Clear choice: forests or eco disaster

Clear choice: forests or eco disaster

The February 2019 Supreme Court order on the eviction from forests of people whose claims have been rejected under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, 2006 (Forest Rights Act, FRA), has led to a large-scale public outcry in India and other countries. The entropy is due to a lack of understanding of the sort of impact the people living inside forests can have on wildlife and resources and how hard it is for those people to make a living in acute conditions.

The Supreme Court has clearly stated in its order that it is only the bogus claimants who occupy a vast area of forestland that need to be evicted. Such claimants have a disastrous impact on the forests. The tragedy is that such claimants occupy lands even within Protected Areas, which comprise National Parks, Sanctuaries, Tiger Reserves, Conservation Reserves and Community Reserves.

The area occupied by these people amounts to lakhs of hectares of precious forest land. We are today left with a total of 19% of forest cover. Of that, only 5% of the extent are Protected Areas, and the remaining 14% fall under various statutes.

These statistics are grim. Not a single patch is free from human activity. On the one hand, there are ill-planned development projects which are breaking large forest blocks into pieces, and on the other hand, these encroachments, which do not arouse as much opposition as the former do, are deadly like a spreading cancer. Both cause irreversible damage and severely affect the catchment areas of rivers and destroy wildlife habitats.

Why resettle people

India is a biodiversity hotspot despite being the second-most populous state and the forests in India not being as vast as the Amazon or the Congo. Understanding the geography of India is essential to this issue, because the extent of forest cover would be known in comparison with other countries’ forests. The large contiguous forests are only found in a few parts of the country like the Western Ghats range, the Himalayan belt and the Indo-Burma belt. Apart from these, all other forests are in patches.

Harmonious co-existence is possible only when the people in the forests lead traditional lives, say, for example, like the tribes of North Sentinel Islands of Andaman and Nicobar. The extraction of forest resources would be only for their bona fide use and not for commercial purposes. But the reality is that a majority of people, barring a few tribes, are extracting the forest resources — non-timber forest produce (NTFP) — for business objectives.

For example, a 500 sq km forest area hosts more than 10,000 people, and it also hosts large mammals and other wildlife. The people make a living through the extraction of NTFPs and by doing other petty jobs. The human population increases over time, but the area of the forest does not. There cannot be continuous and rising exploitation of resources for all times to come. At some point, it leads to ecological collapse. 

The FRA is meant only to correct historical injustice and to recognise pre-existing forest rights only. Those who were in actual occupation of forest lands as on December 13, 2005, only are eligible as per the provisions of the law. Also, people belonging to the Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) category have to establish a 75-year occupation for eligibility. Most claims are of the OTFD category.

Interestingly, these people are not defined in the Constitution. As per the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) statement of September 2018, a total of 43 lakh claims over pristine forest lands, including Protected Areas, were filed by the tribals and the OTFD. 18,89,835 titles have been granted across the country adding up to 72,000 sq km — almost the size of the state of Assam — and converted into individual and community ownership.

Way forward

We must welcome the Supreme Court order in good faith and strive for a win-win situation. In the present scenario, the environment is caught between the devil (ill-planned development activities) and the deep sea (encroachments). Severe anthropogenic pressure on forests will have to be curbed, and the government will have to understand how forests function.

The voluntary rehabilitation of people from deep inside forests should be taken up seriously and requires strong political will. There are many examples of success stories of people who have been rehabilitated. At one time, there were people all over the Bhadra Tiger Reserve, who live there in great difficulty and the fate of the animals was also not good. After their rehabilitation, the wildlife bounced back, and the people, too, were happy with the kind of access they got to the basic needs of life.

We can no longer say that there’s still room for harmonious co-existence between people and wildlife, barring in a few places. If we do not conserve our last remaining forests and wildlife, sooner or later, our rivers will dry up and we will be headed for ecological disaster.

(The writer is a Bengaluru-based conservation enthusiast)