A tarpaulin lay on top of the fresh, dewy morning grass of late September. Around 60 Adivasis belonging to the Jenu Kuruba tribe sat on it at their panchayat meeting. The forest around them, part of Karnataka’s Nagarhole National Park, was brimming with the bounties of the monsoon—including the medicinal plant shikakai or Acacia concinna, local vegetables, gooseberries, kodampuli or Malabar Tamarind, and honey, the integral income source for many Jenu Kuruba livelihoods. Yet, the Adivasis living here have been denied access to all of this produce and the forests. 

Since 1955, generations of this honey-collecting tribe have been forcefully evicted from the forests of the Western Ghats that they had once called home. The Karnataka Forest Department and National Tiger Conservation Authority found that the Nagarhole Forest and its inhabitants—which include leopards and tigers—needed protection. Between 1955 and 2007, the forest was declared a game sanctuary, a National Park, a Project Tiger Reserve, and then finally, a Critical Tiger Habitat. In its new avatar, the exclusive Nagarhole forest shared by Mysore and Kodagu districts had no place for the Adivasi communities living here, such as the Jenu Kurubas, Yerawas, and Solingas. More than 3,000 families were displaced in the 1970s and 1980s, and from 2005 onwards, at least 43 families were forced to leave their homes in Nagarhole. The last such eviction took place in 2018.

In the panchayat meeting that took place this September at Nagarhole, the Gram Panchayat addressed the Karnataka Forest Department and made an announcement loud and clear.

“Resettle us back within the Nagarhole forest,” they demanded.

“All of this [declaring areas as ‘protected’ and ordering evictions] was done in the name of conservation. But, this idea that a problem existed between the Adivasis and the forest, and that the forest could be protected by removing the Adivasis alone was a manifested one [that we believe did not exist earlier],” says Roy David, the National Convenor of the National Adivasi Alliance.

Panchayat meeting at Nagarhole in September, 2021. | Courtesy of Roy David.

A people-versus-environment framing of conservation—and the resulting evictions and resettlement drives that it precipitates—is not unique to the Jenu Keruba Adivasis. Between 1999 and 2020, approximately 13,450 families were displaced by Protected Areas (PA) across India. Moreover, a new report released by the Housing and Land Rights Network offers some unmissable figures on the same. Going beyond just PAs, it suggests that during the pandemic year of 2020 alone, over 84,000 individuals were forcefully evicted due to “ostensible environmental” reasons. These range from riverfront beautification and restoration projects, to afforestation programs, to wildlife conservation measures. 

On the face of it, such evictions have been carried out in the name of environmental protection and conservation. Yet, rural and urban experiences across Delhi, Chennai, Nagarhole National Park, and Darrang show that there might be more factors at play here. These intertwine with the politically contested paradigms of conservation and environment in India.  

Around Nagarhole specifically, that factor seems to be the economic wealth of the forest. 

How the State Extends Control Over Forests

“The Forest Department views the forest as a commodity,” shares David. His comment reflects the historical realities of Nagarhole’s management. Even before the implementation of the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972, some patches of forests in Karnataka were protected from logging activities as they were used as game reserves by the Maharaja of Mysore. But Nagarhole was not one of them, owing to its dense forests of high-quality teak. A crucial economic resource for the state and the Kingdom, its benefits could be accrued only by continued logging.

In the 1980s, as in other parts of Western Ghats, much of Nagarhole’s forest landscapes were converted into commercial timber and water-intensive eucalyptus plantations. Simultaneously, the modern state of Karnataka continued increasing its control over this valuable forest by extending its boundaries from 130 square kilometres (sq km) in 1955, to about 1,515 sq km today. The eviction of forest-dwelling communities accompanied this expansion. While resettlements within the Nagarhole forest were conducted, these have been far and few between: of the approximately 2,000 tribal families that lived within the forest, one-third were rehabilitated to areas outside its boundaries, while the settlements of 200 more are currently being developed.

