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Problems with the Eco-Sensitive Zone

Learnings from the Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand

Neha Pande (pneha@iitk.ac.in) is a doctoral scholar at the Humanities and Social Science Department, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. A K Sharma (arunk@iitk.ac.in) teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. 

Eco-Sensitive Zones are being touted by the government as transition zones around protected forest areas, that would minimise forest depletion and man-animal conflict. This report, from the Corbett National Park, suggests how ESZs marginalise local interests and would prove detrimental to conservation in the long run.

 

The conservation debate has been broadly divided into two approaches on the role of human beings in conservation. The fortress or exclusionary approach is based on the separation of human beings from nature. The participatory or inclusive approach is based on the view that conservation intricately depends on the relationship of human beings with their environment. The exclusionary model of conservation has been found to be a failure in developing and non-Western countries. Therefore there is a stress on participatory models of conservation at present (Vaccaro et al 2013).

In India areas rich in biodiversity are declared protected areas—national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, conservation reserves, reserved forests and protected forests, etc. Protected areas, particularly national parks in India, are governed largely by the exclusionary approach and are sites of conflict among the resident populations over the restrictions affecting their everyday activities (Mukherjee 2009). Thus setting up protected areas brings about socio-ecological changes in the region (Guha 1991).

It was during my fieldwork[i] in the villages (Sawalde, Ringora, Dhikala and Dhela) around the Corbett National Park (CNP), Uttarakhand that I began to understand how Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZs) around protected areas were a contentious issue in conservation. The ESZ dispute in this region brings to light some critical issues of environmental regulation in the region as well as in the whole of India.

Eco-Sensitive Zone Guidelines

The National Wildlife Action Plan (2002–2016) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) stipulated that state governments should declare land falling within 10 km of the boundaries of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries as eco fragile zones or ESZs under the Environmental (Protection) Act, 1986. The purpose of the ESZ was to provide more protection to the parks by acting as a shock absorber or transition zone.

Many state governments have pointed out that the 10 km boundary would encompass many habitations and important cities; and would adversely affect the developmental works. The guidelines for the ESZ were issued in a notification letter dated l9 February, 2011[ii] for a speedy resolution of this issue. The guidelines proposed that the boundary had to be site specific, decided in consultation with a field based team comprising representatives from the forest department, revenue department and Panchayati Raj institution [iii]. Importantly it mentioned that the ESZs are not anti-people and do not intend to hamper their everyday activities.

Why ESZ?

The protected areas are based on the core and buffer model of management. The core area has the legal status of being a national park. The buffer area, however, does not have legal status of being a national park and could be a reserved forest, wildlife sanctuary or tiger reserve. Two questions arise hereif the parks already have buffer zones then why do we need ESZs? If the buffer area does act as an area of coexistence and multiple use for local populations then why are locals so apprehensive of the ESZ?

Why Local Apprehensions

“Now the forest department wants us to be nature friendly and do organic farming. However if wild animals destroy our crops or kill our cattle we will not be compensated,” said Trilok Singh, a local villager residing near CNP. “Isn’t ESZ further buffering the buffer zone? Buffer zone already restricts so many activities,” added Virendra Singh, another villager from the same area. The already existing park regulations have adversely affected the traditional practices of the locals. The new declaration has, therefore, caused apprehension in the locals who believe that it would worsen their sustenance. The local communities have organised themselves under the ESZ Sangarsh Samiti (Resistance Group) (ESZSS) to scrap the implementation of the guidelines and raise some other demands.

The ESZSS is a platform for the villages in the periphery of CNP. They have come together not only with the demand to scrap the ESZ but also to raise other livelihood issues. Different villages have different motivations to join the group based on issues impinging their survival and everyday needs[iv]. A brief reflection on them highlights the different social realities that environmental regulations have created in this landscape.

The villages in this area are of two types—traditional ones and others resettled from the core zone of CNP. The traditional villages do not have any dispute over their status, and are revenue villages, but face similar environmental regulations. Some of the resettled villages have got the status of revenue villages, but others have the status of forest village[v] and have been fighting the battle for revenue status. “The Forest Department shifted our village here from the core area, gave us the patta (documents) of the land, but we are still treated like encroachers,” said Kamala Devi, resident of a forest village in the area. The status of forest villages deprives them of any developmental activities. There are no schools, healthcare facilities, electricity and water connection. Also these villagers are denied permission to make pucca houses (permanent concrete structures), claim old dried or felled trees in their courtyard, make fencing around their houses or claim compensation for crop loss as these areas are considered to be forest lands owned by Forest Department.

Due to the opposition of locals and protest by ESZSS in October 2013, the Corbett Mahotsav (festival) to celebrate the 75 years of CNP and promote tourism by the government of Uttarakhand had to be cancelled amid all preparations.

Locals have always been in a tussle with the FD in these areas. An interesting case which increased the discontent for the ESZ happened on 10 February 2014. There is a temple devoted to the local deity of harvest in the periphery of the CNP. Once every year in February locals from all the villages in the area visit this temple and pray for a good harvest.  But in 2014 seven villagers were arrested on serious charges under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 for forest and wildlife offences and kept in custody for nine days, right in the middle of the festivities. These seven villagers had been (and still were) quite vocal on the issues of local rights and problems. The charges imposed on them were repairing the temple using cement and tiles, harming tress and entering the park area without permission.

