COVID-19: Increasing Cases Reported Among Vulnerable Tribal Communities in Central India

News Click | May 19, 2021

Lack of testing, reluctance towards vaccination in the absence of awareness measures and severely under-reported deaths mark the second wave of the pandemic for the tribal groups in Odisha, MP, Gujarat and Karnataka.

As the second wave of COVID-19 wreaks havoc in urban cities, infections are reportedly increasing across vulnerable tribal belts in several states in central and southern India, including Odisha, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

Tribal people account for around 370 million people in 70 countries around the world and make up 8.2% of the population in India.

According to tribal rights activists, the government has failed to check the invasion of the virus into the tribal communities in the central Indian states in the absence of specific protocols to tackle its spread.

Despite their relative isolation, members of many tribal groups in central India have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. The surge in infections in closed communities is being attributed to the movement of outsiders and contact spreading through local markets among other reasons. However, what makes the spread more worrisome are the nutritional and health discrepancies among the communities, increasing distrust of government policies including vaccination and limited access to healthcare system, making infectious diseases specially COVID-19 deadlier among these groups.

Speaking to NewsClick about it, Rajaram Sunderesan, a researcher based in Odisha associated with tribal studies explained the crisis, “The Odisha Government’s COVID-19 management practices were at one point being hailed by everyone but, on the contrary, the truth is that this government is clueless about tackling the spread of the virus when it comes to adivasi areas. Odisha has one of the largest number of tribal communities in the country, but the government till now has not come up with any prescribed guidelines on tackling the situation on the ground.”

He said, “Historically, it is well known that the state health agencies, including primary and community health centres, have treated people from adivasi communities with utmost disrespect and indignity. The government desperately needs to decentralise its COVID-19 management process. It also needs to understand that the idea of home isolation will not work within adivasi communities. This is because the notion of privacy is very different within adivasi cultures.”

“The government must open its eyes and ears to the requirements of these communities or the situation will descend into crisis like the 16th century epidemics that wiped out whole adivasi communities,” Sunderasan added.

In Maharashtra’s Palghar, tribals from Kunbi, Bhandari and Warli communities are battling a grave shortage of ICU beds and medicines as anxieties soar about the spread of community infection.

On the other hand, several tribal hamlets in Karnataka’s Mysuru and Kodagu region have reported a surge in infections. At least 15 tribals belonging to the Soliga community have contracted the infection over the past week. Cases have been reported from the traditional honey gathering Jenu Kuruba tribe as well.

Gujarat’s Bhil tribal group has also reported cases of fatal infection in the villages surrounding the Statue of Unity. However, lack of testing and data collection, and suppression of information in these areas has reportedly led to fragmented information about COVID-19 related deaths among the community.

Confirming community infection and casualties, Chhotubhai Vasava, a tribal leader from Gujarat, said, “There is no model for the treatment of the adivasis amid the pandemic. In addition to many cases in the remote belts of Dahoud and Panchamal, in the area surrounding the Statue of Unity, over 34 COVID-19 related deaths of Bhils have also been reported. However, only 9-10 deaths were recorded as major cases were unaccounted for. In remote tribal regions, the communities have locked their areas from outside contact to minimise the spread of infection. This is being done by the communities themselves as the state government has failed to address the issues of the tribal communities.”

Further, the COVID-19 crisis has also fuelled suspicions and anxieties among tribal communities contributing to reluctance and fears regarding the vaccination process, as per reports. Meanwhile, the Centre and the state governments have initiated vaccination, but distrust towards government machinery remains strong, Vasava added.

Highlighting the situation in tribal belts of Burhanpur region in Madhya Pradesh, Madhuri Krishnaswamy of the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, said, “There are huge fever surges, sometimes pneumonia like symptoms. Compared to the urban areas, the symptoms among the tribals in remote areas are mild and moderate.”

Commenting on the doubts surrounding vaccination and so on, she added, “On the other hand, there is the question of vaccination. People on the ground do not fear COVID-19 as much as the alleged cases of post-vaccination deaths. Many are viewing this as an attack by the government on the poor, especially as last year even the mildly symptomatic were whisked off to COVID-19 centres against their will. Also there has been no attempt made by the government to disseminate information about the vaccines and the people who are at potential risk from the vaccine.”

