The Price of the Vanishing Tigers

C.N. Subramaniam

This is the story of the conflict between the people of two small adivasi or tribal villages, which led to several violent confrontations some weeks ago. The two villages were Dhain and Dhobh Jhirna, in Hoshangabad district in the state of Madhya Pradesh (MP). The former were trying to evict the latter from the lands they had been tilling for some years on the edges of the Pachmarhi-Bori Tiger sanctuary. This would read like any other inter-village conflict over land. The only difference in this case was that the entire conflict was instigated and presided over by the forest department of the government of MP. Dhain is one of the fifty odd villages that lie deep within the sanctuary and the government has decided to relocate them outside the sanctuary, so that the tigers may have an undisturbed habitat. The people of Dhain were allotted lands at the edge of the sanctuary technically part of forest lands. Accordingly the forests were cleared and new hutments built. However some of the lands earmarked for the people from Dhain, had already been under cultivation. These were being tilled by some of the people of a neighbouring village Dobh Jhirna. They did not have title to those lands but had been illegally cultivating them for over a decade. The two villages were also at loggerheads over pastures for their animals as the forests cut down had been the pasture for Dobh people. Now instead of amicably sorting out the matters between the two villages the forest department sought to pit the new settlers against the old settlers and instigate a violent conflict between them. In this they were helped by the district authorities including the local police.

On hearing of the conflict a local socialist organisation of Adivasi peasants, Kisan Adivasi Sanghatan reached the place and had extensive discussions with the villagers, pointing out the need to maintain peace among the two villages and understanding the underlying factors. Several hundred villagers marched to the district collector’s office demanding action against the police and forest officials and an amicable settlement of conflict between the villages. Subsequently it was decided to place all the issues in perspective before all the villages threatened with relocation and galvanise them into action. A village to village contact programme was initiated just before the onset of monsoons. It was pointed out to the villagers that what happened at Dobh was a pattern that was repeated ad nauseum in all such cases of relocation. The government just did not have the land to relocate people and most of the so-called free land was already under occupation of marginal peasants who have toiled on those lands and as such cannot be made to give up their rights. Under such conditions the government sought to pit the villagers against each other. The villagers were persuaded not to agree to relocation from their existing sites and anyway they were being offered far inferior land in exchange. The villagers pointed out that the forest officials visited them repeatedly threatening them with dire consequences if they did not shift to new sites. They were told that even if they continued to stay they will be alone as all the other villages would have shifted, they will not be allowed to use forest roads, or have access to pasturage, or wood or other minor forest produce essential to their survival. The villagers were surprised at such measures as they knew for certain that there were no tigers in the forests around and that the forest officials had concocted pugmarks to cook data regarding a nonexistent tiger population. It was obvious that the forest officials had done this to garner the international grants for tiger conservation!

Thus a nascent movement of resistance is shaping up among the villages located inside the sanctuary area. The main problem before them is their lack of contact or communication with the outside world. They live in inaccessible forests and all approaches to their villages are monitored by the forest department. The Kisan Adivasi Sanghatan which has taken up their case has a weak organisational structure and will find it difficult to rise up to the challenge of organising these distant village people. Its earlier successful project of ensuring fishing rights in the Tawa reservoir to a cooperative of tribal fishworkers displaced by the dam, is now under threat as the forest department has ruled that the reservoir is within the sanctuary and as such no fishing could be allowed as per sanctuary laws. It is a matter of deep concern if the organisation can tackle the two issues together given its meagre resources.

We have had several occasions in this journal to point out the expropriation of the tribal people of their forest lands. The Indian state has been asserting its ownership and control of these lands so as to garner international investments, whether for mines, dams or for various projects for conservation of forests. The conservation of tropical forests has become essential for international capital, in view of the global environmental crises being precipitated by the unbridled emission of toxins and burning of fossil fuels by its industries. These forests have also proved to be the inexhaustible genetic assets from which to draw upon for the bio and genetic engineering industries, and as such have become too valuable to be left in the control of the local communities. Over the last century and quarter the state has sought to gradually tighten its hold over the forests and their assets. The control has reached unprecedented dimensions during the last two decades even as the tribal people have begun asserting their rights. The rapid depletion of the tiger population despite the growing control of the Indian state over the forests has in effect questioned the very legitimacy of its claim to protect the forests. It is increasingly becoming clear that neither the trees, nor the genetic resources including the animals are safe under the sole protectorate of the Indian state. In fact it is now amply established that it is the forest department which has been responsible for the decimation of the forest resources in its charge. The disappearance of the tiger standing at the apex of the forest ecosystem not only symbolises this process but has also set the alarm bells tolling.

Hunting tigers, traditionally regarded as the masters of the forests, symbolised valour and the claim to rule. What was a major feat in the pre firearm days became a wanton pastime in the colonial period. The tigers were hunted down mercilessly by the colonial and feudal rulers and their lackeys who wanted to emulate their masters. There was also an unprecedented intervention in the tiger habitat, deforestation and decimation of lesser animals. Over the last few decades tiger shikar is out of fashion with the elites. Yet tigers are being killed in large numbers to cater to a growing international market for tiger skins, bones etc. During the last few years illegal tiger poaching has been on the increase. This has been accompanied by shrinking and degradation of the tiger habitat.

Any government report on the matter will tell us that the principal reason for this shrinking and degradation of the tiger habitat is the growing demographic pressure on forests. In other words the forest dwellers and those eking out a living on the margins of the forests are being accused of encroaching on the forests and disturbing the delicate ecological balance. Even while we investigate this problem of demographic pressure we should remember that the principal exploiter of Indian forests is the Indian state which earns crores of rupees annually from the sale of forest produce. This is in addition to the amount earned illegally by the functionaries of the forest department and politicians associated with illegal felling trade of forest produce. Hence to place the problem at the door of the starving tribal household is to divert from the issue.

Nevertheless we need to address the problem of marginal peasants and tribal people encroaching upon the forests which promises to blow into a major confrontation. The secular demographic upswing has not been accompanied by any radical redistribution of lands of landlords in the region or by any generation of alternative employment in the forms of industries. This has forced the marginal farmers not only to increase dependence upon minor forest produce and animal herding but also to encroach on forest lands to cultivate some lands. They have put in decades of toil and now are threatened with eviction on the plea that they have no title to the lands.

On the other hand the government is also trying to resettle the project affected villages cheaply, by forcing them to settle on disputed lands on the edges of the forests. Instead of buying them land equivalent to the ones they would be losing at appropriate costs or acquiring them from the landlords of the region the government is trying to get the poor tribal peasants to subsidise the cost of tiger conservation.

The fact remains that despite all these sacrifices demanded of the tribal people tigers continue to vanish and schemes are being drawn up to protect non-existent tigers.

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