In March 2017, India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority issued a notice asking 17 states to suspend the rights of indigenous peoples and other forest dwellers in critical tiger habitats.
In February 2018, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes wrote to the Ministry of Environment and Forests stating that the March 2017 letter is in breach of the 2006 Forest Rights Act, and would therefore like the letter to be withdrawn.
Debabrata Swain, an additional director general at the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that,
“It is a wrong notion that tribals are being evicted.
“It is entirely voluntary: we ask them if they would like to move from core tiger habitats and protected areas. If they agree to the rehabilitation terms, then they move.”
But Swain is lying, as the story of the Baiga tribal people and the Kanha National Park reveals only too clearly.
The Baiga are an indigenous people living in central India. Since 1968, they have been evicted from their homes in the Kanha National Park, one of India’s tiger reserves. Evictions continue today. Many Baiga were illegally evicted in 2014 from the Kanha National Park.
WWF provides infrastructural support, training and equipment for staff in Kanha Tiger Reserve. A 2015 documentary produced by French TV channel Canal Plus includes an interview with Yash Shethia, Associate Director of WWF-India’s Species and Landscapes Programme about Kanha National Park.
Shethia was asked whether he, as a representative of WWF, condemned the evictions. “I would not put it like that”, Shethia replied. “But we don’t encourage them.”
WWF did not condemn the evictions.
A 2017 film by Rishika Namdev and Vineeth Menon documents what happened to the Baiga after they were evicted from the forest. It is beautifully filmed, and highlights the importance of the forest to the Baiga’s livelihoods and culture. The Baiga who are now living outside the forest are struggling to survive.
The film is ironically titled “Daslakhiya” which translates as “millionaire”. The Baiga were offered 10 lakh rupees (one million rupees) if they agreed to move from the forest.
Lured by compensation money
Hemlal Dhurwey, vice-president of the Adivasi Vikas Parishad (Balaghat), says that the Baiga were lured by the compensation money. They thought this was a huge amount of money.
Dhurwey says that the Baiga were tricked into signing papers agreeing to move.
“The deputy ranger forced them to sign consent letters; these innocent, illiterate tribals went on to give their signature on the letters and hence they were displaced gradually on the basis of the written consent.”
In the film, one Baiga woman describes her life in Jholar, a village in the forest, compared to her life after eviction:
“We were content with our lives when we used to stay in Jholar. We used to do farm and trade. Today, we are surviving on minimal food by doing labour. We have no facilities and resources here.”
The Baiga say that they had no choice but to move. One villager describes how forest officials threatened to demolish the Baiga’s homes:
“If you don’t leave we will bring bulldozers, we will demolish your homes; we will bring even elephants for that. Can our huts withstand any of these?”
The NTCA’s claim that evictions from tiger reserves are “entirely voluntary” simply does not apply in the case of the Baiga.
Dhurwey explains in the film that forest officials prevent the Baiga from taking dead wood from the forest – although taking dead wood is allowed under India’s 1996 Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) (PESA) Act:
“As per the PESA act, tribals can acquire dead wood from the forest, but forest rangers don’t even let them do that. Tribals are not even allowed to enter the forest with an axe in the buffer zone area. This is against the rights enshrined under the act.”
Bhardhan Singh was surrounded by forest rangers when he went to collect wood. He fell from the tree he was in and was badly beaten. He is still in pain. Another man fell into the river and drowned while trying to escape from armed forest rangers.
Survival International reported this week that hundreds of Baiga people from more than 70 villages are rallying to oppose the authorities’ attempts to evict them from the forests they live in.
Survival International writes that,
The protests have been sparked by official efforts to evict two Baiga communities from a wildlife “corridor”. Dozens of neighboring Baiga communities are now terrified they will be next, as they face poverty, exploitation and misery if forced from their homes.
As one of the Baiga men says in the Daslakhiya film, although the evictions are carried out in the name of conservation, the reality is that it is the Baiga who are the true conservationists:
“Tribals have been living in the forest since ancient times. And they have been protecting the forest since then. But government is appointing outsiders as officials. They know nothing about conservation of forest as tribals do.”
PHOTO Credits: Screenshots from the film Daslakhiya.