In Odisha’s Sundargarh district, villagers are on a ‘do-or-die’ agitation to check coal pollution | May 19, 2021

Trucks from the Kulda opencast mine pass through 19 villages, swathing them with fine coal dust.

For over a decade, the villages near the Kulda opencast mine in Odisha’s Hemgiri block in the Sundargarh district have been fighting coal pollution without respite. In a desperate bid to highlight their unrelenting situation, the people of the area are now locked in a “do or die” agitation against the project since January.

In February, Rajendra Naik, a human rights defender from Ratanpur, one of the affected villages located 10 km from the Kulda mines, filed an application in the Odisha High Court, against the central and state government and the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited, a subsidiary of Coal India, which manages the mine. He submitted that the coal transport passing by Ratanpur and 25 villages along a 30 km stretch to Chhattisgarh violated the environmental clearance for the mine in 2002 and in 2018, which stipulated that the coal transported by road, shall be carried out by covered/conveyers with effective control measures.

The Odisha High Court in its order on March 17 directed the collector of Sundargarh district to hold a detailed enquiry involving local villagers and representatives of the government of Odisha and the centre. The collector, Nikhil Pavan Kalyan, held a meeting on March 23 following which he passed an order on March 24 restricting the plying of vehicles from 6 am to 1 pm except on public holidays.

His order called for covering the vehicles, increasing the water sprinkling in the villages for dust suppression, raising the school walls high to prevent dust. The district administration was asked to assess crop damage due to dust and impact on ponds in the area.

Since 2007-’08, the residents of Taparia, Ratanpur and other nearby villages in the Hemgir block of Sundargarh district have suffered incessant dust pollution from the daily 3,000 dumper trucks of coal which pass through their villages.

On January 19, they launched an agitation that is still going on, even though the authorities have tried to suppress it in many ways. Despite the collector’s order in March, the restriction on trucks plying is already being violated, according to local residents. Earlier court directives to control coal pollution have failed due to administrative apathy.

The villagers affected by pollution had opposed the expansion of the mine’s capacity, citing non -compliance with an earlier environmental clearance for a year in 2018, which increased the mine’s capacity from 10 million tonnes per annum to 14 million tonnes per annum. There were many conditions attached to this clearance that included regular medical camps, controlling fugitive emissions along the road with mechanised sweeping and spraying and creating a thick green belt in the downwind direction of the project site.

Despite the residents’ opposition, in January, an expert appraisal committee of the Indian government’s environment ministry recommended the expansion of Kulda mine’s capacity from 14 million tonnes per annum to 19.6 million tonnes per annum.

A news report in January mentioned “the economic blockade at Taparia village by locals who disrupted the movement of coal-laden trucks on Bankibahal-Taparia road”. It said that initially, the protestors were demanding repair of the damaged road but now are adamant about stopping the transportation of coal through their village.

Coal dust pollution
Far from it being an issue of road repair or merely transportation or even an economic blockade, it is a critical issue of coal pollution which the scheduled tribe and scheduled caste communities which live in these villages near the Kulda and Basundhara mines have suffered for over a decade. The coal is transported to various places in Chhattisgarh and the 25 km road stretch between Bankibahal and Tiparia on the Odisha-Chhattisgarh border has dwindled to an unmotorable mess of potholes and stones.

Every day the trucks from the opencast mine at Kulda pass through 19 villages, and swathe the villages with fine coast dust which affects thousands of people, said Naresh Meher, one of the protestors. The road, which is the main bone of contention, is not the only thing at stake for the communities. The intense coal pollution disrupts every single minute of their lives.

It is after a decade-long struggle against pollution and exploring legal avenues that the affected villages embarked on a “do or die” agitation as one of the protestors, Naresh Meher told Mongabay-India. He is among those jailed and harassed for the protests.

Odisha has the second-largest coal reserves (24%) in the country with stocks of almost 80 billion tonnes. On April 2, at the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited annual press conference, PK Sinha, who is the Chairman-cum-Managing Director, said that coal production and despatch of the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited during the financial year 2020-’21 was the highest ever at 148.01 million tonnes and 146 million tonnes respectively.

