In the foothills of the Nilgiris, lies Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary. It is witnessing a spiralling struggle around India’s most debated environmental questions and its most popular animal: the tiger. There have been three bandhs and unprecedented protests by over 70,000 people, to revoke the illegal declaration of Mudumalai as a tiger reserve.
It looks familiar. Once again we seem to have a problem of ‘balancing’ livelihoods, ‘development’ and wildlife. But the problem in Mudumalai is simpler: a bureaucracy bent on retaining control over people and resources, desperate to block any accountability.
The conflict’s rooted in our forest management system. Over one-fifth of India’s land area and its resources are controlled by one government service: the state forest departments and their superiors in Delhi. The British created this system to take over and ‘scientifically’ manage forests for their timber interests, rather than allowing them to be ‘irresponsibly’ used by the ‘natives’. Over the years this system became ever more centralised. Today, a forest can be destroyed with just one clearance from Delhi, without informing or consulting anyone locally or elsewhere. More than five lakh hectares of forest were destroyed between 2001 and 2006 alone through such ‘diversion’, triggering massive protests and even violence.
Unsurprisingly, the bureaucracy guards its powers jealously. For instance, it claimed that the 2006 Forest Rights Act would destroy 60 per cent of India’s forests and lead to mass conflict. Two years later there’s no sign of either, even as forest officials try to undermine the Act’s correct implementation.
In Mudumalai and 35 other tiger reserves, the same logic is at work. After the Sariska disaster, the Wild Life (Protection) Act was amended, to provide for tiger reserves to be declared through an open, public process. Their core areas should be demarcated based on specific scientific evidence of negative impacts from tiger-human interaction. Relocation should be subject to recognising people’s rights and taking their consent.
But in December 2007, within 10 days, the Tiger Conservation Authority declared all existing and proposed tiger reserves to be ‘core areas’ from which people would be removed, based on a general survey on where tigers are located. Not a single legal requirement was complied with. When challenged, the Ministry said it had only ‘identified’ critical zones, not ‘notified’ them — a disingenuous distinction, as funds have already been allocated to move people out.
In Mudumalai and elsewhere, the entire protected area has now been declared a ‘core zone’; and the wildlife division there has now proposed a new ‘buffer zone’ outside the sanctuary, covering 67 villages and two lakh people. All this was done without even informing the local residents, leave alone consulting them. The protesters’ public press statements say they support tiger conservation, but they demand that they should be part of deciding where and how the reserve is declared — which is their right.
Arbitrary and illegal decision-making only guarantees that conservation will fail. But, after all, this system is not about conservation; it’s about power. The new government must restrain the forest bureaucracy’s continued disregard for democracy, the environment and the law.
C.R. Bijoy is a Coimbatore-based researcher and activist.