be able to put off the fire. The people will take care of such calamities if they are taken into the management plans. But they were always excluded from it. It has been noted that the culture and wisdom of these forest dwellers helps forest to sustain.

Sustainable living as an evolution of sustainable development

The Fifth Wilderness Congress was held in Norway in 1993. It was at this Congress that the concept of sustainable living as an evolution of sustainable development was introduced. The Congress strengthened the wilderness concept while recognizing sustainable use by indigenous cultures. This I am putting forth because the Wildlife Act 1972 excluded people from the National Park so as to create inviolate wilderness areas; now there is a provision for coexistence but it is being denied as there is a problem of poaching. Is it not injustice done to the forest dwellers, mostly tribals?? The Government and the FD were supposed to control poaching, not the forest dwellers. If the forest dwellers were taken into confidence and were to share the responsibility of controlling poaching, then it would be different and people will help in controlling poaching.

Now there are news that the tigers in Melghat are dying of malnutrition or may be are suffering from some disease (Lokmat Pune 29 & 30.4.2012). The report says that in the Sipna division in Melghat about 12 tigers are facing 4th degree malnutrition, if the report is to be believed. I remember a Consultant who studied the Melghat forests & told the FD not to uproot the forest dwellers because it is the cattle that the tigers are subsisting on; and if the cattle are driven out along with people, the tiger may starve. Now it is proving true, if we may say so.

Along with this, in the same Lokmat issue of 29th April 2012 it is reported that the FD does not have enough staff to handle the forest in Yavatmal division and same is the case in other divisions. FD of course is short of manpower and the threat of fire and poaching is increasing. With the towers and the wireless sets and few firewatchers scattered in different villages, the fire cannot be controlled. The species composition in Melghat is unfortunately fire-prone with teak, lantana and bamboo as dominant species in many areas.

Forests all over have undergone change, for better or for worse, due to human intervention. And they have been depleted to a state beyond a limit. Now whatever is remaining we have to save it, protect it, conserve it, and increase it. The forest is not just trees; it is a world in itself with all the living beings that form a chain which makes it sustainable. The humans who have been living in it for centuries are a part of this chain and so are very important asset for survival of the forest and the whole world along with humans.

We may fit collars, use GPS to trace the animals and understand them better and yet may not understand them and their relationship with forest. “Leave the forest alone” had been a slogan and policy some time back, which did not work. We now know that we cannot control the world as we want. We have to be very conscious while planning. The local people are a valuable asset and we must not waste it by evicting them. I do not mean to say that they are above corruption but we should not throw the baby out with the bath water. I have worked with the forest dwellers and know how vulnerable they can be. We have to be very conscious. While planning, the main stakeholders must be consulted and the forest dwellers must be taken as one of the important stakeholders.

Policy of eviction illogical

The policy of eviction has absolutely no logical ground or reason. This policy was included in our law without giving enough consideration. This is what happened: The first national park in the world "The Yellowstone Park" was created in US in 1872 and was made for recreation and amusement and had nothing to do with conservation, as there was no perceived threat to it.

But the fact of the matter is that it was the homeland of the Red Indian tribal peoples and there were fights going on between them and the European-Americans for the ownership of the country. That is why the European-Americans did not want the Red Indian tribal to be around where they were going for relaxation and amusement. The tribal refused to shift out, and so 300 tribal were shot dead and then the area was handed over to the army for a long time to shift people out. (Ref: The Law of the Mother).

It was a bad politics of the colonial European mind that believed in aggression and might being right. And for that reason they ill-treated the Red Indians and even now these tribal have to fight for their rights and claims on their ancestral lands. The American mind likes wilderness where no humans should reside. This resulted in the American Wildlife Act excluding local people. In 1972 there were centenary celebrations of Yellowstone Park and the Second Congress on Protected areas and National Parks also was held at the same time; the venue was the Yellowstone Park itself.