Earlier in October 2020, it had bagged five Coal India awards, including two corporate awards for Corporate Social Responsibility and Quality and also the first prize for the CSR implementation in Coal India.

Despite these sterling qualities, the company has clearly fallen short of controlling coal pollution. A site inspection and monitoring report of 2019, by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change shows that concentrations of particulate matters PM10 and PM2.5 are above permissible limits in the area and it was suggested that more sprinkling and control measures needed to be carried out. Also, the company was not monitoring fugitive dust emissions from the mining operations, among several shortcomings.

Moreover, the promised green belt is also nowhere to be found and there is no proper health assessment on the impact of coal pollution, said Meher, from the Janshakti Vikas Sanghatana, a coalition of affected communities from 25 villages in the area. He alleged that the health situation has worsened over the years. He suffered from tuberculosis as do other people in Ratanpur village and two of his uncles passed away due to cancer. His younger brother died after he contracted tuberculosis and then cancer.

Finally, unable to take it any longer, the community formed a group this year mainly to deal with the long pending issues of pollution, livelihoods and health.

Meher said that his father owned seven acres in Ratanpur, which was acquired for the mines, about ten km away. “We have lost land in the mine but there are no jobs for us,” he pointed out. “In Ratanpur village alone, there were some 19 acres of cultivated land which was acquired for mining.”

This area had a dense forest with panthers but since a few years, there has been no sighting, said Sarita Barpanda, a lawyer with the Human Right Law Network who is helping Meher and others in the local region with their legal cases.

Impact on agriculture
The pollution is not only impacting the health of the people but is also affecting the livelihoods of the people. The dust from coal has adverse impacts on the cultivation of paddy and kendu (or tendu leaves used for rolling tobacco in beedis) leaves.

Often they are discoloured and do not fetch good prices in the market, Meher said. But this is not all, as there is an additional problem of slag being dumped on the roads from a sponge iron factory, one km away from Ratanpur, in the name of road repairs. The scheduled castes and tribes in the area do not own much land and they cultivated the nearby forests. Meher said their claims for titles for the forest land under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, have been unsuccessful.

“We have scaled back the level due to Covid-19 but the agitation continues,” Meher said. “Many of us were detained and some including me went to jail. When we started our protest in January in Taparia village, false cases were filed against us and 16 persons were jailed. Then the police enforced prohibitory orders, so we moved to another village – Kandadhoha – to protest.”

There, he alleged that the local transporters and members of a coal mafia, operating in the region, filed cases of attempted murder and dacoity against the protestors following which the police arrested 12 men and 12 women.

After that, the protest soon moved to Ratanpur where they voiced their concerns about poor roads and pollution. On 23 March, the district collector arrived with many police personnel.

Barpanda said: “We spoke to the tehsildar but he supported the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited while saying the company will suffer losses if they do not run the trucks,” she said. “He had no sympathy for the villagers.”

Though the protesters are all geared up to take their latest protest to a meaningful conclusion this is not the first time they have voiced their concerns. The community had filed cases in court to divert the trucks away from their place of habitation but even then, Meher said, the timings were not being adhered to and nothing changed except the police repression.

In 2016, an order by the Odisha High Court had said that the road should be repaired and till then, no vehicle should ply on it. It had reviewed the road from Bankbihal to Taparia and said that two-ton multi-axle vehicles should be stopped till it was repaired.

Prior to that, in 2015, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Odisha government and the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited for the construction of a four-lane coal corridor from Bankibahal to Bhedabahal (in Sundargarh district where an ultra-mega power plant is proposed), as the existing road is not fit for multi-axle heavy vehicles.

Since that was not done, the heads of 26 gram panchayats filed a writ petition in the Odisha High Court in 2016. On that, the court ordered the formation of a committee that inspected the road from Sundergarh to Bankibahal/Taparia and submitted its report in March 2017.

