Millions of indigenous people threatened by environmental legislation in India

Narendra Modi, the newly re-elected prime minister, has vowed to militarize India’s forests

Narendra Modi, who has just been re-elected as India’s Prime Minister, is planning to reform the country’s forestry legislation, amending laws that have been in force since the colonial era. With the alleged aim of safeguarding endangered species, Modi is set to militarize the forests and grant more power and immunity to forest guards to shoot to kill anyone they suspect of being a poacher. In practice, the reforms will grant more powers to forest guards, a "highly militarized police force" who are repressing indigenous tribes and local communities, according to Eleonora Farari, a researcher with the EnvJustice group at the ICTA-UAB [The Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona].

Some 300 million people live in India’s forests, which occupy 21% of the nation’s landmass. They incluse a sizeable proportion of the more than 100 million indigenous peoples (or Adivasis, as they are referred to) that live in India who had a lot at stake in the elections that ended on 19 May, following a month of voting in different phases, which ultimately saw Modi emerge the victor once more.

According to Pranab Doley, a representative of the peasant organization Jeepal Krisak Sramik Sangha, "Modi has tried hard to strip indigenous peoples of their rights. His sole objective has been to polarize the population in the name of religion, pitching Hindus against Muslims. But India is home to many other communities and minorities". Doley travelled to Barcelona to denounce the situation. He was hoping that Modi would lose the election since, according to Doley, "Modi does not have the support of the majority of the population, starting with the farmers, who he has failed to provide with any form of security, and the young, who continue to face unemployment". According to Doley, "Modi has only governed for the rich and for big business". Nevertheless, the leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP party has been re-elected for a further five years.

Doley works with the indigenous communities of the Kaziranga National Park, a forest reserve in the country’s north-eastern region, home to two thirds of the world's population of the Indian rhinoceros, and a tiger reserve with the highest population density in the world. The model which Modi intends to impose with his reform of the forestry laws has already been implemented in the Kaziranga National Park with disastrous results for its indigenous population.

"Extrajudicial killings"

According to Doley, "For a long time, Kaziranga has employed a policy of extreme militarization, with forestry police officers being granted a free hand to carry out extrajudicial killings of alleged poachers", who are often members of local communities. A BBC documentary exposed the situation in 2017, and reported on cases such as the death of a man with severe learning difficulties who failed to heed the guard’s calls for him to stop, or a 7-year-old boy who is barely able to walk after having been shot in the leg. "As a result [of the documentary] they took action against the BBC and doubled down on the repression" says Doley. Kaziranga is a success story in terms of rhinoceros conservation, with the species having gone from just a handful of animals in the early twentieth century to 2,400 individuals today. Nevertheless, Doley claims the success is down to the efforts of indigenous and local communities and that it has nothing to do with the Forest Service.

The park rangers have taken on an increasingly militarized role over the last decade due to the growth in rhinoceros poaching. This in turn is a result of the growing demand for rhino horn in East Asia, where it is attributed with possessing extraordinary medicinal qualities, from curing cancer to increasing sexual potency.

The forest authorities, with the support of conservation organizations, see indigenous peoples and local communities as a threat to protected species. However, according to Doley, "this narrative only responds to the self-interests" of the country’s elites in their desire to exploit the natural resources of forests such as Kaziranga, including its ability to attract tourists. "Indigenous peoples help maintain the forests, often feeding wild animals with their crops and their herds", Doley argues.

The Indian Forest Act, dating from 1927, continues to impose a conservation model which is a hangover from the colonial era, with the stated objective of profiting from natural resources. The reform which Modi is proposing replaces an economic goal for one aimed at the conservation of nature. However, according to Doley, "instead of democratizing the system, it will make it even more repressive". Doley accuses the Indian Forest Service of "having always acted like a feudal body, seeing the forests as its private property, treating indigenous and local communities as their servants, as a labour force to be used when they need to clean the forest or plant trees, while refusing to give them any rights over the land".

The threat of eviction

The struggle of indigenous peoples in India eventually led to the Forest Rights Act of 2006, which seeks to protect such communities by stipulating that before any project which affects the forest can be approved, those responsible must first obtain the "prior informed consent" of 'Gram Sabha' (village councils). In reality, however, the legislation is not worth the paper it’s written on. A 2012 government directive watered it down and organizations such as the National Authority for the Conservation of the Tiger (NTCA) issued orders stating that it does not apply to the tiger's habitats. Now that Modi has been re-elected, if he eventually passes his bill, the 2006 act will be stripped of all its strength.

Modi’s reforms are not the only threat these communities face, however. Some 8 million natives will lose their homes if the Indian Supreme Court's decision to evict 1.1 million families living in the forests comes into force. According to the NGO Survival International, the ruling, issued last February and put on hold following a wave of protests, represents "the largest mass expulsion ever seen in the name of conservation".

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