Around one and half centuries ago, the British colonialists took time off from photographing the exotic tribals and hunting the even more mesmeric tigers to take control of their shared habitat. With the very first forest Act of 1865, these foreign adminstrators assumed the power to declare any land covered by trees, brushwood or jungle as a government forest. In 1878, an even more repressive Act gave the state absolute rights over all forestland. The tribals, who had historically subsisted on the forest, were outlawed in one stroke.
Little was done to reverse this injustice after independence. Forest dwellers continued to graze cattle or collect firewood on their customary lands, but these “concessions” were regularly sacrificed at the altar of conservation and development. Meanwhile the forests and wildlife continued to suffer. Tree cover declined from 70 to 35 million hectares in the four decades following independence and 40 per cent of the reserve area became ecologically degraded, with the tiger vanishing from its former strongholds like Sariska.
To those who blame the tribals for this state of affairs, a 2003 Council for Social Development study of Sariska provides an important rebuttal. Almost six times as much ecological pressure occurs from outside the core reserve area than from the villages located within it.
Even the 2005 Tiger Task Force report clearly states that the people who live within the protected areas actually help safeguard its other inhabitants. In choosing to instead alienate them, the state will have to use “more fences, guns and guards,” only to fall short of conservation goals.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006 reverses decades of state prejudice. It recognises the tribals’ right to land, livelihood and food security deriving from the forest, and invests them with the authority to preserve its ecological balance. While this is a welcome move, it cannot restore the tribals to an idealised primeval state.
Studying the Mysore district tribals already empowered by land rights, Oxford University anthropologist Katherine Charsley points out that many of them have illegally sold off their land. Troubled by such pictures of change, critics like forest historian Valmik Thapar insist that tribal cultures can only be sustained in completely inviolate habitats.
But, in many cases, economic exigencies or a desire for modern lifestyles are already driving tribals to new income activities. In the Northeast, where their majority status has helped them prosper, some fear the dilution of identity. Temsula Ao of the North-Eastern Hill University warns that market forces will soon reduce the Nagas, Khasis and Mizos to brand names stripped of any significant identity.
It seems that, irrespective of the conservationist desires of various well-wishers, the 461 tribal communities documented by the Anthropological Survey of India are destined for change.