Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve: Dakshinamurthy Kanikaran remembers his grandfather’s stories — tales of the times before independence, of times when the kings and feudal lords held sway. Kanikaran, 70, a member of the forest-dwelling Kani tribe, recalls the days when the Kanis would bolt at the sight of an outsider.
Whose territory? A hutment in one of the four Kani settlements whose residents have refused to relocate. The reserve area needs to be free of human habitation, as it has been declared a critical habitat for tigers. Padmaparna Ghosh / Mint
But now, Kanikaran can’t afford either to be timid, or to dwell in the past. As a member of two local activist committees, he is busy collecting documents to prove he and 200 fellow villagers have been residing on, and cultivating small land holdings in Tamil Nadu’s Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) for ages.
Those documents could help the Kanis to establish their rights to forest land and resources under the so-called Forest Rights Act, as they seek to fend off the threat of eviction from an area designated a “critical tiger habitat”. But implementation of the Forest Rights Act has got off to an uncertain start and the Kanis have a struggle on their hands.
The area under the reserve needs to be “inviolate”, or free of human habitation, after the ministry of environment and forests declared KMTR and 35 other wildlife parks as critical habitat for the tiger. According to the Tiger Taskforce Report of 2005, there are 15 villages and 1,703 families inside KMTR, which includes the four Kani settlements; these have to be moved out.
M. Ganeshamurthy of Karaiyar village carries a bulky file folder under his arm, containing documents, forest department records and archival text to back the Kani tribe’s claim. Documents dating back to 1969 show these villages were permitted to settle in the area till 1974, renewable every five years. Residents of Thiruvattamparai village have survey maps dating back to 1912 to show these as lands that belong to the Kani tribe.
In 1977, KMTR was declared a wildlife sanctuary, designated a tiger reserve in 1992 and a critical tiger habitat in December 2007.
Kanikaran says that with every notification, restrictions became tighter and since 1992, even cattle grazing and collecting minor forest produce, such as bark and resin, have been banned. “We used to own cattle before the 1990s, but had to let go of them. But we continue to gather firewood and honey for our own use,” he said.
The Kanis are now waiting to get hold of forms to file their claims to the lands and forest resources they have been using for generations, to prevent their eviction, or secure compensation in return for resettlement elsewhere. This will be a daunting task.
Forest rights law
Their hope rests on the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, whose rules were passed in January. The law seeks to settle the rights of forest-dwelling communities to land and other resources denied to them since independence. But little headway has been made in implementing the Act in the months since the rules have been notified.
Fight for life: Dakshinamurthy Kanikaran, a Kani, has taken the initiative to collect documents to prove that he, along with 200 villagers, has been residing and cultivating in the reserve for ages. Padmaparna Ghosh / Mint
The rules say that the state administration has to constitute committees at the state, district and sub-divisional, or taluka, levels and village forest rights committees to decide on the rights to land and other forest resources.
Though the four Kani villages have formed their forest rights committees, the district-level panel for Tirunelveli, of which KMTR is a part, is yet to be formed. District collector G. Prakash, the top civil servant for the area, had no inkling about any such committee. “That is the jurisdiction of the forest department. I don’t think we have anything to do with it,” said Prakash, who as the district collector would be heading the panel.
District-level and sub-divisional level committees for Nilgiri district, including the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, are yet to be formed, but villages are ready with claims and panels to make their case.
An information and communication gap as well as deficiencies in training officials persists here and in other states, which is is stalling implementation of the Forest Rights Act.
“We got to know of the critical tiger habitat declaration through newspapers. No discussion, or consent was taken,” said Ganeshamurthy.
In Rajasthan, it was only after a massive rally and sit-in by protesters in front of the tribal area development office in Udaipur that the administration promised to hold orientation sessions for officials implementing the Forest Rights Act and conduct monthly review meetings.
“One of main constraints is that though the Act and rules are completely centralized and the ministry of tribal affairs is the nodal agency, implementation of the legislation has been pushed to the states,” said Sanjay Upadhyay, a member of the technical support group for framing the rules for the Act. “The states are now facing financial constraints as well as inadequate capacity and training in fully implementing the Act.”
Evictions from the so-called core areas of the tiger parks, which are supposed to be inviolate, cannot be carried out without public consultation and consent, according to both the Wildlife Protection Act and the Forest Rights Act. That was not followed in Buxa Tiger Reserve in West Bengal, also declared a critical tiger habitat, activists say.
“Evictions were taking place from Buxa before the locals protested and it was withdrawn,” said Soumitra Ghosh, an activist of the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers. The reasons for these numerous malfunctions across the country can be blamed on the concerned departments, said Upadhyay.
“One is the forest department and its reluctance to implement the Act, which is totally unethical,” he said. The reluctance is illustrated by the petitions against the Act filed by retired forest officers in Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Kanikaran, cynical of the forest department, recalls a time when he wasn’t so. He recalls a 1950’s proposal in which the Kanis were asked to move out of the forest to another area. “The divisional forest officer at that time differed,” said Kanikaran. “He advised us to go back to our original lands and not get entrenched in urban life. Such officials don’t exist now.”
This is the second of a three-part series on tiger reserves. The first, on the man-animal conflict, appeared on Tuesday. The third will be about the science of conservation in India.