The report ordered stopping the movement of trucks from Bankibahal to Taparia till the road was widened and repaired. The court ruled that a coal corridor must be built within a period of two months of the order and must be completed by the end of 2018 “on a war footing basis”.

It had also asked the collector to restrict the movements of vehicles and said that one of the conditions should be that multi-axle vehicles would only ply from 11 pm to 6 am. But none of this happened and orders to restrict truck movement has been wilfully disobeyed.

A Mahanadi Coalfields Limited spokesperson said that there is no alternative to this road and it was being repaired by Jindal Power. He claimed that the timings regarding the movement of trucks are being adhered to and the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited was cleaning the ponds and spraying water to control coal dust. He said there was some proposal for a coal corridor but did not have any details.

The spokesperson said the problem the people are facing should be resolved in a few months. Mahanadi Coalfields Limited was also dealing with the pollution, and while there will be some pollution due to coal dust, the company was doing all it can to improve the matter, he said while stressing that the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited holds health camps for the people as well.

Delink ration cards and vaccination from Aadhaar: former bureaucrat

The Hindu | Visakhapatnam | May 19, 2021

‘Over 3,000 tribals in Paderu area lost opportunity to get vaccination due to linkage norms’

Appreciating the State government’s decision to deliver ration almost near the doorstep of the beneficiaries, former secretary to the Union government E.A.S. Sarma said that linking the PDS ration cards and even COVID vaccination to Aadhaar, may not give the desired result.

In a letter addressed to the Chief Minister, he pointed out that thousands of tribals have not been able to go through the verification process associated with the issuance of the Aadhaar numbers, as they reside in remote and inaccessible areas. In such a scenario, linkage of Aadhaar may not serve good for the tribals, he said.

Mr. Sarma pointed out that Aadhaar linkage in the Paderu area of Visakhapatnam district had deprived more than 3,000 tribals of their opportunity to get vaccination, as a result of which they stand severely exposed to the virus.

Substantiating his claim, the former bureaucrat said that an NGO, Lib Tech of India, has carried out a comprehensive study of the numbers of the tribals adversely affected by not being able to get Aadhaar numbers, the range of the factors responsible for it and the corrective measures that need to be taken urgently to enable those tribals to get access not only to PDS rations but also to vaccination.

Based on a field study in villages from two mandals, followed by telephonic interviews with people from 50 Gram Panchayats across four ITDAs, the study estimates that between 7,000 and 35,000 families have been excluded from the PDS in ITDA areas.

‘Involve Gram Sabhas’

Mr. Sarma suggested that the State government should take advantage of the provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) which empowers the local tribal Gram Sabhas in the formulation and implementation of all schemes meant to benefit the tribals.

The verification process in close consultation with the Gram Sabha would be simpler and more authentic and would make the scheme more meaningful and beneficial. The Gram Sabhas should be fully involved in identifying the beneficiaries in the case of all such schemes, he said.

Tribals in Telangana flag illegal constructions in Agency areas

The New Indian Express | May 19, 2021

Leaders of the Adivasi Hakulla Porata Samithi (Tudum Debba) and other activists have been strongly opposing these constructions.

ADILABAD: Tribals protested in front of the Adilabad District Collector’s office here on Tuesday, demanding action against those developing illegal layouts in Agency areas. Multi-storeyed buildings have come up on many of these illegal layouts, some even on government lands, violating the PESA Act.

Leaders of the Adivasi Hakulla Porata Samithi (Tudum Debba) and other activists have been strongly opposing these constructions.

They submitted a memorandum to the district panchayat officer to take action on people responsible for illegal constructions. Adivasi Hakkula Porata Samithi district president Godam Ganesh said that the Commissioner of Panchayat Raj Department had given directions to each district and panchayat secretary to protect Agency lands.

The government is also taking other steps to curb land encroachment in these areas. The State is enforcing the LTR 1/70 Act in the Agency areas and orders have been issued to take action in accordance with the provisions of Regulation 1/70, LTR.

Apart from this, the government has made it clear that authorities should demolish illegal structures without giving any notice to the owner.

The Land Change Regulation Act, 1959 and the Land Change Prohibition Act, 1/70 are in force in the Agency areas, which prohibit buying and selling of land among non-tribals.

