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Amidst plans to uproot tribals to 'protect' forests, GoI infra projects hit tiger reserves

By Rajiv Shah* 

A new study has blamed the Government of India (GoI) for seeking to create “inviolate spaces” -- spaces devoid of human presence -- in the core areas of the country’s 53 tiger reserves, thus allegedly undermining the forest rights of the communities residing in these areas for centuries. At the same time, it notes, ironically, the GoI  is acting fast to implement of “big and small linear infrastructure projects” within their vicinity in the name of development, "adversely affecting" the tiger reserves.
Insisting that it is the local communities, which have been enablers in forest conservation rather than a roadblock in efforts towards tiger conservation (an argument put forward by forest officials and some "nature lovers" alike), the study believes, the “development” projects have posed “an existential threat to the flora and fauna in the regions where the tiger reserves are located, endangering the existing the tiger population”.
Titled “Undoing Conservation: India's Tiger Reserves Giving Way for Infra Projects”, the study selects 10 out of 53 tiger reserves of the country – Pakke (Arunachal Pradesh), Kaziranga (Assam), Bandipur and Kali (Karnataka), Parambikulam (Kerala), Panna (Madhya Pradesh), Tadoba Andhari (Maharashtra), Mukundra Hills (Rajasthan), Amrabad (Telangana), and and Rajaji Uttarakhand – to point out how the intrusion of infrastructure projects in fragile areas is likely to undo the “gains achieved” recently in conserving the tiger.
Thus, the study says, two centuries ago, India was home to an estimated 58,000 tigers, which came down to 2,000 in 1970s because of large-scale hunting, but “thanks to a slew of legal and policy measures directed at conserving the tiger population, such as the creation of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, India is now home to eighty per cent of tigers in the world. In 2006, there were 1,411 tigers in the country. By 2018, this number had increased to 2,967.”
Yet, it regrets, there are glaring examples of how the GoI is lately seeking to undermine conservation. Take for instance the Amrabad Tiger Reserve (ATR), where it sought to implement a uranium mining project. Recently shelved following local protests, the study warns, “Considering India’s eagerness to scale up nuclear power generation and the extremely limited availability of a mineral like uranium, it is to be seen till how long the plans for uranium mining are deferred.”
India’s second largest tiger reserve (area wise), located in Telangana, ATR currently has about 28 tigers. The reserve was “saved” as a result of resistance by local activists backed by tribals, especially Chenchus, categorized as a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG), living in the Nallamala forests since centuries, spanning over Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
Primarily hunter-gatherers, dependent on the forests for their survival, often working as National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) workers, spending 4-5 months in the forests living in temporary camps to earn daily wages, and also migrating to Hyderabad and Vijayawada for work, Chenchus faced threat from the possibility of uranium mining in the tiger reserve, which they feared would result in their displacement.
It all began in the early 2000s, when the Uranium Corporation of India (UCIL), a public sector undertaking under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), proposed an operational Peddagatu-Lambapur uranium mining site, 1.6 km from the Nagarjuna reservoir. A Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), an expert panel on forests of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) recommended in principle approval in May 2019 to it for survey and exploration of uranium in ATR.
While the DAE, justifying the selection of ATR, said the area had “the high grade and large tonnage Proterozoic Unconformity type of uranium deposits are by far, the most attractive”, a Struggle Committee Against Uranium Mining, which brought together 63 organizations, including political parties, environmental activists, birders, and wildlife enthusiasts, was formed to take forward the ‘Save Nallamalla Campaign’.
The Chenchu tribals residing in ATR united to protest against uranium mining in ATR. The tribals took the matter in their own hands. The Chenchus, helped by members of the Struggle Committee, prevented the entry of a team of UCIL that was going to do a recce of the Padra, Maredupalli, Devarakonda and Kambajpalli areas. In September 2021, the Telangana government was informed by the MoEFCC that a decision was taken to close the proposal for uranium mining.
The other major example of how conservation efforts are sought to be undermined, says the study, is that of the Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR). Situated in Madhya Pradesh, as of November 2021, there were 45 to 50 adult tigers and 20 to 25 cubs (below the age of one year) in PTR.
