- While the dominant narrative of conservation-related resettlement is that of forced and induced displacement leading to further destitution and cultural alienation, there are also reports from reserves across India where resettlement has been voluntary and led to a better socio-economic status for the relocated communities.
- In Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, local residents have taken legal recourse to be relocated and since 2013, 346 families from 10 settlements have been resettled.
- Lack of education facilities and regular instances of human-wildlife conflict were key drivers for communities seeking to relocate from Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.
Radhika would have been about four when she left her home in Kurichyad, a settlement deep inside Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS), Kerala to live with her relatives in Chethalyam, a small town, so she could pursue her studies. Though Kurichyad had a primary school, teachers are reluctant to work deep inside forests. “I was fortunate,” she says, “My mother missed out on an education, as did some of my friends in the village.” Parents are especially reluctant to send girls out to relatives and hostels, and commuting anything from 4 to 20 kms to school through dense forests is fraught with the risk of fatal encounters with wild animals.
This lack of education facilities and the constant brunt of human-wildlife conflict were key drivers for communities seeking to relocate from Wayanad WLS, the focus of a 2019 study by this author. The research was conducted as part of an M.Phil. in Conservation Leadership at the University of Cambridge. It involved semi-structured interviews with 34 people across six villages. This included people who had been relocated as well as people still living inside the sanctuary and other relevant stakeholders. It focused on understanding whether the relocation had been voluntary, informed and incentivised, if the communities received adequate government support and how they fared post-relocation, among various other factors.
Relocation: Destitution and displacement or ‘win-win’ for people and wildlife?
Resettlements from protected areas (PAs) are contentious globally and have troubled histories of evictions and destitution. In India, studies indicate that some resettlements have led to greater economic distress and insecurity, loss of agricultural productivity and cultural alienation, as for instance from Sariska Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan and Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh.
While the dominant narrative of conservation-related resettlement is that of forced and induced displacement leading to further destitution and cultural alienation, there are also reports from reserves across India such as Bhadra (Karnataka) and Rajaji (Uttarakhand) among others, where resettlement has been voluntary and led to a better socio-economic status for the relocated communities.
The relocated sites in both reserves have recorded greatly improved animal densities. Studies show that tigers and other wide-ranging animals require undisturbed, inviolate refuges for breeding and long term survival.
India’s PAs are densely populated with approximately 4.3 million people residing inside them, of which about 2 percent have been relocated, mostly from tiger reserves. Over 14,400 families have been relocated from reserves, mainly after the Tiger Task Force in 2005 prioritised voluntary and incentivised relocation to create inviolate areas, following the local extinction of tigers in Sariska Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan.
Controversy, however, continues to dog conservation-linked resettlements, with criticism that they undermine the welfare of people for that of tigers.
Wayanad: A people-driven initiative
In this context, the Wayanad case offers interesting insights where people have taken the lead in relocation. A comprehensive survey by the Kerala Forest Research Institute in 2009 indicated that 51 percent of the families wanted to relocate. Their relocation was initiated, with other factors such as the level of hardship, human-wildlife conflict communities faced weighing in, as per Ajith Raman, former Wildlife Warden of Wayanad.
A later survey by Karanth et al in 2018, involving randomly selected villages, showed 100 percent surveyed were willing to relocate. This finding was reflected in the 2019 study, where all respondents said they had relocated willingly, and it was an informed choice. This change in mindset is owing, as per respondents, to the “confidence instilled in the process with positive experience of neighbouring villages, greater exposure to the outside world, compensation package and peer pressure, as everyone was moving out.”
The demand for relocation stepped up around 2010, with some residents forming a forum to garner support. They appealed to forest authorities and political leaders including the then chief minister, Oommen Chandy, who took up the matter in 2011 with the then Minister of Environment and Forests. In 2012, four petitioners from Kurichyad and Narimanthikoly tribal settlements, took the matter to the Kerala High Court seeking government support for speedy relocation as “they lived an animal-like existence”. The court ruled in their favour, and the process was initiated in 2013. Since then 346 families from 10 settlements have been resettled.
Wayanad, while not a tiger reserve, has an estimated 70 tigers, with populations overlapping between connected PAs such as Bandipur, Nagarahole and Brahamagiri (Karnataka) and Satyamangalam and Mudumalai (Tamil Nadu). It is also part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, which has the world’s largest density of Asian elephants, numbering about 6,000. About 10,000 people live within the 344 sq km Wayanad sanctuary, and this high density of both people and wildlife has led to conflict, particularly with elephants.
The motivation to relocate
This intense, escalating conflict was cited by almost all respondents as the reason they wanted to resettle outside the sanctuary. Forest department data recorded between 1985-2012 showed 48 human deaths, 84 injuries caused by wild animals, and 5,938 cases of crop damage. These statistics hold within them stories of untold human tragedy. Appu Master who lives in Chettiyalathur village in the sanctuary, lost his five-year-old son to an elephant while on his way back from school, another of his sons suffered severe injuries in an elephant attack while harvesting paddy. Losing a family member or neighbour was just one fallout of having potentially dangerous animals in close proximity. Livelihoods were uncertain, crop loss substantial, incomes depressed and erratic.