​However, mandal level officials and village level panchayat officials have neglected to implement these acts. Illegal layouts and constructions have taken place in Ichoda, Gudihathnur, Indravelli, Narnoor, Jainoor, Gadiguda, Utnoor, etc.

Why India’s Forest Rights Act Is the Most Viable Forest Conservation Law | May 11, 2021

The Union environment ministry called for expressions of interest from consultancies on April 8, 2021, to prepare a draft comprehensive amendment to the Indian Forest Act 1927. Will fortress conservation make a legal comeback? And will Parliament collaborate in this disaster?

For too long forest conservation has been plagued by ‘fortress conservation‘. Based on the myth that humans can be separated from the natural world, forest enclaves are created, enclosed and policed by guards, gatekeepers and administrators. Increasingly militarised, these are fast emerging as killing fields. Forests, wildlife and forest dwellers faced the brunt of this ill-conceived pernicious conservation approach. India’s Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA) is perhaps the first law in the world to outright discard state-led fortress conservation, adopting conservation-based community forest governance instead. Conservation science affirms rights-based conservation as the future of conservation.

Fortress conservation is traced to the establishment of Yosemite National Park in 1864 for ‘public use, resort and recreation’. It was carved out of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains by waging a war against its indigenous people, the Ah-wah-ne-chee, and forcing them out. The first Protected Area (PA) in the world, the Yellowstone National Park, was set up in 1872, a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. The first legal conservation framework is the US Wilderness Act of 1964 which recognised the value of preserving “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The fact however is that there is hardly any part of Earth that is truly pristine and wild where human beings have not set foot and manipulated to meet their needs.

Protected areas

Of the 510.07 million sq. km surface area of the earth, 70.8% is ocean and the rest land. Currently [15.4% (20,749,121 sq km) of land and 7.6% (27,718,127 sq km) of oceans are under the PA regime through 257,889 designated PAs as on February 2021. About 363 million people inhabit these PAs. Tragically, 10.8 to 173 million people are estimated to have been displaced to make way for these PAs. Mark Dowie, the renowned investigative historian, says that “the only thing that has displaced more people around the world than war is wildlife conservation.” And 1.65 billion to 1.87 billion people live in important biodiversity conservation areas.

According to the UN, 75% land surface has been altered and 66% ocean impacted. Some governments, powerful global conservation agencies and scientists argue that 30% of Earth should be under formal ‘protection and conservation’ by 2030 increasing to 50% by 2050.

Globally, forests cover 31% land area of 40.6 million sq. km accessed by about 1.5 billion people of whom 60 million are indigenous peoples or tribals. Three-fourths of these forests are government owned. About half the forest area is relatively intact. About 4.2 million sq. km of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses since 1990. Between 2015 and 2020, deforestation was 0.1 million sq. km per year down from 0.16 million sq km in the 1990s. 18% of the world’s forest area or more than 7 million sq km fall within legally established PAs.

Tryst with fortress conservation

India, with 2.4% of the world’s land area, accounts for 7-8% of all recorded species. Forests, simply lands notified as forests by law, increased steadily from 18.19% of the land area in 1949-50 to 23.34% (767,400 sq km) in 2019. This is 1.78% of total global forests. The government aims to convert 33% of land into forests.

The Indian Forest Act 1927 provides for declaration of Reserved Forest (all rights are banned unless granted), Protected Forest (rights permitted unless banned) and Village Forest (Reserved Forest assigned to villages), and regulates transit of forest produces and prescribes duty leviable on them. It defines what constitutes forest offences, prohibited acts and prescribes penalties for their violation.

There are 4,526 forest villages (inside the forests) and many more that are undemarcated or unsurveyed. 100 million to as much as 400 million people access these forests. About Rs 20,000 crore per year is earned from non-timber forest products and absorbs 50% of the employment in forestry sector. The State of Forest Report 2019 tells us that 13 out of 28 States have 33% or more land area as forest lands. These include all the eight states in the northeast (Goa, Kerala, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha being the other states) where about half of the land is forested. Over 55% of these forests are not notified as forests, nor administered by the Forest Department. Local communities govern them. They are categorised as unclassed forests. Of the top 5 States with forests, 4 are tribal majority states. The forest area in the north-east has, more or less, remained the same and dense forests have generally increased in most of these states. There are more forests in tribal dominated regions where forest department is not there or are present minimally. That’s at least 110 out of 640 districts in the country. This stark reality should have been built upon assiduously as the basis for our approach to conservation. But it wasn’t.

