Eviction fear

Print edition : February 26, 2010
in Hunsur

In a tribal hamlet inside the Nagarhole forest, officially known as the Rajiv Gandhi National Park. The committees interim report describes the living conditions of the tribal people as abysmal.-KRISHNA KUMAR

THE forests of Nagarhole, spread across the districts of Mysore and Kodagu in southern Karnataka, are about four hours drive from Bangalore. Officially known as the Rajiv Gandhi National Park (RGNP), these forests along with the surrounding forests of Bandipur, Madumalai (in Tamil Nadu) and other smaller forests form the ecologically unique and sensitive Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. A few kilometres into the forest, travellers will encounter a small village called Kollengere haadi (tribal hamlet) along the main road that connects the towns of Hunsur in Mysore district and Kutta in Kodagu district. Kollengere consists of 17 houses and 28 families, and the residents, mainly tribal people of the Jenu Kuruba tribe, might soon have to leave their village and move to territories outside the forest. Their fate, along with that of several other haadis, rests on the recommendations of a committee that will soon be submitting its final report to the High Court of Karnataka.

The RGNP, one of the best maintained national parks in the country, covers 643 sq km of tropical forest. It was established as a sanctuary in 1955 and was designated as a national park in 1975 following the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) in 1972, which led to a significant increase in the number of national parks across the country. Nagarhole is usually cited as a success story when it comes to conservation, considering the great difference noted after 1972. The RGNP was brought under the purview of the nationally successful Project Tiger in 2000. (The adjoining Bandipur National Park was one of the earliest to be brought under the scheme, in 1973-74). Nagarhole is also well known for its population of elephants, leopards and many rare species of birds and animals.

Nagarhole has also been home to several tribal communities, including Jenu Kurubas, Yeravas, Betta Kurubas and Soligas. Jenu Kurubas (jenu means honey in Kannada) are one of the two primitive tribes found in Karnataka and are the most populous tribal community living in and around the RGNP, with their population in Mysore district estimated at 19,246. (There are 75 tribes in India classified as primitive, and these are the most backward among the Scheduled Tribes.) When the WPA came into force, the lives of tribal people living in forests across the country changed; the status of the tribal communities living in Nagarhole was also affected.

A Tribal settlement inside the core area of the RGNP. A report prepared by the Mysore district administration pointed out that close to 6,000 families had moved out of Bandipur and Nagarhole when these areas were declared national parks.-G. ANANTHAKRISHNAN

Said P.K. Ramu, a Yerava and a member of the Budakattu Krishikara Sangha (BKS), an organisation representing the interests of primitive tribes in Hunsur taluk: There was gradual pressure on us to leave the forests and move out. There was interference from the Forest Department when we were engaged in our traditional occupations within the forest. The authorities stopped paying us compensation for damage from elephants to the light crop that we raised inside the forests. According to other tribal people who spoke to Frontline, the government also registered cases against people who collected minor forest produce (MFP) after 1972.

The displacement from national park areas was significant in the 1970s and the 1980s for several reasons, including the construction of dams. Several hundred families have moved out from the forests after the 1970s. A report titled A Report on the Development of Tribals Living in the Hilly and Forest Areas of Mysore District that the district administration of Mysore prepared some time ago pointed out that close to 6,000 families had moved out of Bandipur and Nagarhole when these areas were declared national parks after 1972. The construction of the Kabini dam and reservoir (construction work on this dam began in 1959 and ended in 1974) and the Taraka dam also displaced several hundred families.

In 1992, after the amended WPA was passed, several families moved out of the forests; accounts vary as to whether their displacement was voluntary or not. Around this time there was a forest fire in Nagarhole, which ranged the State administration against the tribal people as there was intense speculation that they were responsible for starting the fire.

The tribal communities had by this time organised themselves with the support of the BKS and the Rajya Moola Niwasi Vedike (RMNK) and started an enter the forest agitation. Tribal communities forcefully entered the forest in 1995 demanding their indigenous rights. The organising strength of these groups was also responsible for the agitation against the Taj group, which had in 1997 planned to set up a five-star resort close to Murkal in the heart of the forest. During this time, tribal families were gradually leaving the forests. In 1999, Development through Education (DEED), a non-governmental organisation working for tribal rights, along with the BKS filed a public interest petition in the High Court to prevent the proposed evacuation of tribal families.

A herd of elephants on the banks of the Kabini backwaters in the RGNP, in 2008.-M.A. SRIRAM

In 2004, the court appointed a committee headed by Muzaffar Assadi, a political scientist and a well-known commentator on political affairs in Karnataka, to verify the facts of the matter and present a report with its recommendations. The committee came out with an interim report, titled Interim Report on the Tribal Issues of the Rajiv Gandhi National Park (Nagarhole), in 2006. Its final report with all the recommendations was to have been submitted in mid-January, but the committee has asked for a three-month extension. The interim report comprehensively analyses the problem of the primitive tribes of the region. One of the most glaring observations it makes is that of the abysmal living conditions of the tribal people, almost all of whom are officially designated as living below the poverty line.

