Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Conservation in India...

... and the Need to Think Beyond ‘Tiger vs. Tribal’

Biotropica, Volume 39 Issue 5 Page 575-577, September 2007

Pankaj Sekhsaria
Kalpavriksh, Apartments 5, Sri Dutta Krupa, 908 Deccan Gymkhana, Pune 411004, India e-mail:

Should Indian tribal communities be granted their historically denied rights in forest areas, and if they are, what impact will this have on India's forests and beleaguered wildlife populations?

In recent years those arguing for tribal rights and those seeking to conserve wildlife and forests have been grappling incessantly with these and similar questions: articulating, arguing, counter-arguing, fighting, debating, and then articulating their opinions all over again. This has resulted in an extremely polarized debate with clear positions on either side of the divide. The history of this debate is long and complex: an important milestone being the start of British control in the region. A significant aspect of 19th century British policy in India was bringing forests under state control and the curtailment and even annulment in many cases of the customary right of communities over these forests. This started a process of alienation that continued through the decades, through independence and goes on even today.

This, in short, is the situation that a new legislation, recently approved by the Indian parliament, seeks to address.


The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, hereafter the Act, came into being in January 2007. It seeks, primarily, to correct the historical injustices committed in denying traditional rights over forest lands to tribal communities across the length and breadth of the country. If implemented correctly the Act has the potential to provide livelihood security and secure land tenure to a multitude of people from the most marginalized and vulnerable sections of Indian society (Gopalkrishnan 2007, Kothari 2007, Prasad 2007). It can only be considered a welcome and desirable step.

But there might a downside that a section of wildlife conservationists and the forest bureaucracy are extremely worried about. One of the biggest concerns is that the Act will undo the many conservation successes that India has seen in the last four decades, particularly after the promulgation of the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972. Conservation initiatives in India have led to the creation of a large network of protected areas, numbering nearly 600 wildlife sanctuaries and national parks and covering an area of about 4.5 percent of the country's landmass. A number of biosphere reserves have been created in diverse ecosystems, and other areas have been notified as Ecologically Sensitive Zones.

Opponents argue that, at best, the Act will undo the gains of the last four decades and will accelerate the destruction of the already fast declining forest cover, and at worst it could become another convenient cover for vested interests (including land and timber mafias in collaboration with political forces) to capture large resources of land, forests, and timber (Mazoomdar 2006a, b; Bhargav 2007).

This complex issue has no clear resolution, but there are alternative and less polarized positions. It has been articulated that fear of the heightened destruction of India's remaining forests, expressed by those opposing the Act, is overstated. Additionally, some of the demands being made in the name of tribal rights (like regularization of all encroachments till 2005) were not desirable, and would in fact play into the hands of vested interests. The bill, I have argued ‘appears to want solutions to all the historical and present problems of tribals and forest dwellers through one single move. This won't be possible unless there is a significant course correction in the present paradigm of development that willingly sacrifices the lands and livelihood of millions in its name or guns down tribals for opposing huge projects…’ (Sekhsaria 2006a).


This issue was also the subject of an opinion piece titled ‘Balance needed in the tribal bill discussion’ that I sent to one of India's leading English newspapers that had itself taken a clear position of opposing the provisions of the proposed act for fear of its negative impacts on India's remaining forests. The piece appeared with little editing but for the headline, which read ‘It needn't be tigers vs tribals’ (Sekhsaria 2006b).

This title change is significant in that I had neither perceived nor articulated the issue in this light. It had not been my intention to position the tiger so directly against the tribal in this manner. The tiger, in any case, had only one passing mention in the entire piece of over 1000 words. Undoubtedly, there is a journalistic need to create the impression of conflict to sell newspapers, but perhaps this headline better reflected the positions of those articulating the debate (this writer included) and less about the real situation on the ground.

There is no denying that India's forests, wildlife, and the entire natural resource base is under severe stress. There are, as we all know, reasons that are visible and proximate—the poor tribal cutting a tree to cook his daily meal, or killing a tiger or some other wild animal for additional income. Our failure lies, perhaps, in mistaking the symptoms with the underlying cause: equating the malaise with its manifestations. The questions that I want to ask therefore are these: Is the tiger really positioned so obviously against the tribal? Are conservation and tribal people mutually exclusive? Isn't reality far more complex and multi-layered?

India is a country of more than a billion people of which tribals account for only about 10 percent. The tribal identity itself is heterogeneous and dynamic: value systems and traditions are in flux, and so are peoples' aspirations. Many within tribal communities have even become wealthy and powerful. The overall picture, however, and one that few will deny, is of a section of Indian society that is the most vulnerable and marginalized, and the section that has been most sacrificed in the great nation-building project called India. These and other similar communities have been displaced, often brutally, from their ancestral forests, fields, and livelihoods to make way for one big project after another—for dams, mines, urban expansion, and infrastructure projects. When they have resisted, and there are innumerable cases of this, they have been physically assaulted and sometimes killed by forces of the state that are meant to protect them (Kalshian 2005, Gadgil & Guha 2007).

In such a huge country, then, with so many points of view and importantly, so many stakes on resources, it seems strange that many conservationists attribute the problems of forests, conservation, and even the tiger to impoverished and marginalized tribals almost to the complete exclusion of all else.


