Indigenous dwellers can be evicted only with consent

Forest dwellers in Nagarhole. Photo: Pavan Kumar H

Deep in the darkness of Nagarhole National Park, the flickering light of the kerosene lamp hung at the threshold of a hut belonging to Vinodh Jenukuruba Sanna reflects his state of mind. “Just like the light from the lamp can be put off anytime by the wind, we too will be driven out of this forest, which we call home, soon,” he says. 

He is one among the thousands of traditional forest dwellers in Karnataka living an uncertain life as the threat of eviction haunts him constantly, the recent one being the Supreme Court’s verdict, which was eventually stayed.

Manu Jenukuruba, president of the tribal welfare committee of Nagarhole hamlet, says, he is still not able to comprehend the exact ‘crime’ for which his community is on the verge of being evicted. “Had it not been for our ancestors, this forest would not have existed today. Unlike the city dwellers, our requirements from the forest are minimal and our services repay for whatever we consume from the forest,” he says and adds that the government has no clear plans on how they will rehabilitate them in the ‘outside world’. “There is hardly any good example to show that rehabilitation has really helped the forest dwellers or the forest,” he told DH.

In the past 50 years, the State government doesn’t have any successful rehabilitation story to showcase, apart from the project at Bhadra National Park. Moreover, in the case of Bhadra, it was not the indigenous forest dwellers who were rehabilitated but peasants brought in by the British to work on their private lands inside the forest area. 

Inclusive approach

However, in the case of Nagarhole and Biligiriranga (BR) Hills, where there is more number of tribal people who are completely dependent on forest and forest products, rehabilitation is a challenge.

‘Conservation and sustainable rehabilitation,’ is what Dr R Siddappa Shetty, a fellow at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, Bengaluru suggests as a solution for this issue. Researching over 25 years on ecology and Soliga tribes at BR Hills, Shetty has found that conservation of forest is as important as protecting the rights of forest dwellers, as they too are an integral part of conservation. “The tribal people have always led their lives in sync with nature. They have never exploited it.” A long-term programme has to be drawn, where the rich traditional knowledge of tribal people can be explored to manage the flora and fauna, he added. According to him, co-management of forest resource at the species level and landscape level is possible and it has future, and the government should spend more resources to educate and create job opportunities for the children of indigenous communities.

He says that forest too needs them as it is these forest dwellers, who help the Forest Department prevent forest fire, prevent invasive species by weeding them, desilt water bodies and play many other roles. Moreover, even the Forest Rights Act 2006 categorically says that the traditional forest dwellers should not be shunted out of the forest without their consent.

For Dipak Sarmah, Karnataka’s former principal chief conservator of forests, the problem lies in the nomenclature of the Act: The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act. He argues that the forest rights should have been only to Scheduled Tribes people and not to other traditional forest dwellers. He told DH that during his tenure as PCCF, more than one lakh hectare of forest land was ‘encroached’ or misused by the ‘Other traditional forest dwellers’. As per the government data, there are 2,000 tribal families living inside the Nagarhole and BR Hills forests. Of them, 700 families were successfully rehabilitated to the periphery of forests.

There are some who wish to come out of the forest while a majority of the tribal people DH spoke to in Nagarhole, refused to leave their ‘jamma’ (homeland in Jenukuruba dialect). “Give us one good reason as to why we should leave the forest. We have been emotionally connected with the forest and we don’t wish to leave,” said Manu.

There are also indigenous people who wish to leave the forest to live a better life. However, the State government doesn’t seem to be in a position to rehabilitate them suitably. Residents of eight villages, which are in the core area of Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary, Belagavi have been demanding the State government to rehabilitate them to a better place with a good package. However, for the past eight to nine years, the government has not made much progress in this regard. Finding a suitable land for the gavali (cowherds) dominated villages in Bhimgad has become a challenge for the government and the Forest Department. As compensation package, the government is offering Rs 20 lakh, three acres of land, a 30X40 plot and financial assistance to construct a house for each family. But, the people have been rejecting it stating that the land they are parting with is much more valuable than what is offered.

All the experts believe that once the tribal people are rehabilitated outside, the health of the forest may improve. Even the human-animal conflict may decrease. However, their only worry is the lack of an inclusive approach in addressing the issue.

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Indigenous dwellers can be evicted only with consent

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