The existing conservation policies raise the question of whether India can achieve the GBF goals on the ground
In India, the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA) was legislated in 1972, making it Independent India’s first unified law for the protection of wildlife.As per the WLPA, there are five PA categories, with varying governance structures, i.e., National Parks (NP), Wildlife Sanctuaries (WLS), Conservation Reserves, Community Reserves, and Tiger Reserves (TR). The table below highlights the number of protected areas in the country and their total area. Table 1: Protected Areas in India (as on January 2023)
|Total area (in sq. Km.)
|% coverage of total geographic area
The core area or Critical Tiger Habitats (CTH) of 27 TRs was hurriedly notified in 2007, immediately after the promulgation of the Act, without any study being carried out to assess whether these areas were suitable for tigers.Another law that stipulates for protection of wildlife is the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest rights) Act, 2006, which allows for the creation of Critical Wildlife Habitats (CWH) under Section 4 (2) of the Act, also laying down certain prerequisites (4 (2 a-f)) for its notification. CWHs are defined as areas within national parks and sanctuaries that have been established through scientific and objective criteria that needs to be kept inviolate for the purpose of wildlife conservation<5>. Section 4(2) also states that areas declared as CWH may not be diverted by the state or central government for any other purpose, thereby ensuring that such areas remain protected. However, only one state—Maharashtra—has begun the implementation process in the country. A report by ATREE and Kalpavriksh on the ongoing CWH process in Maharashtra highlighted the fallacies in the overall declaration process. Some of the major deviations in the procedure were that, in most of the PAs, the process of recognition of rights of forest-dwelling communities was incomplete; and the claims of the Forest Department in the ongoing case in Mumbai High Court, that 25 PAs did not have any habitations and therefore did not require rights recognition processes to be carried out, which proved to be false, etc.. Continuation of the declaration of CWH in such a manner would lead to irreversible damage to the rights and livelihoods of more than 1,000 villages living in and around the 55 PAs in the state. In June 2022, the State Board of Wildlife of Maharashtra approved proposals for the declaration of 10 PAs in the state as CWH.
The major issues have been the coerced manner in which communities have been asked to relocate without following the principles of ‘Free Prior Informed Consent’.A major drawback of the exclusionary conservation regime in India has been the displacement of communities through relocations and evictions. Documentary evidence shows displacements dating back to 1908 from the Kaziranga reserve in Assam. However, the process has become more formal under the WLPA. A study by Kalpavriksh and Environmental Justice Atlas showed that the number of families displaced from 26 protected areas in India from 1999 to 2021 was approximately 13,500 families. The major issues have been the coerced manner in which communities have been asked to relocate without following the principles of ‘Free Prior Informed Consent’. In many cases, such as Achanakmar Tiger Reserve, Melghat Tiger Reserve, Panna Tiger Reserve, and Similipal Tiger Reserve, amongst others, the compensation given to the communities has been less than adequate. This has led to the worsening of the communities’ conditions than it was before relocation. In the case of Bhoramdeo Wildlife Sanctuary, seven to eight villages were relocated in 2007-09 under the pretext of declaring the area as a tiger reserve. The WLS has not been notified as a tiger reserve and the communities are yet to receive any form of compensation even after more than a decade of being displaced. The proposal was eventually dropped in 2018 by the state government. The status of communities’ post relocation also paints a grim picture. According to a Central Empowered Committee report in the T.N Godavarman vs Union of India case, of the 177 families that have been relocated from tiger reserves, around 122 have been rehabilitated to forest lands, and the remaining 55 are on revenue lands. Of the 122 villages, only 42 villages have land status that have been converted. This shows that despite several decades after being relocated “voluntarily”, the communities continue to face several types of restrictions, with no access to government welfare schemes due to restrictions imposed on the use of forest lands.
The GBF highlights a significant change in conservation discourse towards the recognition of the rights of indigenous communities over their land and the inclusion of these communities in biodiversity conversation planning, decision making, and management processes.In Corbett Tiger Reserve, the relocation of four villages from the south-eastern side of the tiger reserve has also been the same. While three villages were relocated in 1993-94, the creation of the new state of Uttarakhand in 2002 and the reorganisation of the state and district boundaries have left the communities entangled in official processes, with the status of land remaining unchanged for close to three decades. The villagers stated that corruption from district and tehsil officials during the relocation and post-relocation verification processes have also been factors for their land status not being recognised. A case has been filed in the Nainital High Court citing discrepancies in the overall process and criminal proceedings against the concerned officials. Despite poor implementation, we see that more processes of displacement are being pushed by the states and forest bureaucracy to create exclusionary protected areas. India also lags far behind in terms of the attempts to explore co-management options of conservation. The GBF highlights a significant change in conservation discourse towards the recognition of the rights of indigenous communities over their land and the inclusion of these communities in biodiversity conversation planning, decision making, and management processes. However, the challenge lies in including such guidelines within the existing framework of biodiversity conservation especially in the context of PA governance in India. The existing exclusionary conservation policies as well as poor implementation raise the question of whether India can achieve the GBF goals, not just on paper but on the ground, where the actual conservation happens.
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Akshay Chettri is a member of Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group based in Pune and IUCN-WCPA. His work focuses on political ecology of conservation in India ...Read More +