“Many amongst the evicted 43 families who attended the panchayat meeting work in coffee plantations and estates today. Their livelihoods have changed drastically: from cultivating their own land and collecting minor forest produce, they lead tenant livelihoods now,” says David.

Such evictions evoke a sense of déjà vu for indigenous communities in Assam. In 2017, 700 families living in the Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) of the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary were forced to leave their homes. As mandated by the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEFCC), ESZs are “buffer zones” of up to a radius of 10 kilometres around PAs. Certain activities (like commercial mining and setting up industries) are prohibited in these zones, while others (like constructing lodges and hotels) are regulated.

The stage for the 2017 Assam evictions was set in 2013, when the Gauhati High Court took up a PIL filed by the NGO Early Birds which claimed that encroachments around the sanctuary were harming its environment. While disposing of the PIL, the High Court issued an eviction order, a copy of which does not seem to be available online. 

“For the state’s forests departments, such ESZs extend the control of the forests beyond just the peripheries of the parks and sanctuaries. But, in the name of conservation, they also act as a back-door entry [for the state government] to control the rivers and plains along which communities have been living,” says Suraj Gogoi, a PhD candidate in Sociology at the National University of Singapore working on water, citizenship, and the State in Northeast India. 

Although the Gauhati High Court issued a stay order against the evictions two days after the homes were removed, in its initial ruling, it prioritised conserving the sanctuary over human rights. Such rulings are not limited to the Gauhati High Court alone. 

“We have often found that during hearings, courts hold the protection of the environment as the trump card against informal settlements, something which cannot be compromised upon,” shares Ayushmaan, a legal researcher at the Housing and Land Rights Network’s (HLRN) New Delhi office. “As lawyers, arguing that informal settlements are not harming the environment does not always work then. Instead, arguing that evictions should be carried out only as a last resort and always with due process and adequate rehabilitation, often works better in the courts.”

But, as experiences in Delhi and Chennai show, such environmentalism led by the courts, administration, and even citizens seems to target a particular category of people alone—India’s poor. 

Scapegoating the Poor

In 2002, after an association of factory owners in New Delhi filed a petition to address the unsanitary conditions of an industrial estate in South Delhi, the Delhi High Court placed the responsibility of poor environmental conditions on the “unhygienic mushrooming of urban areas”. In further rulings of the case, the Court did something unexpected: it extended this argument of unhygienic dwellings to the Yamuna riverbed—an issue that was not even raised by the petitioners—blaming the river’s pollution on encroachments on the riverbed “by unscrupulous persons”. The Court indicated that these settlements needed to be “cleared”. Two years later, about 35,000 huts in Yamuna Pushta, a settlement located on the riverbank, were razed. Despite a study indicating that Yamuna Pushta was responsible for only about 0.5% of the total effluents discharged into the river, the Court had connected an environmental problem with seemingly unhygienic slums. 

Since around 2002, similar cases linking pollution and slum dwellers have been presented before the Delhi High Court, many of which were PILs from Resident Welfare Associations; worryingly, the Court does not seem to have consulted scientific evidence sufficiently while issuing rulings. Photographs showing that the slum in question did not have the desired ‘clean’ look were enough for the Court to issue a demolition order, as scholar Asher Ghertner found while studying the court orders during his research of the Yamuna floodplain. 

More recently in 2019, this relationship between pollution and people living on the Yamuna’s floodplains reappeared. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned farming along the Yamuna on the grounds that farmers were polluting the waters, and asked the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) to evict encroachers on the floodplain. The same order has been used to justify many evictions since then, including the ones that took place in July 2021, when around 500 families were evicted from East Delhi’s Ramesh and Lalita Park—also settlements along the floodplain.

People residing in temporary shelters after the demolition drive in Ramesh and Lalita Park in New Delhi in July of this year. | Courtesy of Dev Pal.

