'Why do you want the tribal communities to come out of the jungles?'
'Why cannot their development take place over there?'
'The Modi government is diluting the Forest Rights Act in the name of industrialisation and Project Tiger.'
To save the tiger, India's national animal, the central government recently issued a circular stating that tribal communities living in forest areas or tiger reserves will have no right to stay there -- in effect, asking them to leave.
Alok Shukla, convenor of the NGO Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, tells Rediff.com's Syed Firdaus Ashraf how this circular will hit the lives of tribal communities hard.
How will this notification to save tigers affect the rights of tribals?
The National Tiger Conservation Authority, which comes under the ministry of environment and forests and climate change, has issued a circular which states that those who stay in tiger reserves will have no right to live in those areas anymore.
They have issued this circular by quoting the Wildlife Protection Act.
Now, the Forest Act 2006 (Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006) passed by Parliament says that those who live in jungles which can be tiger reserves, sanctuaries or forests, have traditional rights and those rights will be recognised.
These rights cannot be suspended.
So this new circular is contrary to the Forest Act 2006 and amends the law itself, which is wrong.
Why has the government issued such a notification?
They are doing this to save the tiger, but the NTCA has no authority to issue such a circular.
This is an illegal circular.
You take the example of Chhattisgarh.
There are the Udanti and Sitanadi tiger reserves, but in reality there are no tigers in it.
There are many such areas which have been reserved for tigers, but there are no tigers (in them).
This circular gives a chance to the forest department to throw people out of forests. Therefore, this circular must be withdrawn.
How does this circular change things on the ground?
The Forest Rights Act was brought in for the tribal communities living in forests for centuries. Their livelihood is dependent on the forest and agriculture. They have traditional rights over forests and its land.
Tribal communities have always managed forests, but never got the recognition for it. They never had any documents or papers to prove that.
The forest department therefore used to throw these people out of the forests through force. But, in 2006, the Forest Rights Act was passed.
Tribal rights were recognised and given legitimacy by this law.
Unfortunately, even today, this Act has not not implemented in the right way.
The management of the forests, which was supposed to be given to the gram sabhas of villages, were not handed over.
Now this circular says they will have no rights. So what will these tribal people do? Where will they go?
How many tribal lives are under threat by this order?
In 2005, the tiger census report stated that there are 29 tiger reserves in India. At that time there were 4 lakh (400,000) people staying in these reserves.
After that they called some areas as buffer zones which were declared as critical habitats and built more tiger reserves.
So, I feel at least 7 lakh (700,000) lives will be under danger from this order.
Do you think this circular will save tigers from being poached?
No government circular can save wildlife.
Wildlife can only be saved if you take the forest community along.
Tribal communities, wildlife and forests live in unison. The concept of separating tribal communities from wildlife is wrong.
How can the tribal communities live in a place where tigers roam freely?
Tigers are only available in India at places where we have tiger villages. In places where there are no tiger villages, the forests have disappeared.
The tribal community has never hunted tigers.
You check history and you will find it is the rajas and maharajas who hunted tigers, not the tribals.
In recent years, it is tiger poachers who hunt them, not tribals.
There is also a provision under the Forest Act which says if the tribals and tigers cannot stay together, then you need to set up a committee with scientists in it.
This committee will study and give a solution as to how to relocate the tribal community from that area. So, we must follow this law which has already been passed by Parliament.
Is it not true that the tiger population in India has declined and much needs to be done to save them?
The tiger population figures are very controversial and it is hard to believe (them).
You never know when they are increasing and when they are decreasing.
For example, the Chhattisgarh government claims to have too many tigers, but in reality they do not have so many tigers. (Chhattisgarh, according to Project Tiger figures, was home to 46 tigers in 2014.)
Do you feel the government in its haste to save the tiger is displacing tribal populations from their habitats?
Since the Modi government has come to power, they are diluting the Forest Rights Act.
This Act says there has been historical injustice against the Adivasis.
But the Modi government is weakening the Forest Rights Act in the name of industrialisation and Project Tiger.
How long will tribals continue to live in forests?
This question itself is wrong.
Why do you want the tribal communities to come out of the jungles? For development? Why cannot their development take place over there?
If I say that you can only develop if you are taken out of India and made to settle in America, will you do that?
It is wrong. This question itself is wrong.
Photograph: Sanjay Thampi.