Fortifying the fortresses

Some 171,921 sq km (5.03% of the total land area or 24.27% of the forests) are under the PA regime of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972. It carves out National Parks with no rights, Wildlife Sanctuaries with restricted rights, Conservation Reserves in uninhabited government land but accessed by people and Community Reserves which include private land. The Act prohibits hunting of endangered species, lays down restrictions on hunting many animal species and list out offences that attract penalties as though conservation is merely a law and order issue. Yes. this conferred immense power to the forest bureaucracy to do what they will.

Currently this PA regime consists of 104 national parks covering 43,716 sq km (25.43% of PAs), 566 wildlife sanctuaries covering 122,420 sq km (71.21% of PAs), 97 Conservation reserves covering 4,483 sq km and 214 Community reserves covering 1,392 sq km. Marine PAs consisting of 10 National Parks, 115 Wildlife Sanctuaries, 4 Conservation Reserves and 1 Community Reserve cover 8,716.98 sq km. Of them, 6 National Parks, 95 Wildlife Sanctuaries and 4 conservation reserves covering 1,864.84 sq are in the island region and the rest in the Peninsular India. In addition, Tiger Reserves, an administrative category until 2006, were carved out of these National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries consisting of critical tiger habitat (CTH) or core area and buffer area. Provision was made to relocate the inhabitants from CTHs under Project Tiger which is still in operation, with a Rs.10 lakh relocation package which has been increased to Rs 15 lakh in April this year. There is no clear data available on number of people displaced from these PAs. However, 1 to 6 lakh people are estimated to have been displaced. Officially as on 12 July 2019, there were 57,386 families in 50 tiger reserves of which 18,493 families (33.23%) in 215 villages have been relocated from the CTH or core area. There are still 41,086 people in 496 villages. That these have been carried out in gross violation of the laws is another matter.

The forests and its PAs, including the much hyped Tiger Reserves, are denotified and diverted for all kinds of non-forestry projects including highly polluting extractive industries, and now for huge tree plantations to replace forests. Ironically, the State and Central governments are required to do all these under the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 overseen by the Supreme Court constituted Central Empowered Committee. These too are fortresses of a different kind: no entry for forests, wildlife and forest dwellers. The lives of millions of forest dwellers do not figure any way in these blueprints for nation’s glory.

Since 1947, over 6.2 million ha have been diverted for non-forestry purposes. The government charges Rs 4 lakh to Rs 10.43 lakh per ha of forest land diverted as Net Present Value (set in 2008) which was recommended to be revised to Rs 5.65 lakh to Rs 55.55 lakh per ha in 2014 but not revised. The government earned Rs 74,825 crore from the user agencies, of which Rs 65,378 crore was disbursed to states by 2019 as a compensatory afforestation fund.

Fortress breached

The first breach in fortress conservation occurred when the Wildlife (Protection) Act itself was amended in 2006 making Tiger Reserves, the most zealously guarded part of the PA, a statutory category, until then only an administrative category. Such an amendment was deemed urgent to stem the tide of vanishing tigers. This was when the draft Forest Rights Bill was being debated heatedly. The critical wildlife habitat (CWH) provision in the Bill was grafted almost completely into this amendment as CTH. These are scientifically identified community confirmed areas facing irreversible damage due to the presence and activities of forest dwellers that threaten the existence of tigers. Community rights are to be recognised, livelihood affirmed, coexistence with wildlife promoted and, if not possible, only then secure livelihood based relocation and resettlement on mutually agreed terms with gram sabha consent. CTHs are to be kept ‘inviolate’, meaning not violated or harmed. The buffer area is to be identified scientifically with the gram sabha consent. Human-wildlife coexistence is to be promoted, livelihood, developmental, social and cultural rights of the local people recognised.