“All of this is happening despite us arguing that the major contributor to the Yamuna’s pollution is the industrial effluents, [and] not the farmers and fishers who live and work here,” says Dev Pal, a former resident of Yamuna Khadar, one of the slums that have faced evictions in the past. He currently works as a field researcher with the Housing and Land Rights Network. “But, in the many interactions we have had with officials from DDA or Municipal Corporation, we have been told that this has to be done to ‘protect the environment’.”

Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai has also witnessed similar eviction drives to restore the Cooum river, an erstwhile freshwater stream. Under the Integrated Cooum River Restoration Program, desilting, mangrove protection, and solid waste removal are a few of the many goals listed. Yet, only one aspect seems to have made progress.   

“In the last five years since the implementation of the project, there has been no desilting. The only progress that seems to have taken place is the eviction of over 1,000 people [residing here],” says M.D. Omjasvin, Senior Reporter with The New Indian Express who has closely followed the issue. “When I visited the river just two weeks ago in [September], it was heavily covered with water hyacinth, an indicator of water pollution.” During the pandemic, over 2,000 families in Chennai were evicted forcefully for the river’s restoration. These evictions in Chennai, as Karen Coelho and Nithya Raman write, are viewed as the “achievable first steps” towards river restoration by the state government and Greater Chennai Corporation. But, they only “scapegoat” the poor as responsible for pollution, a notion that has never been scientifically substantiated by officials.

The Cooum flowing through Chennai. | Courtesy of Peter Fristedt (CC BY 2.0).

But J. Jayanth, a social expert at Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust, a body under the Tamil Nadu Government, explains the phenomenon differently. “One of the mandates of Cooum’s river restoration was to also improve the lives of the urban poor, who happen to live along the riverbed and are subjected to various seasonal environmental damages and accidents that happen,” Jayanth says. In 2016, the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, now renamed as Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board—in a government order accessed by The Bastion—announced 10,000 tenements to flood-affected slum families. “All the urban poor that are relocated due to Cooum river restoration are given a fully subsidised dwelling for, along with compensation for shifting and transportation costs and monthly subsistence payments for a year. We now have six rehabilitation sites in and around Chennai, where we are also actively making sure that enough employment options are available to the relocated families in their new homes. In the last five years, we have successfully relocated 86% of the families who were living along the river. Once this is done, other restoration activities like river widening and desilting will be carried out, and sewage treatment will happen in parallel.” Just a day ago, the Tamil Nadu government released the draft Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy in the public domain to invite feedback from all stakeholders.

With time, urban centres like Chennai seem to be developing policies for the resettlement of populations that face eviction. But, as evictions ultimately continue, it is also evident that they go hand in hand with an aesthetic vision of what world-class cities ‘should’ look like—that is, devoid of slums, and abounding with riverfronts, cycling tracks, and biodiversity parks.

“Whenever certain buzzwords like ‘sustainability’ become popular, I believe that there are officials and politicians who genuinely want to do good work that aligns with them,” shares Anubhav Pradhan, a lecturer at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bhilai. Anubhav also works on planning and land history and rights in New Delhi. “But the problem occurs when they work in insulated bubbles and are not aware of the ground realities. So, for instance, when [bureaucrats and politicians] think of developing a riverfront, they genuinely believe that this ‘public good’ is for the betterment of the city, even if it means evicting the farmers or fishers that have lived there for generations.” 

But, at another point on the political spectrum, the ‘environment’ rationale takes a back seat, as identity politics drives violent evictions—such as the recent ones in Assam’s Darrang district. 

