3rd Feb, 2020: With the initiative of Assam-based youth and farmers organizations, including the Youth for Bokakhat and Jeepal Krishak Sramik Sangha (JKSS), the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and Delhi Solidarity Group co-organized a national-level discussion on “Scientific Conservation and Rights of People in Kaziranga” on 30th January, 2021, to discuss the twin interlinked issues of indigenous people’s rights as well as efforts to conserve Kaziranga’s natural resources and biodiversity.

The meeting that was held in Kohora at the centre of the forest administration of Kaziranga National Park (KNP) was a powerful challenge to the statist exclusionary regime of forest governance and an assertion of the indigenous people of Kaziranga in staking their rightful claim over the forest, its protection and conservation, and its governance. The meet began with a beautiful, spirited and powerful display of the colours and sounds of the indigenous people of Kaziranga, on terms and in a space that was their own.

The conference was addressed by various voices from civil society, but its heart lay in the courageous and resilient testimonies of the inhabitants of Kaziranga who face the constant threat of eviction from the ever-expanding boundaries of the National Park. The indigenous, tribal and adivasi peasants and farmers reaffirmed the right to their land and showed no sign of relenting this right. As one of the villagers said, “In the face of this adversity, we will not give up, but we will struggle and struggle and struggle”.

Invited and well-known speakers at the event included Prafulla Samantra, one of the advisors of NAPM, who has worked extensively for upholding rights of adivasis, Santanu Borthakur, a renowned human rights lawyer from Guwahati, Vasundhara Jairaith, a faculty member of Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, who specializes on issues related to development and Amit Kumar, an activist with Delhi Solidarity Group.

Some of the key issues raised in the meeting by the people from many villages surrounding Kaziranga National Park were:

  1. Continuing Evictions in the name of expansion and addition of lands to the Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve.
  2. Growing militarization and gross violation of human rights of the villagers.
  3. Challenges posed by capital-intensive tourist economy on cultural and economic progress of the local people living in and around Kaziranga National Park.
  4. Human-wild animal conflict.
  5. Non-implementation of Forest Rights Act, 2006

Highlighting several examples and experiences from across India, Prafulla Samantara, a strong voice of people’s movements and land rights in Odisha, stated that handing over key conservation initiatives to corporate or private entities has only led to loss of forests and human rights abuse of the locals. He strongly supported the need to conserve Kaziranga by recognizing the rights of the people living around the National Park and acknowledging their key involvement in and contributions to the conservation efforts. He also re-affirmed that “In a democratic country, it is the people who are sovereign, and it was the duty of the state to protect their rights over their land and their lives’. He concluded by saying, “Kaziranga will survive only if the local people are recognized as the protector of forests”.

Adv. Santanu Borthakur put forth the legal and political frameworks to protect the rights of the communities. He criticised the Assam government’s policies which led to alienation of various communities from their lands and natural environs. He also spoke about state repression on and arbitrary incarcerations of those who question such unjust policies. Calling for a serious rethink of the current extractive and exploitative model of tourism, Vasundhara Jairath expressed the need for an alternative approach that addresses the cultural and economic upliftment of the local people.

Narratives of representatives from evicted areas of Kaziranga including Methoni, Haldibari, Banderdubi, Bortol, Borbil and Agoratoli who deposed before the panel were filled with instances of everyday hardships and hopelessness in the face of state repression, but not giving up the resolve to fight back. Probin Pegu, Secretary of Jeepal Krishak Sramik Sangha read out farmers’ leader, Soneshwar Narah’s speech who had been targeted by Assam Government for participating in the all-India farmers’ protest on 26th January in New Delhi.

Pranab Doley, the candidate chosen by people of Kaziranga for upcoming Assam State Assembly election for Bokakhat constituency also addressed the gathering. The people welcomed him with loud cheers, the beat of their drums, as their feet moved to its rhythm, in a celebration of their identity, an exuberance of joy and an assertion of their peoples’ power. Doley stated that everyone should take up the cause of the security and the rights of people living around the Kaziranga National Park who have been sacrificing their crops and livestock to feed wild animals of Kaziranga for long. He called out the ruling Assam Government for failing to live up to its electoral promises of protecting the home, hearth and communities in and around Kaziranga. He also condemned the political conspiracy against farmers’ leaders of Assam such as Soneshwar Narah.

The meeting was a crucial initiative also since the public discussion on conservation and protection of Kaziranga was held by and for the people who belong to Kaziranga. Considered by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the KNP is an important protected area in India. Surrounded by lush green Karbi hills and the majestic Brahmaputra, the region is home to diverse communities. Kaziranga’s fragile ecosystem supports rare fauna and flora which co-exist along with local communities and their sustainable lifestyles.

While such a harmonious relationship between communities and their surroundings should have set the tone for future efforts of conservation of this habitat, increasingly people living close to the National Park are removed from the conservation efforts. Instead of recognising the historical role of indigenous communities in protecting, conservation and even nourishment of the wildlife and flora and fauna of Kaziranga, these communities have in fact been antagonized by the Park administration, backed by a heavily militarised model of ‘conservation’.

Millions have been invested in sustaining this militarisation alongside constantly expanding the territory of the National Park. Global conservation agencies such as World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have been pouring thousands of dollars as aid to protect endangered animals like the Royal Bengal Tiger. The conservation economy, however, does not include the well-being of the people living right next to the park. Over the last two decades, Kaziranga National Park expanded twice its size from 440 square kilometres to 883 square kilometres. This is done by displacing thousands of people from their lands. Such actions of the conservationists have been demonstrated in case of large-scale evictions from Banderdubi in 2013 and more recently from Methoni and Haldibari in 2020.

While conservation efforts by various national and international agencies have earned laurels and have been celebrated as worthy causes, the people of Kaziranga are being actively impoverished by a coercive conservation model that is tailored to expansion in tourism revenues instead. Declaring 2020 as the year of ‘Tourism and Rural Development’, in line with the United Nation World Tourism Organisation, Park authorities have an elaborate expansionary plan to multiply revenue by switching from a 6-month to an 8-month to finally a year-long model of tourism.

KNP authorities claims of contributing to ‘rural development’ are vacuous in the light of a continuous onslaught on the lands, waters, crops and livelihoods of the rural communities, while only the urban elite and politically influential individuals seem to benefit from these models. The park bureaucracy and state government have taken no substantive responsibility in compensating communities for the loss of crops or even of lives by wildlife and instead seek to throw out communities to make way for wildlife.

Finally, despite the passage of the Forest Rights Act 2006 that guarantees right of Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers to forests and its resources, FRA has systematically not been implemented in Kaziranga. As of 2019, Assam recognised 58,802 claims under FRA even as 12.4 percent of Assam’s population belong to tribal communities. Further, the Forest Department continues to play a huge role in the management of protected areas such as National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Tiger Reserves. This is violation of the rights protected and safeguarded in the FRA that seeks to undo the historical injustice done to communities living in and around forests

NAPM expresses its solidarity with the indigenous and peasant communities of Kaziranga. We call for an immediate embargo on all evictions; fair rehabilitation of all those already evicted; an end to the militarization and human rights abuses in the area; review of the tourism policy, with consultation of and benefits to local people; compensation in all cases of crop destruction by wild animals; full and effective implementation of FRA, 2006 and an inclusive approach by the state for the conservation of the Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve, by involving the local communities as primary stakeholders and not ‘violators’.

National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), Jeepal Krishak Sramik Sangha (JKSS), Youth for Bokakhat and Delhi Solidarity Group

For any further details, contact: napmindia@gmail.com

NAPM India