A month ago, Surjit Ram lived with his siblings, parents and grandparents in a house within Kaziranga National Park, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. “It was my father’s father’s house,” Mr. Ram said. Today, all that’s left is rubble.
Kaziranga National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to two-thirds of the world’s greater one-horned rhinoceroses – and, once, to farmers such as Mr. Ram, many of whom had lived there for generations. In October, the Guwahati High Court passed an order asking park authorities to evict “illegal” occupants of the park.
Mr. Ram’s family, like many others in Haldhibari, a tiny village within the park’s expanding border, initially resisted the move. But eventually, Mr. Ram said, they were intimidated by Forest Department officials. “They came back with [senior officers] and said, ‘Tear down your walls.’”
This isn’t the first time families such as Mr. Ram’s have faced eviction. Since it was granted national park status in February, 1974, Kaziranga has expanded to almost twice its original size, from 430 square kilometres to 914 square kilometres. In September, the government of Assam ratified the addition of an extra 30 square kilometres to “protect” the rhinoceros population alongside that of the region’s tigers.
But whether such expansion actually protects wildlife – and at what human cost – has long been debated by conservationists and activists alike. The subsistence farmers of the area, many of them indigenous peoples, are not “encroachers” or “illegal migrants,” as the government would have people believe, said Pranab Doley, an activist and secretary of Jeepal Krishak Shramik Sangha, a farmers’ rights organisation based in the town of Bokakhat.
Roughly 8.6 per cent (104 million) of India’s population are indigenous peoples categorized as “Scheduled Tribes” – more than 300 communities, each with their own land, history, language and culture.
“Historically, these spaces have been the territories of traditional forest-dwelling communities or Scheduled Tribes, [but] they have been looked down upon and considered ‘backward’ in the mainstream [Indian] view,” Mr. Doley said.
The Guwahati High Court case, he said, was politically motivated and lacked adequate evidence of poaching – the basis of the court’s decision. Using reports of poaching sourced from three English-language dailies, two petitions were filed – one by Mrinal Saikia, a local Bharatiya Janata Party MLA.
In 2013, a judge ruled that “no illegality has been committed in proposing to evict the encroachers of forest land.” That was followed in 2015 with an eviction order for Scheduled Tribes and traditional forest dwellers in parts of Kaziranga. During the evictions, two villagers protesting the move were killed and several others injured when they were fired upon by police.
“When the court went ahead to declare a huge number of people ‘encroachers,’” Mr. Doley said, “we need to look at who is doing the encroaching. If Kaziranga is expanding without taking into consideration the traditional communities living [in the area], then encroachment is being done by Kaziranga, not by the people.”
According to recent coverage in Indian media, tourists can now explore the national park via boats and bicycles in addition to elephant and jeep safaris.
Birsa Orang, another former resident of Haldhibari, is among the 672 people who have been evicted from their homes. He lived with his wife, brother, sister, daughter and son in what was once his grandfather’s home. He said that despite having a patta – a deed – to his property, he was never issued a formal eviction notice. More importantly, he said, “No villager I know hunts.”
Rhino poachers are largely acknowledged to be part of an extensive network. They kill the animals for their horns and nails and sell them on the international black market for their “aphrodisiac” properties. On Dec. 14, two poachers were arrested in the park carrying a rifle, ammunition and a sword.
Conservation in India has, especially since colonization, ignored the positive impact of indigenous peoples. According to experts, this has been exacerbated by the ruling BJP regime. In 2019, despite the party’s president in Assam maintaining that the “BJP will ensure protection of indigenous communities besides giving them equal rights and privileges,” the party has redefined its definition of “indigenous,” in addition to leaving almost 1.9 million (mostly Muslim) residents off a citizenship registry in the state.
“It has become increasingly important to recognize and emphasize conservation practices deep-rooted with community-initiated forest protection practices,” said Archana Soreng, a member of the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. “Conservation which deprives or evicts indigenous and local communities from their houses not only deprives [people] from their livelihoods but puts them in a vicious circle of poverty.”
Ms. Soreng, who belongs to the Indian state of Odisha’s indigenous Kharia tribe, firmly believes that doing so comes at the cost of both the sustainability and conservation goals that governments in India and elsewhere are striving toward. “For most indigenous people, our identities, our cultures, our spiritual beliefs – they are deeply connected with nature … it becomes about protecting our identity,” she said. “We need to work [toward] conservation models that indigenous communities can strengthen.”
The Forest Rights Act, which recognizes the rights and occupation of forest land by Scheduled Tribes, was, according to Mr. Doley, effectively dissolved when the government went ahead with the evictions. “The constitutional rights of the people have been categorically denied,” he said. “We have been demanding [justice] for some time – multiple memoranda, protests – but the state government has been silent on this [issue]. They haven’t created any committees needed for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act in Assam.”
Mr. Ram, unsure of what the future holds, said he has lost faith. “I’ve complained so much [about the evictions], but no one listens. … Today it’s our houses, tomorrow it might be us.”