The report points out that many tribal people work in plantations in Kodagu district while living in haadis in the forest or in rehabilitated villages, and this perpetuates their poverty as they have remained daily-wage labourers without land-holding rights. This correspondents visit to the various villages confirmed these findings. In villages in Kodagu district, almost all the men in the working age group were away.

Even though there are several government schemes for the S.Ts, some particularly for primitive tribes (which means they would apply to Jenu Kurubas only), the condition of the tribal people remains bad. The reasons for this include the absence of proper rehabilitation and permanent jobs for them; the garnering of the various benefits meant for the S.Ts by a few dominant tribes; and the fact that according to the WPA no interference, even the construction of basic facilities, is allowed in forests after 1972. There is also a disconnect between the number of schemes available and what ultimately reaches the intended beneficiaries. According to S. Sreekant of DEED, 40 per cent of tribal children are malnourished and only 30 per cent of them can read and write.

The tribal people have historically remained on the margins of mainstream society. There is no clear agreement even among themselves whether they would like to be relocated outside the forests and whether this would lead to an improvement of their status. They are sceptical of compensation packages offered to them by the government and do not trust officials.

There are two sides to the debate about their status. On one side are certain NGOs and activists who see tribal people as part of the ecosystem of the forest, living in symbiosis with it.

Sreekant, one of the petitioners in the 1999 public interest litigation (PIL), said: We want the forests to be saved, and we are demanding that tribal people be rehabilitated on the fringes of the forest, apart from leaving a few hamlets that are located in the middle of the forest intact. By rehabilitating tribal people at the fringe of the forests, the state will be forming a natural buffer between the forest and the outside world, which will save the forests. The tribal people should also have the right to collect MFP. Some activists argue that the culture of tribal people will survive only if they continue to live in forests, and they want the areas to be declared as a Fifth Schedule area under provisions of the Constitution.

The other side argues that for the healthy development of the forest there should be zero human interference and that the tribal people should be relocated voluntarily outside the forests. Wildlife conservationists cite the example of the Bhadra Tiger Reserve in north-west Karnataka: After all the humans were relocated from the reserve, there was a significant improvement in its wildlife populations. Some people argue that tribal people should be relocated because only if they live outside forests can they be a part of modern life. Representatives of the State Forest Department who spoke to Frontline concurred with some of these opinions. In all of these debates, it is the tribal people who have no say.

In this 2004 photograph, a tiger sits on the road in the park. The RGNP is usually cited as a success story when it comes to conservation.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006 complicated matters by recognising the rights of tribal people and forest-dwellers to possess land inside forests. The amendment to the WPA in the same year pertaining to core tiger reserves further complicated matters.

From 1999 to 2005, around 250 families were relocated to newly constructed hamlets outside the borders of the national park in a phased manner even as the PIL was waiting to be heard in the High Court. The families were provided houses and other facilities, including three acres of land though ownership rights were not given to them.

Harishs family was one of the earliest to be relocated, in 2000. He lives in Nagapura, the main colony constructed for rehabilitated families. It is near Hunsur. When asked by Frontline whether he found life better in the rehabilitated village, he said, Our lives might be better here but we do not have jobs. The three acres that his family was given lies barren behind the village along with those given to the other members of the village. He cited elephant menace as the main problem and asked why the government could not have given them ownership of the land.

Another tribal villager complained that the government did not consult them while constructing the houses and providing agricultural land. This comment reveals a serious flaw in the methods followed by state actors, wildlife conservationists and NGOs working with tribal people the lack of agency that is given to them. There is a general feeling amongst the various stakeholders involved, including the Forest Department, although no one was willing to say it on record, that the tribal people are innocent and that, therefore, decisions need to be taken for them.

Sources close to the High Court-appointed committee have pointed out that it might come closer to suggesting a solution that will balance the conservation needs of the forest with the rights of the people living within it if it advocates a rehabilitation plan that settles tribal people on lands that have been encroached upon in the RGNP. While officials at the Forest Department deny that there is any encroachment in the national park area, the committees interim report points out that certain parts of the forest have been encroached on by non-tribal agriculturists.

The committees recommendations will directly affect close to 1,300 families and will have an indirect impact on tribal families who moved out of the national park region earlier and who are demanding the rehabilitation benefits currently being offered.

But the sad part in this entire debate is that it looks like the tribal people will continue to remain without a voice in all the larger decisions being made. So the committee, which relied heavily on interviews with the tribal people to prepare its interim report, should make sure it involves them in the decision-making process.