ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Protected Areas, Forest Rights, and the Pandemic

The complex nature of contestation between the forest department and the local communities (that is, Van Gujjars) in the Rajaji National Park is explored, with special reference to the recent violent ­attacks by the forest department officials on Van Gujjars. An analysis of the intricate aspects related to the claims of both the Van Gujjars and the forest department underlines that the existence of legal pluralism in forest governance creates a situation of legal indeterminacy, which has been used by the forest department to overlook and violate the demands of local communities.

It seems that the COVID-19 pandemic has created an opportunity for the forest department to evict forest-dwelling communities from the protected areas. Since the situation of pandemic and lockdown has prohibited local communities from the protest against the arbitrary and violent measures of the forest department officials, they have been using it to terrorise and force local communities to leave the protected areas. The recent attack by the forest department personnel on the Van Gujjars of the Rajaji National Park (RNP), which was also granted the status of a tiger reserve in 2015, is an example of using a tragic situation by the forest department to further its agenda. The Citizens for Justice and Peace and the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) complained to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) that on 16 and 17 June, when there was a strict lockdown in the whole country, the police and forest officials attacked the Van Gujjars at the Asharodi forest in the Ramgarh range of the RNP of Uttarakhand. They assaulted the elders of the community and destroyed their homes. A Van Gujjar woman, Noorjahan, alleged that she was attacked by the forest department personnel and police and some of them hit her private parts. Her father Mustafa has been fighting for the rights of Van Gujjars in the RNP for the last two decades. Mustafa and a few other Van Gujjars were arrested by the police, but released after pressure from many local organisations. It was an attempt to terrorise the Van Gujjars, who are not ready to leave the RNP.

Indeed, there are many crucial questions related to the situation of local communities in the RNP in particular, and all national parks and other protected areas in general. First, what is the exact situation of the Van Gujjars in the RNP, and how has the forest department in this area been dealing with their demands? Second, within the existing legal structures, what are the rights of local communities in the protected areas and does the forest department have the power to evict them by using force, as it has been trying to do in many protected areas, particularly in the RNP? Third, is the present legal structure sufficient to overcome the conundrum between the rights of local communities and wildlife?

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Published On : 12th Jan, 2024

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