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The story of an activist and a vanishing forest

LiveMint logoLiveMint 19-05-2017 Ananda Banerjee

Sai Sampath didn’t like the showy, big-city life in Hyderabad—his mother’s hometown. He preferred his father’s ancestral village of Bahadurpur in Telangana’s Vikarabad district, where he would roam the surrounding wilderness in his early years.

Last month, I met him at the Tandur railway station near his home. Sampath was eager to show me the forest he is trying to save. For the 30-year-old, it’s his life’s mission. “The wilderness where I spent most of my childhood has eroded slowly over the years. People axed trees for firewood and sold them off. Bit by bit, every year, forests were cleared for cultivation and settlements. After the enactment of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, commonly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA), the floodgates opened for illegal encroachers to grab forest land due to lack of proper land records,” he tells me.

For several years now, Sampath has been trying to expose land-grabbers who he believes are misusing the law, converting forests into farmland.

Sampath’s journey started with ECO-FAWN, a non-governmental organization he set up in 2009 to work on environment and wildlife issues. He wrote a report on irregularities in FRA implementation and petitioned the Union and state governments on the issue of encroachments and depleting forests. His relentless correspondence bore fruit: In October 2015, he was invited by the parliamentary committee on petitions to present his findings.

The 9th and 18th Report, tabled by the committee of petitions in the Lok Sabha in December 2015, mentions the submissions received from Sampath regarding these irregularities. It also mentions the total forest area under encroachment across India: 1.621 million hectares. It could be more, observe conservationists, as state governments didn’t have all the information on the number of people or communities who were in possession of forest land before the FRA cut-off date of 13 December 2005.

Since its inception, the FRA has been mired in controversy: It was seen to be in conflict with the principles of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The FRA was enacted to recognize the occupation rights of forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional dwellers who had been living in forests over generations but didn’t have land titles.

There are two streams of thought on conservation: One group believes forests needs to be free of human settlements and made inviolate for wild flora and fauna to prosper; the second group is batting for traditional dwellers who have lived off the forest alongside wild animals and plants, and have taken care of the ecosystem.

That day in the Deccan countryside, Sampath set out to show me why the second group was wrong.

We went for a spin on his motorcycle, zipping through a countryside where giant boulders huddle to form picturesque hillocks. These rocks, which seem perched precariously over one another, go back over 2,500 million years and have been shaped by years of weathering. We climbed a hillock for a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding area, and Sampath pointed to blocks of rice fields that he said were on forest land. “Every year, tribal farmers from the Lambada community expand their cultivation block by encroaching and the authorities do nothing about it. They also hunt in the area for small mammals like porcupine, monitor lizard, hare, wild boar, rodents, birds and even pangolins, an endangered species protected by the law of the land.” Pangolins, with their armour of scales, are one of the world’s most hunted and trafficked species.

We stumbled upon the remains of a campfire; the ground was strewn with porcupine quills. Although the state government has stopped accepting applications under the FRA, encroachment and hunting continue virtually unchecked.

We travelled to the neighbouring forests of Dharur—through lush green vegetation interspersed with shallow pools and rocky outcrops from where the magnificent white ghost trees spread their branches.

“These forest fringes are surrounded by the Lambada community. Lambadas are the poorest section of society here and have very few livelihood alternatives other than to depend on forest resources. The crops they sow in their agricultural land or the sale of seasonal fruits collected from the forest are not enough to sustain them economically. So in the summer months they chop down trees to sell firewood in Gulbarga, Chitapur and Sedam in Karnataka,” claims Sampath.

After interacting with members of the community, Sampath believes that they would stop cutting trees if they had an alternative means of livelihood. Government schemes, such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, have helped the community, but it’s not a permanent source of income. Much more is needed if the community is to be persuaded to give up its overdependence on forest produce. Grass-roots workers like Sampath have been facilitating training programmes for farmers interested in cultivating medicinal plants or in afforestation programmes in and around Tandur.

Historically, the forests in Vikarabad district, the lush green tracts of Dharur and Anantagiri, were rich in wildlife. Today, encroachment and flawed policies are nibbling away at these forests. Last month, the local media reported that the state government had decided to grant 2,900 acres in the Dammagudem Reserve Forest to the defence ministry for a radar centre.

The state government has a duty to work towards development—but also, to protect forests. And underprivileged tribal communities in the forest need government schemes which provide skills and training for a sustainable livelihood.

Out In The Wild is a column on the good, bad and ugly of nature conservation.

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