Raghavan, a resident of Chettiyalathur, along with two friends, invested a lifetime’s savings in a banana plantation. Just short of the harvest, the entire crop was destroyed in a night. Crop depredation by wild animals ranged between 33 to 60 percent, and in some cases, entire harvests were ruined. Villagers from Kurichyad state that 10 to 15 percent of their livestock was killed by predators, mostly tigers and leopards.
Such income losses, combined with lack of jobs and opportunities for labour work motivated over three-quarters of residents to relocate. Even more compelling is their aspiration to be part of mainstream society and avail amenities of a modern economy. Over 90 percent said they aspired for a high standard of living, job and business opportunities and access to technology, more so for their children.
Settlements within the sanctuary lacked hospitals and markets, and road connectively was poor. Timely and regular medical help was difficult to access and had cost lives. One woman from Kurichyad had three miscarriages. What was acutely felt by many residents was an alienation of living in a remote settlement, unconnected by electricity or digital technology. “We were so unaware of what is happening in the world outside – we wouldn’t know if war broke out or if India won a cricket match,” commented Krishnadhar, a resident from Manimunda (inside the sanctuary), which eventually got electricity in 2018.
Residents from Manimunda have been eager to move out but the process has been delayed for at least five years; so faith in government processes and promises runs thin. Besides, the current government package of Rs. 1 million (Rs. 10 lakh) per family was considered inadequate with inflation and escalating land prices. This sentiment was echoed by Chettiyalathur residents who, while keen to shift out, have approached authorities for an enhanced compensation package that reflects their assets.
Another resident from Kurichyad expressed his misgivings to shift out. Revi belongs to the Katunaika tribe who retains strong cultural links with the forest and is apprehensive of a different way of life. His neighbour’s point of view was different. Balan felt “it is ok for us, our children have no future here in the jungle. They want computers and office jobs—a different way of life.”
Interestingly, the findings from Wayanad indicating education, employment and aspirations for future generations as main reasons to relocate are mirrored in the aspirations of India’s youth; a 2011 census data of the Government of India showed employment (61%), and education (24%) as the top reasons for rural-urban migration.
Life post relocation
Almost all relocated respondents expressed satisfaction with life after shifting out: they had access to education, healthcare, markets, roads and enjoyed a better standard of living.
A.P. Shibu’s 80-year-old mother rues that she could not educate her daughter while living in Kurichyad and is determined that there will be “no compromise in the education of her two granddaughters.” And Radhika, now in Class 12 is delighted to have internet access and nurses an ambition to be “a uniformed army officer.”
Most respondents also reported an increase in income. Chelavan said his earnings have increased by 70-80 percent after shifting from Goloor to Payikolly. But what he values more is the dignity with which he lives now. He remembers carrying their produce on head loads to the bazaar about 10 km outside the forest. “We were disdained as country bumpkins, and our bargaining power was poor.” Now, he says, the suppliers come to the village for the produce.
There were problems initially with delays in receiving funds for house construction, forcing all those resettled in Payikolly to live in temporary shelters, with no electricity, for between 1-3 years. By mid-2019, Chelvan’s house was almost complete, but says he, “even with this hardship, it was a wise decision to move out.”
One issue, articulated by a recently bereaved widow, was the lack of community cohesiveness. Even though all the families from this settlement were relocated to the same place, it felt that the community support was greater when they lived in Ammavayal in the sanctuary.
The way forward
So, can relocation be a ‘win-win’ solution? For some, yes, while not an option for others. Most respondents recognised the trade-off involved and made an informed choice—giving up something, for example, associations of culture, for economic advancement or freedom from constant human-wildlife conflict.
Relocation is a nuanced and complex issue—a number of factors such as dependence on forests, income levels, caste, gender and other factors influencing the decision to relocate or not, and their success and satisfaction with life, post-relocation.
Resettlement remains a hotly contentious issue, and a question missing in the deeply entrenched positions both sides of the debate is: What do the people want? Just as eviction and coercion are unacceptable, equally, categorical opposition to village relocation based on ideology or assumed injustice is misplaced. In the words of Raghavan K.K., one of the petitioners in the 2012 case not being supported in their desire to relocate it is, “a denial of basic democratic right to personal liberty.”
As India continues with village relocations—there are currently approximately 42,400 families in villages inside the core areas of tiger reserves. Relocations need to be viewed not only through the prism of wildlife conservation but also human welfare and social justice.
Banner image: Chikki Jaddayan was happy to relocate out of Ammmavayal due to the various problems inside the sanctuary. But after shifting she lost her husband in tragic circumstances, and there are other family problems. She feels alone and misses the sense of community that she says was stronger in the forest. It gave her a support system that is now lacking. Photo by Prerna Singh Bindra.