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In a tit-for-tat response to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA)’s March 2017 circular, which asks states not to confer forest rights to any tribal or forest dwelling communities in tiger habitats, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) has temporarily banned displacement of tribals from forest areas and critical tiger reserves. It has also asked the Union environment ministry to revisit the rehabilitation policy to ensure tiger conservation does not infringe on tribal rights. In a letter to secretary (environment), CK Mishra, NCST secretary, Raghav Chandra, said the NTCA circular cannot override the Forest Rights Act of 2006, which safeguards the rights of forest-dwelling tribals. “It has also demanded that all displacement be kept in abeyance and the rehabilitation policy be revisited before any more displacement,” a national newspaper reported last week.

This face-off is not new. Its genesis is as old as India’s Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 and the launch of the Project Tiger in 1973. The project was started to revive the tiger population, which had dwindled because of hunting and habitat destruction. Over the next decades, the country’s wildlife sanctuary system expanded from 10 national parks to more than 100; there are now over 600 protected areas in the country, including 50 tiger reserves. To reach the goal, these reserves had to be cleared of traditional dwellers, who many conservationists wrongly thought would be an impediment in this plan.

This ‘conservation vs people’ approach to protecting wildlife only worsened the lives of thousands of the forest-dependent tribal communities in India. On paper, however, the State acknowledges that “although there is a need to keep forest reserves as inviolate for the purposes of tiger conservation, this ought to be done without affecting the rights of traditional forest dwellers”.

The NTCA also has the mandate to ensure conservation along with human coexistence. But on the ground, this is not the case: there is a clear demarcation of priorities of both sides. This is not just an India-specific problem: in order to make room for wildlife, tourism and industry, governments all over the world are using conservation as a pretext to drive the world’s most endangered peoples away from the lands and animals they have lived with for generations, say activists.

One of the main reasons why finding a common ground on this issue is difficult is this: India’s rehabilitation record of tribals has been abysmal. The challenge is also far greater because not just are the jungles integral to the social and cultural lives of tribals, but also they are not equipped with the necessary tools — education and skills — to thrive in a modern world. And it is here the failure of the Indian State to provide even basic facilities to the poorest of the poor lies exposed.

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