The Deadly Combination of Identity and Land Politics

One rationale behind the September 2021 violent evictions by the state government of largely Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam’s Darrang district was the Garukhuti project. Under it, the Assam government promised to promote afforestation and agricultural activities on the land that would be ‘cleared’ from encroachers. However, that Assam’s identity politics heavily motivate such initiatives is no secret; even Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma does not deny it. In June this year, while visiting Darrang, he tweeted:

“Such squatters would be evicted from all parts of Assam to protect our land and the Assamese identity from encroachers & intruders…”

“We cannot deny that the Garukhuti project’s environmental justification is intertwined with regional politics in Assam,” shares Gogoi. “It’s unfortunate because this politics is based on the misconception that Muslim Bengalis are encroachers and put pressure on land [resources here].” Gogoi places the politics in a historical context: in the colonial period, Muslim Bengalis from East Bengal were encouraged to move to Assam; the growth of the railways, availability of uncultivated land, tenancy systems in Assam, and 1905 Partition also catalaysed their migration to the region. To support the upcoming tea plantations business, the British brought in labourers from eastern India’s Chota Nagpur plateau—but, they soon realised that they were in need of cultivators to grow more food needed to sustain the economy of colonial Assam. Bengali Muslims fit the role and soon started settling down on the lands close to the rivers. These lands were undesired by locals since they were prone to flooding. Their settlement was also tied to land speculation wherein many Assamese indulged in selling land at exorbitant prices to the migrants in the early decades of the 20th century.

“Using their agricultural know-how, Bengali Muslims were able to produce three agricultural cycles [in a year], as opposed to just the one that the Assamese knew.  They made these areas cultivable and turned them into a permanent agricultural frontier. Over the years, this agricultural progress made them a subject of suspicion, envy, and even hatred in Assamese eyes,” Gogoi adds, commenting on how the unfortunate tags of ‘land grabbers’ and ‘encroachers’ fell onto Assam’s Bengali Muslims which stimulates Assamese nationalism even today. 

Across Delhi, Nagarhole, Chennai, and Darrang, while aesthetics of world-class cities, control over forest produce, and identity politics seem to motivate individual environmental evictions, what is common is the perceived anxiety of humans—usually Adivasis, slum dwellers, and religious minorities—harming the environment and the urgent need to remove them from it. In response, communities and civil society are now working to alter this dichotomy.

From ‘Environment vs People’ to ‘Environment and People’ 

In Nagarhole, Adivasis have been actively shaping a community-inclusive approach to environmentalism by demanding the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2005. Once implemented, the Adivasis are mandated to not only use, but to also manage and protect the forests that they have historically depended on.

“The verification of forest rights is currently in process, and the officers are carrying out a survey right now for verifying the Community Forest Rights (CFR) of the concerned tribes. Once CFR over the Nagarhole forests is granted, they plan to grow more trees that are useful to them, instead of commercial plantations,” says David. 

In New Delhi, efforts are underway to ensure that all stakeholders living along the Yamuna are involved in conserving the river and its associated floodplain. “As a part of the consultations under New Delhi Master Plan 2041, we are facilitating discussions between the farmers and authorities to promote organic farming, nursery growing, or employing people in the upcoming parks from bastis,” says Dev Pal. “If New Delhi’s various authorities want to protect the environment, that cannot happen without having conversations with those who live on the floodplain and make a living off of it.”

While such solutions are context-specific, there are larger narratives that need reframing too. “Such exclusionary measures of ‘protecting’ the environment also come from the larger ‘environment versus development’ narrative,” says Anubhav Pradhan. “Civil society and universities have already started questioning these narratives, but where the attempt at reframing has not happened yet is in the government and corporate circles.”

It may still take considerable time for a more inclusive approach to protecting the environment to seep into government and corporate practices. In the meanwhile, communities are asserting their rights to their homes using existing policies and by questioning their own role in ‘damaging’ their environs. While this story focuses on four areas of contestation, there are numerous stories of similar evictions in the name of the environment across India. If the environment is truly the main concern, then decisions for its sake need to be made in consultation with those who tread lightly on India’s forests and floodplains. 

Featured image: People residing in temporary shelters after the demolition drive in Ramesh and Lalita Park in New Delhi in July of this year; courtesy of Dev Pal.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article described a report as having been published by the Human Rights Law Network; this has since been corrected to the actual publisher of the report, the Housing and Land Rights Network. The error is regretted. | This piece was updated to include the quotes of J. Jayanth of the Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust at 5:20 pm on October 13, 2021.


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