The then Director of Wildlife in the Ministry of Agriculture Dr. M. K. Ranjitsinh attended the meeting. He was very impressed with the beauty of the park and somehow he came to the conclusion that the park had remained beautiful because of the policy of eviction of the forest dwellers the Red Indian tribals. He followed the key provisions of the Yellowstone model of “No people, no cattle” and natural management and prepared the Wildlife Act on the Yellowstone model, excluding the local tribal people from the park and its management.

The book “Inventing Global Ecology” further says, “in the intervening years since 1972, natural management has proven questionable at best in U. S. parks such as Yellowstone, leading to a firestorm of criticism. (p. 308). In the summer of 1988, forest fires burned 45 per cent of Yellowstone National Park, feeding on nearly a century of dry timber that had never been burned due to an earlier fire-suppression policy.”(Ref.  Inventing Global Ecology, by Michael Lewis p.307-8).

There is a controversy about who starts a fire in forests. The FD often blames the forest dwellers for it. The people have often put the blame on the FD itself as they wanted to cover up their failure in plantation projects. The tourists are also careless and may start a fire without or with intention. Many a time fire gets started by itself when two branches rub against each other. So no one knows for sure about this problem. The main issue should be who will put off the fire. The forest dwellers know how to stop fire from spreading and they can put it off. I have seen people doing it. Now when the forest dwellers are being evicted from our valuable wildlife areas the situation can become very serious. The FD will not have people to help them in such calamities.

The FD functionaries in Chandoli sanctuary told us that as there are no village,s the footpaths no longer exist, no water holes are maintained, the forest has encroached everywhere and they now cannot reach the interior parts of the forest. And they told us that the poachers can still go inside and they carry guns and other weapons and still can poach animals or plants and we cannot chase them or control them. If they go inside they do not get food, water, shelter or labourers.

Our tribals are not enemies of the non-tribal Indians, are they? I wonder then how come our Wild Life Act treats our tribals as enemies of our forest and our wildlife. Is it our forest and our wildlife and not of the tribals? And are the tribals not ours who stayed with our forests which we could not save from the Britishers, and stayed with our wildlife for centuries, sharing and caring for the area? The tribals are the original inhabitants of this land.

Even in the times of Mughal emperors, the tribals were left to themselves in their forest habitat without interference. The rulers only used to ask them to supply the forest products and milk products like ghee. This situation changed when British came. They wanted to exploit our natural wealth. The forest was very important for their development, like ship building, making railroads, making char-coal, increasing agricultural production and getting land revenue etc. and so they wanted to have control over our forests.

I have a problem here; our policy makers attended Second World Congress on Protected Areas and National Parks in 1972, just before formulating our Wild Life Act, and excluded our tribals and other forest dwellers from the parks. This means they had not studied the problem before. I do not know how to understand this.

I read in the book “The Law of the Mother”, the history of Yellowstone Park, where tribal Red Indians were shot dead and then others were forced to vacate the area; of course this history was suppressed till 1992 and so Dr. Ranjitsinh would not have known about it. But it means that no thought was given to the fact that the tribals have been residing in the forests and there was no issue of poaching at all. Nowadays there is serious problem about poaching and tiger deaths. But why victimize the forest dwellers for it? I wish someone could explain this.

The tribals in our country are mostly poor illiterate; they have faced the slavery and have become very meek and mild. They are not vocal and expressive but this does not mean they do not understand their ecosystem which they have conserved for centuries. We have to learn from them so that we could conserve our ecosystems. On one side our law-makers have understood this power of the forest-dwellers and so have made suitable laws like the Forest Rights Act and have amended the Wild Life Act so that the forest dwellers could get justice which was denied to them since the British entered our country.

Our country seems to be divided into two blocks having very different views regarding the tribals and their culture. I have visited number of forest areas especially the national parks including all the seven parks taken under the GEF-India Eco Development Project and some others as well; and I am of the opinion that if the forest dwellers are taken into confidence they would prove to be great asset in conserving the forest and wild life.

Kusum Karnik, SHASHWAT, Opp. Thorat Bldg, Behind Market Yard, Manchar, Dist. Pune-410 503, Maharashtra, India.; Tel: +91-2133-224107; Cell: +91 9422513413


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