Local versus Outside Interests

“Before going to the forests our mothers and sisters pray that they do not encounter the tiger, and tourists come here spending thousands in the hope to see the same tiger”.

                                                                                                                                                                             ----  Prabhat Dhayan, ESZSS activist, Ramnagar, Uttarakhand

“What will you do in Dhikuli? The complete village has been sold and converted to resorts.  You will not find anyone. Not more than three or four families own land. They would sell it soon,” said the locals when I wanted to meet the people of Dhikuli village.  Dhikuli is just outside /adjoining the Dhangari, main gate of the CNP. The dominance of mass tourism[vi] in the area has rapidly increased land prices. According to local sources land prices in the area prior to ESZ issue was Rs 50–60 lakh per bigha. Now they are reported to have increased manifold.

Many villagers (in revenue villages) have profited from this, by taking advantage of the fact that their village was situated in the periphery of the park or the buffer zone. They are also unknowingly or indirectly promoting unsustainable practices in the area. Other villagers regard their lands as assets that would fetch them money in an emergency. The ESZ did not permit change of land use from agriculture to commercial under section 143 of the Zamindari Abolition Act. This was implemented from November 2012. As the villagers came to know about this rule from the tehsildar, they were more furious on the ESZ issue. 

Mass tourism has been dominating the tourism industry in the area. As the pressure of tourism is rising, the government is developing new sites and gateways to the CNP. Initially Dhikala was the only entry gate for the park. However as tourism grew Bijrani zone, Dhela zone, Jhira zone, and Dhangari zone were subsequently opened for tourism. Recently Powalgarh Conservation Reserve has been created in the areas adjoining the village Powalgarh, and is being promoted as a tourist destination. Though Uttarakhand government promotes ecotourism[vii], it is hard to find evidence of it on the ground. Also, there are no policies to regulate tourism in the region (Equations 2009). Hotels and mega resorts, based on “metropolitan interests” (Fennel 1999:8) dominate the area and locals are restricted to low paying jobs. The locals are not enthusiastic in the ecotourism business as mass tourism gives them tough competition. Also the ESZ guidelines do not restrict the current tourism practices or put any restriction on the vehicular pollution in the area. Time and again, it is only the locals who have been made to sacrifice their rights and privileges, by privileging outside interests.

Conclusions

Through the study I neither want to portray the locals as benign nor as environmentally destructive (DuPuis and Vandergeest 1996). A simple view following the Malthusian logic puts local populations harmful to the environment and will necessitate and justify environmental regulations like the ESZ. However a deeper understanding will show how social changes due to modern environmental discourse (Bosak 2009), insensitive state and the dominance of market in the form of tourism (Equations 2009) are disturbing the local ecological and social realities, in which the locals play an active role.

Simply scrapping the ESZ, however, would not resolve the local socio-ecological issues. There is a need for rethinking on the impacts of the environmental policies at the local level, the type and prospects of local participation and most importantly the prospects of alternate income generating opportunities for successful conservation initiatives.

Notes

[i] The fieldwork was conducted in the months of May and October, 2015

[ii] ESZ guidelines:http://www.moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/Guidelines%20for%20E...

[iii] Refer to ESZ guidelines

[iv] This is not to be confused with village forests. Village forests are communal forest lands and forest village are villages in forest areas not having a legal status of revenue village often considered as encroached.

[v] The demands of the ESZSS are 1) Scrapping of ESZ guidelines in the region, 2) Effective safeguards for protection of villagers, their crops and livestock from wild animals, 3) Ramnagar to Kotdwar via Kalagarh motorable road to be opened for public, 4) Forest villages to be declared as revenue villages, 5) Land use transfer ban to be removed, 6) SDO Karki to be arrested and false case against villagers on temple worship to be withdrawn.

[vi] The government in its plans and policies encourage alternate tourism practices in the region. However the dominance of market led by resorts leave little scope and a tough competition for locals in ecotourism. Hence mass or conventional tourism industry aptly describes the tourism in the region.

[vii] Ecotourism is often misunderstood hence it is interpreted to be synonymous to nature based tourism.

References

Bosak, Keith (2008): “Nature, Conflict and Biodiversity Conservation in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve,” Conservation and Society, Vol 6, No 3, pp 211–224, http://www.conservationandsociety.org/article.asp?issn=0972-4923;year=2008;volume=6;issue=3;spage=211;epage=224;aulast=Bosak.

Chanchani, Aditi et al (2009): Nature, Markets, Tourism: Exploring Tourism’s Claims to Conservation in India, Bengaluru: Equations (Equitable Tourism Options), http://www.equitabletourism.org/files/fileDocuments478_uid11.pdf.

Fennell, David (1999): Ecotourism: An Introduction, London and New York: Routledge.

Guha, Ramachandra (1991): The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Melanie DuPuis, E and Peter Vandergeest (eds) (1996): Creating the Countryside: The Politics of Rural and Environmental Discourse, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Mukherjee, Ananya (2009): “Conflict and Coexistence in a National Park,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 44, No 23, http://www.epw.in/journal/2009/23/special-articles/conflict-and-coexistence-national-park.html.

Robbins, Paul (2011): Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.

Vaccaro,Ismael, Beltran,Oriol and Pierre Alexander Paquet (2013): “Political Ecology and Conservation: Some Theoretical Genealogies,” Journal of Political Ecology, Vol 20, http://jpe.library.arizona.edu/volume_20/Vaccaro.pdf.

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