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For parks, tribal rights trampled

Times of India, New Delhi,  12th February, 2011

NEW DELHI: In order to ensure that 600-odd national parks and sanctuaries remain inviolate -- free of human presence -- the environment ministry has issued new guidelines that fall foul of the Forest Rights Act.

The Act is intended to hand back traditional rights over forests back to tribals and others. The law allows some lands to be kept free of people but it sets up stringent conditions to do so. Rights have to be settled first, clear scientific evidence has to be provided that people's presence impacts the forest patch adversely and that the affected gram sabha has accepted the plan to create what is legally called a critical wildlife habitat (CWH).

The environment ministry has issued a fresh set of guidelines to demarcate these critical wildlife habitats but they ride roughshod over FRA provisions.

FRA requires the village council to be involved in identification of such areas but the environment ministry has asked only its foresters to demarcate the area and then `motivate' the villagers to vacate the lands.

The law also requires that people cannot be relocated from these parks and sanctuaries -- cloaked in the name of critical wildlife habitats -- unless they have been given secure livelihoods but the ministry has suggested they be given an offer of Rs 10 lakhs also to vacate the lands.

The environment ministry guidelines also suggest that the process be completed in 60 days while the forest departments across the country have been laggard at settling rights of people in the national parks and sanctuaries.

Even when the provisions for criticial wildlife habitats were introduced in the law, many had warned it would turn into a farce with the environment ministry attempting to save all the national parks and sanctuaries as CWH without evaluating the scientific basis of keeping them free of people or respecting the rights of tribals.

A committee was formed by the environment ministry with two prominent wildlife advocates opposed to the Forest Rights Act put in charge to demarcate the CWH. But the process never took off for two years.