DNA EXCLUSIVE: Centre sends guidelines to notify critical wildlife habitats to states

The guidelines lay down a process, comprising physical identification of CWH, holding consultations with tribal and forest dwelling communities and its eventual final notification by MoEF&CC

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The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has sent state governments the guidelines for notification of critical wildlife habitats (CWH) within national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, kicking-off the process of creating inviolate spaces for wildlife conservation by modifying and resettling rights of lakhs of adivasis and other forest dwellers outside CWH. Delayed by seven years, the guidelines lay down a process, comprising physical identification of CWH, holding consultations with tribal and forest dwelling communities and its eventual final notification by MoEF&CC.

DNA has reviewed a copy of the guidelines.

The development comes at a time when a National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) advisory, issued in March 2017 and supported by the tribal affairs ministry, asked states to not settle rights of tribals and forest dwellers under Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, in critical tiger habitats since the CWH guidelines were not formulated. DNA had reported that NTCA's advisory was slammed by the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST), but it has not been withdrawn. NTCA had told NCST that conferring rights to forest-dwellers in critical tiger habitats amounted to a "repetitive process, which was already taken care by the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972."

Even as the NTCA advisory remains active, Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, makes it clear that identification and notification of CWH has to be done only after rights of tribal and other forest dwelling communities are settled. FRA also states that it has to be scientifically established that activities of forest dwellers will cause irreversible damage to wildlife and co-existence is not possible.

For identifying CWHs, each state has to constitute a seven-member expert committee, chaired by a chief conservator of forest in-charge of a national park or sanctuary, the guidelines stated. Using a scientific and objective criteria, the committee has to physically identify the CWH. Most importantly, the committee has to conduct a public consultation with the affected forest dwelling communities, informing them of the details of the CWH, including its extent. Once the consultations are over, a proposal has to be sent to Centre through the state wildlife board.

Broadly, a three-step public consultation process has been laid down in the guidelines. Once the expert committee identifies the CWH, an open public consultation has be to carried out with tribal communities and a public notice has to be issued 15 days in advance. The notice has to contain details of CWH boundaries, criteria adopted to identify it, its implication on rights of communities affected, options of resettlement and rehabilitation, issues of human-wildlife conflict, if they exist, and details of time, date and venue of the consultation.

The public notice is to be also circulated in all offices of tribal department, local bodies, district collector, taluka office and forest offices. The communities affected have to be provided transportation to reach the public meeting with a quorum of 75 per cent. After explaining the CWH proposal in local language, their views and objections have to be duly recorded. The guidelines, though, are silent on any revision based on objections of affected communities, neither does it say that the public notice has to be published and distributed in the local language.

Shankar Gopalakrishnan, National Secretary of Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a federation of tribal and forest dwellers organisations from eleven states, said that the guidelines is silent on the issue of settlement of rights before notifying CWHs.

"Relocation requires completion of recognition of rights and informed consent from gram sabhas. But the guidelines have left it for a next stage. his opens the possibility for manipulation of the process. First, no CWH process at all should take place until rights recognition is complete, otherwise how will they assess which rights need to be modified. Second, a CWH notification can be passed by making vague promises but later, the communities will be pressured to move out, threatening recognition of rights," Gopalakrishnan said.

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