By Pankaj Sekhsaria
It is evident that the wildlife conservation paradigm in India has failed to consider those affected in the process.
For those living in the submergence area of the proposed Indira Sagar Project (Polavaram Dam project) in Andhra Pradesh, the writing appears to be clearly on the wall. To be executed at a cost of nearly Rs 13,000 crore, the project will submerge more than one lakh acres of agricultural land and the lives and livelihood of nearly two lakh people in about 290 settlements and villages. In line with history and earlier experience, nearly half the people to be impacted are scheduled tribes. Another 17.5 per cent are scheduled castes and nearly 15 per cent are from the backward classes.
The issue of the Polavaram dam clearly has multiple implications and significance. One that stands out starkly is the ongoing acrimonious debate over the Scheduled Tribes and other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act that was recently passed and now stands challenged in the courts by ‘conservation organisations’ and ex forest officers on grounds that its implementation will be the final nail in the coffin of the India’s remaining forests.
One of the key issues of concern for those supporting the Act is the historical injustice, displacement and harassment caused by forest reservation and the creation of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks (protected areas) for the conservation and protection of India’s increasingly threatened wildlife. Experiences of the last couple of decades have resulted in articulations from a tribal perspective that put dams, mining projects and protected areas in the same category on account of the forced displacement and as the cause of untold hardships and misery. It is evident that the wildlife conservation paradigm in the country has failed to take into account, leave alone include, those affected in the process of ensuring conservation. Local communities that could have been the biggest supporters of conservation are today one of its most bitter critics.
The case of the Polavaram Dam only reinforces that reality. The specific issue in this context is of the forest land to be submerged by the dam - this is about 37 sq km of reserved forest land and another 17 sq km inside the Papikonda Wildlife Sanctuary that is itself spread over 590 sq km in the West Godavari, East Godavari and Khamman districts of Andhra Pradesh. The matter has been before the Supreme Court for a while and one of the important submissions to the court in the matter is the November 2006 report of the court’s own Central Empowered Committee (CEC). It can only be a considered powerful reinforcement of the conflicts and contradictions that have come to underline wildlife conservation in the country.
Among the conditions suggested by the CEC for the final approvals to be granted to the dam is that nearly 500 sq km of forests adjoining the Papikonda Wildlife Sanctuary be added to the sanctuary and this then be declared a national park. According to India’s Wildlife Protection Act no one is allowed to live inside a national park and all traditional rights and livelihood dependencies on the forests are completely extinguished. The contradictions are painfully evident. Additional displacement is being created as a condition to ensure that the main displacement will take place in the first instance. “The state (government) has also agreed in principle,” the CEC report says,” for the relocation of the isolated villages falling within the sanctuary and notifying the sanctuary as a national park. This notification would be a pre-condition to any clearance to use/divert sanctuary land.”
While there is no respite for the two lakh-odd people who will be directly displaced because of submergence caused by the dam, an additional category of displacement is being created in the name of wildlife conservation, a “conservation offset,” and the justification, ironically, is that this will create a well preserved water catchment for the region. It is well known that Polavaram is not an exception. A slew of such projects are being proposed, pushed and approved across the length and breadth of the country. In Orissa, for instance, thickly forested hills, sacred to the local tribals and rich in diverse species of wildlife, are being handed over for mining; in the south a huge ‘scientific’ project with an investment of a few hundred crores might come up amidst prime tiger habitat and in the North East, huge dams are slated to submerge pristine forests in a region that is seismically very volatile.
The conservation debate in India has often slipped (even dragged) into being a tribal versus tiger one. The blame for the destruction of India’s forests and the decimation of its wildlife has willy-nilly and repeatedly been placed at the door of the tribal.
What’s happening with the Polavaram Dam project in Andhra Pradesh, in Niyamgiri (and other parts) in Orissa, in the Mudumalai forests of Tamil Nadu, in the thickly forested river valleys on North East India and in numerous such situations elsewhere will hopefully provide us a window into a slightly different reality.