50 Tiger Reserves have been carved out of these National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries covering 71,027.10 sq km. Of this, 40,340.12 sq km is CTHs or Core Area and 30,686.98 sq km is the Buffer Area.

The second and final breach, the enactment of FRA, swept aside fortress conservation outright. Enacted four months later, and operationalising in 2008, FRA applied to ‘land of any description falling within any forest area’. It includes unclassed forests, undemarcated forests, existing or deemed forests, protected forests, Sanctuaries, National Parks and Tiger Reserves including ‘wastelands’. FRA recognised all conceivable traditional rights, whether listed in the law or not, except hunting. The demarcation of forest areas on the basis of rights, from no rights to graded rights have all been swept away. Conservation agenda was made central, all pervasive and expansive covering all forests and beyond. Forest governance was entrusted to all habitations that have any rights to the forests, literally lakhs of habitations with millions of people.

So what has changed?

The first big blow was when the Environment Ministry had to issue an order in 2009 making FRA implementation and gram sabha consent for diversion preconditions for admissibility of the forest diversion proposals. The Rules to the Forest (Conservation) Act were subsequently amended in 2014 and 2016 substituting these with District Collector’s certificate instead, certifying that these have been done, and that too only after in-principle first stage clearance by the Environment Ministry. The tribal ministry meekly protested that this would make the diversion a fait accompli. Making a mockery of forest laws is nothing new for the government to facilitate ‘ease of doing business’.

CWHs under FRA, once notified, cannot be diverted for any non-forest purposes unlike CTHs under the Wildlife (Protection) Act. This was the second big blow to the Environment Ministry. No wonder, the Environment Ministry issued guidelines for CWH notification, under pressure from the Court, only in 2018. No CWH has been notified yet.

The purveyors of fortress conservation are fighting back against the loss of their hegemonic power to do what they want with forests, wildlife and forest dwellers. Since 2009 till 2019, 253,179 ha were diverted for non-forestry purposes while another 182,817 ha degraded forests were diverted for tree plantations to compensate the former diversion, ironically branded ‘Compensatory Afforestation’.

There are 170,379 villages, each having one or more hamlets that have forest lands as land use which are officially recorded. The Environment Ministry reckons that at least 40 million ha of forests (56% of the total forests) accessed by these forest dwellers need to be transferred to village institutions from the forest bureaucracy. By the end of 2020, only a fraction of this has been recognised and titled: 5.3 million ha, just 13.18% of the potential area and 6.9% of forests. The forest bureaucracy aggressively resists FRA implementation, especially in PAs. The constitutional validity of FRA itself is now under litigation in the Supreme Court by the proponents of fortress conservation.

Jurisdiction of gram sabhas

The third big blow, the biggest of them all, was that FRA designated the gram sabhas as the governing authority of the forests. They are to demarcate their community forest resource area (Sec.3(1)(i) of FRA): “forest land within the traditional or customary boundaries of the village or seasonal use of landscape in the case of pastoral communities”, and protect, regenerate, conserve, manage and regulate access (Sec.5(d) of FRA). This area includes the forest lands claimed under individual rights of its members which are inalienable, non-transferable but inheritable, areas claimed for community rights of any kind irrespective of whether the area falls within any PA including the CWHs if and when notified by the Environment Ministry.

Further, the gram sabhas are to protect ‘adjoining catchment area, water resources and other ecologically sensitive areas’ (Sec.5(b) of FRA). They are also to preserve their habitat ‘from any form of destructive practices affecting their cultural and natural heritage (Sec.5(c) of FRA). These may fall outside their community forest resource area. The gram sabhas are now required to prevent any activity in these areas, and outside as well, that could harm these areas. The territorial jurisdiction of the gram sabhas with regard to conservation now covers vast forest areas. They overlap with adjacent gram sabhas creating an intricate ecological web of collective responsibility. Conservation, access and use of these forests demands cooperation amongst adjacent gram sabhas rather than competition or conflict through the fullest expression of democracy.

C.R. Bijoy examines natural resource conflicts and governance issues.

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