The government wants the Supreme Court to exempt it from taking permission every time a process is initiated to relocate villagers living inside core tiger habitats and wildlife sanctuaries to forest fringes or outside buffer zones.
Given the pressure on land reserved for wildlife because of illegal human encroachment, the top court monitors relocation of villages tucked inside sanctuaries. The displaced people are often rehabilitated on satellite areas bordering the main forest zone. The status of these redeveloped areas thereby changes from forest to non-forest.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has asked the court to relax the norm of taking its approval every time it proposes to change the land-use pattern in a particular area, saying the process is way too lengthy. Every proposal is screened by the court-appointed centrally empowered committee (CEC) before the nod is given.
An exemption will provide states power to change the land-use pattern from forest to revenue and help develop the area for relocation of people from deep inside forests.
Since villagers living in core areas resist eviction, the NTCA says authorities should be allowed to undertake development work in the relocated villages without approaching the top court or CEC.
“…the deprivation of development benefits to tribals shall only be counter-productive to forest, wildlife and tiger conservation as it shall generate a lot of angst and disillusionment and prevent people from opting from relocation,” reads the NTCA application.
The plea is significant because more than 45,000 families live in core areas of tiger habitats spread across the country and only 169 of 751 identified villages have been relocated since 2000. This excludes those living in wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.
The government is under pressure to relocate these villages, some of which have been there for centuries, following reports of growing human-animal conflict. Also, there are reports of poachers hiding in the settlements and villagers harming big cats as well.
The friction was best highlighted when villagers inside Sariska tiger reserve poisoned ST1, a male tiger, in November 2010 for killing livestock. ST1 was brought from Ranthambore in the world’s first tiger translocation programme launched in 2008 after big cats were wiped out of Sariska.
If the top court agrees to the NTCA’s application, this will mean amending its 15-year-old order that prohibits states from making any changes in the land-use in and around tiger habitats. The order, it is believed, not only slowed the relocation process but also precluded the possibility of villagers, who are by and large tribals, from becoming absolute owners.
In 2008, the court permitted a change in the legal status of forest land to rehabilitate three villages in Maharashtra’s Andheri wildlife sanctuary.
Based on that order, the environment and forest ministry approved in 2009 a proposal to change the status of forest land used for relocation and rehabilitation of villagers. But the court order prevented states from moving ahead.