While tribal policy and rights often gets discussed for their negative impacts on conservation, little if ever, is discussed on these lines in other contexts. Conservation in India appears to have a blind spot when it comes to tribal rights. There is little discussion of the implications of a number of other significant developments in the country. There is little talk about the impact on wildlife or the forests of India's 9 percent GDP growth. Thousands of hectares of productive lands are being designated as Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Traditional tribal lands, many of which are thickly forested and home to a range of large wildlife, are allocated to mining interests that seek to attract billions of US dollars. The fascination for huge dams continues to drown pristine forests in the biodiversity hotspots of the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalayas, and across the landscape infrastructure projects continue to cut through forested areas, and migratory corridors. Tourism projects are being proposed in the name of wildlife conservation in lands where traditional communities are being displaced.

A few of years ago tribal people were blamed for large-scale encroachment and tree felling deep inside the Simlipal Tiger Reserve in Eastern Indian state of Orissa. Yet these same people had been recently displaced by mining projects in neighboring Jharkhand (Anonymous 2004; B. Mohanty, pers. comm.). Displaced people must go somewhere and do something to ensure their survival and that of their families. It may be that they were impacting the tiger and its habitat in Simlipal, but that is only the most visible and obvious development. Does the fundamental responsibility lie with the tribals, or with the processes that destroy their homelands and force them to move? Is this simply a tiger vs. tribal situation?

A more recent case is that of the Polavaram Dam in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The dam that is to be built at a cost of over three billion US dollars will submerge more than 40,000 ha of agricultural lands and affect the lives and livelihoods of nearly 200,000 people in about 290 settlements and villages. The dam will also submerge about 55 km2 of forest land including some 17 km2 of Papikonda Wildlife Sanctuary. This matter of the dam clearance was taken to the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), a high-powered body created by India's Supreme Court to deal with matters related to forests. One of the conditions for the final approval suggested by the CEC in its report to the Supreme Court is that nearly 500 km2CEC 2006). Spread over 1000 km2 this would then become one of the largest national parks in the country. India's Wildlife Protection Act prohibits people from living within national park and extinguishes all their traditional rights relating to the use of the forest and its resources. Although the number of people directly affected by this notification will, in this case, not likely be very large, it is the principle that is more relevant: additional displacement is being created as a condition to ensure the main displacement will take place. While there is no respite for the 200,000 who will be directly displaced because of submergence, additional displacement is being created in the name of wildlife conservation. The report of the CEC can only be considered a powerful reinforcement of the conflicts and contradictions that have come to underline wildlife conservation in the country. of forests adjoining the Papikonda Wildlife Sanctuary be added to the sanctuary, and this be then declared a national park (

Can wildlife conservation of this kind ever hope to gain the support of the local communities? We have to bear in mind that while only 4–5 percent of India's landmass is protected for wildlife as part of the country's protected area network, upward of three million people live within, or are directly dependent upon, these areas (Kothari et al. 1995). Can conservation really work by denying their rights and livelihoods?

A quick overview of the situation in India today will serve to provide a more balanced perspective of causes of environmental degradation. In Orissa, there is mining in the tiger- and elephant-rich forests of Niyamgiri (Devarajan 2004, Sethi 2007), and a huge port project at Dhamra in the middle of the world's most important Olive Ridley Turtle nesting grounds (Sekhsaria 2004). In Jharkhand, coal mining in the North Karanpura Valley will affect critical wildlife migratory corridors (Vagholikar et al. 2003). In Karnataka, the Mhadei Dam is being constructed amidst evergreen forests of the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot. In Arunachal Pradesh in Eastern Himalayas, a series of dams on the Subansiri River will submerge some of the best standing forests in that part of the country (Menon et al. 2003).

Other significant impacts of development are rarely reported or recognized. In Gujarat in Western India Forest Department figures reveal, for instance, that nearly 150 wild animals including leopards, hyena, and nilgai (Indian bluebull) were killed in road accidents between 1998 and 2004 in the Vadodara Forest Circle that covers about 3000 km2 (David 2004). An animal killed by a tribal could perhaps be eaten or sold, but what is the value gained from one that is flattened between fast rubber and rock hard bitumen?


Let me elaborate this irony further with the role of the judiciary in India today. The Supreme Court of India has played a very active role in the last decade in protecting India's forests and wildlife. Its role has been much applauded and appreciated in this context. A completely different picture becomes apparent when conservation is put up against the dominant notion of progress and development as symbolized by large development projects. For example, a proposal to increase the height of the Mullaperiyar dam in southern India has been opposed on grounds of, among other things, the negative impact on wildlife, as parts of the Periyar Tiger Reserve will be submerged. The verdict of the Supreme Court was to allow the height increase based on the following logic: ‘The increase of water level will not affect the flora and fauna. In fact, the reports placed on record show that there will be improvement in the environment. It is on record that the fauna, particularly elephant herds and tigers will be happier when the water level slowly rises to touch the forest line. In nature, all birds and animals love water spread and exhibit their exuberant pleasure with heavy rains filling the reservoir resulting in a lot of greenery and ecological environment around’ (Murali 2006, Supreme Court 2006).

It is obvious that the issues, questions, and debates about tribals and conservation are subsumed by the overwhelming belief in the priority of a particular type of a development paradigm. This paradigm drives India's institutionalized prioritization of industrialization that sidelines tribal rights and conservation responsibilities such that the tiger has no hope, and neither does the tribal.


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