Thousands of tribal people allegedly evicted from a tiger reserve in central India that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book must be allowed to return to their ancestral forest homes, said an indigenous rights group.
Around 450 families – totaling up to 3,000 people – from the Baiga and Gond tribes in the Kanha Tiger Reserve were evicted last June and told by the forest department that elephants would be released to trample their homes and crops if they did not leave, said London-based Survival International.
The tribes people were not resettled or provided with any source of income. Some families received a fraction of the compensation they were expecting, while others received nothing, the group said on Wednesday.
The communities are now scattered in surrounding villages, it added.
“If India doesn’t allow the Baiga and Gond to return and prevent further villagers being kicked out, these communities will be completely destroyed,” said Survival International’s Director Stephen Corry.
Kanha Tiger Reserve Field Director J.S. Chauhan refuted allegations of forceful and illegal evictions, adding that some 1,200 villagers have been relocated since 2010 with a negotiated compensation of one million rupees ($16,000).
“We never did any relocation against the wishes of the villagers. Nobody can do any forcible relocation. We relocated them only after they opted for it in writing,” Chauhan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRFN), adding that the tribes were happy to be resettled.
Despite a slew of “pro-poor” policies, India’s economic boom has bypassed many tribal communities, who make up more than 8 percent of its 1.2 billion population.
They live in remote villages, eking out a living by farming, rearing cattle and collecting and selling fruit and leaves from the forests.
The Forest Rights Act, a law recognising the right of indigenous tribes to inhabit the forests where their forefathers settled centuries earlier, was enacted in 2008.
But some environmentalists fear it has hindered efforts to conserve wildlife and encouraged the poaching of animals such as tigers.
Survival International said that tribal people were not involved in poaching, but were the best conservationists.
“Baiga communities that have carefully managed the tiger’s habitat over generations are annihilated by forced evictions,” said Survival International’s Director Stephen Corry.
India is home to half the world’s surviving tigers, with 1,706 living in the wild, compared to 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century, according to a 2011 census.