Diamond mining in Panna
While Madhya Pradesh was declared ‘Tiger State’ in 2018 for being home to the biggest population of tigers in India, as the number of tigers recorded in the state were 526, in next three years it also earned a notorious record of witnessing the highest number of tiger deaths (40) in 2021 – nine of them because of “suspected poaching.”
Meanwhile, the study says, while the tribal communities living in the Panna forest, Raj Gonds and Saur Gonds, faced threat of eviction as the forest department decided to expand the core area of PTR to “accommodate the increasing number of tigers”, the GoI simultaneously decided to go ahead with the Ken-Betwa River Linking Project (KBLP), which, estimates the study, would lead to the submergence of 6,017 hectares of forest land of PTR and the adjoining area.
“Ignoring all the concerns raised by various government bodies and environmentalists, an agreement was signed in March 2021 between the Union Minister of Jal Shakti and the Chief Ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh to implement the river interlinking project”, the study states.
In yet another threat in the tiger reserve, which houses India’s only diamond mine, Majhgawan, in more than 74 hectares area, in 2021, the State Wildlife Board and the Central Wildlife Board gave clearance to the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) to expand the diamond mining area -- even as a large number of diamond mines with shallow mining operations are continuing illegally.
The proposed NDMC mining in Bunder, falling in Chhatrapur division of Madhya Pradesh, covers 364 hectares in the protected Buxwaha forests. The project has been secured by the Essel Mining and Industries Limited, owned by the Aditya Birla Group, which plans to develop a fully mechanized opencast mine and state of the art processing plant for recovery of diamonds.
The study says, while the pre-feasibility report submitted by the Essel Mining to the environment ministry says that there are no wildlife sanctuaries, national parks or tiger reserves within the 10 km radius of the mining lease area, the danger remains in backdrop of felling of trees and use of excess water for diamond mining in the proximity of PTR.
Apart from Amrabad and Panna tiger reserves, the study says, the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve (KTR) in Assam, with 121 tigers in 2018, faces threats from various non-state and state actors operating infrastructure projects, including including the National Highway 37 and the proposed expansion of the Numaligarh Refinery Limited (NRL) by installing a bioethanol plant supported by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).
Uttarakhand’s Rajaji Tiger Reserve, a home to 37 tigers faces threat from four laning of the National Highway 58 and the widening of the Haridwar-Dehradun railway line – all because of the aim to develop tourism. In fact, the study says, the official website of Rajaji Tiger Reserve "speaks less of ecology or conservation but more of tourism, elaborating the luxurious lodging options, safaris, camping and adventurous activities.”
The Bandipur Tiger Reserve (BTR), located in southern Karnataka, with 173 tigers, faces threat from the plan to four lane the NH 181’s 13.2 km stretch by acquiring 24 acres of the land of the BTR. And in the Kali Tiger Reserve (KTR) of Uttara Kannada district, which has 15 tigers, plans have been worked out to have a 168 km railway line to transport iron and manganese ore from the Bellary-Hospet region to the upcoming ports in Karnataka and Goa by diverting of 595.64 hectares of forest land.
Then, the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) of Maharashtra, having 115 tigers, the threat comes from the coal mining projects in Chandrapur District, apart from road projects cutting through the tiger corridors of TATR, and plans to have a five star tourist resort on 62 acres. 
The study also notes similar threats to the Pakke Tiger Reserve of Arunachal Pradesh, Mukundra Hills Tiger Reserve (MHTR) of Rajasthan and Parambikulam Tiger Reserve (PTR) in Kerala, says the study.
*Editor, Counterview


Anonymous said…
It is impossible to understand why the government is doing this. The world over, people are going for nature conservation and wild life preservation, but we seem to be moving in the opposite direction.
Neera Sharma said…
Indian govts generally are ruthless towards environment but this govt is least sensitive towards forest environment and the tribal communities residing in the area. They do not think about long term effects of such development projects and are blindly going ahead under the pressure of corporates. Nature conservation is absolutely essential for future generations but is the govt even bothered? That is the question.


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