‘This sanctuary is a prison’

Tribals living in the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary in Gujarat, India, find they are treated worse than animals.

Kirk Leech

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A place of sanctuary is somewhere we all crave, to escape to, to be safe and comfortable. It’s a popular idea for the twenty-first century, for a life that seems to go too fast.

But in Gujarat, India, a group of 40,000 indigenous people have found themselves imprisoned in a sanctuary designed for animals rather than people. They are the victims of a well-meaning environmental campaign, conducted by groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and its sister organisation The World Conservation Union, to stop the infamous Narmada dam from being built.

Huluben Kumbharia Vasava is one of the tribal women living in the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary. I met her in August 2000, during my first visit there. At eight months pregnant, Huluben discovered dozens of Forestry Department Police attempting to confiscate eight pairs of bullocks and some ploughs. Without the bullocks, tribal families would struggle to survive – but farming is effectively outlawed in the sanctuary. As Huluben tried to prevent the bullocks being taken, she was lifted up and thrown to the ground. ‘They were kicking us in the belly’, says Huluben.

On hearing about this, over 400 tribals went directly to the police station at Dediapada. They were told to return in two days. Not trusting the police, they returned the next day instead, to discover the bullocks being transported away. In the ensuing struggle, they saved five. One young tribal offered to help the authorities find the other animals. He paid for his naivety by being arrested, beaten, and charged with the theft of the bullocks the police themselves had stolen.

That the unjust treatment of tribals in the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary goes unnoticed seems particularly strange, given that only 20 kilometres down the road other tribals are the cause celebre of the international environmental movement. Why have the NGOs who have marched through the Narmada valley championing the cause of tribals stayed so silent about tribals of the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary?

The reason for the selective approach lies in the genesis of the sanctuary and the role that international and Indian NGOs played in its creation. The history of the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary is really the history of opposition to the Sardar Sarovar Project and the Narmada dam.

The declared aim of the dam is to bring clean drinking water, water for agriculture and power to some of India’s poorest areas and states. But campaigners have opposed the Narmada dam on the grounds that it will displace people living in the dam’s submergence zone and that it will have a detrimental impact on the biodiversity of the Narmada valley.

The Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary was created in 1989 in response to environmentalist demands. India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests created a wildlife sanctuary to compensate for the forestland that the dam’s reservoirs would submerge. But the case for the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary was flawed from the start. Only 11,000 hectares of forest lie in the dam’s submergence zone – yet the sanctuary was allocated a massive 61,000 hectares.

The argument that the Narmada dam would threaten biodiversity was challenged by two reports written soon after the sanctuary was established. A 1991 report compiled by the Department of Botany at Baroda University, ‘Eco-Environmental and Wildlife Studies on the Sardar Sarovar Submergence Area in Gujarat’, stated that ‘No endangered species of plants or animal species have been found. No species of life in the area was threatened or facing extinction’. Claims that the threatened forestland is ‘pristine’ are also questionable. As the World Bank’s ‘Morse Report’ in 1992 showed, the forestland is severely degraded: it was logged in the 1960s and early 1970s.

None of these environmental facts was allowed to stand in the way of the creation of the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary. Nor was the impact of the sanctuary on the 100 villages it encompasses, or the 40,000 tribal people now living there. Panjibye, from Patwalee village, explained how tribals living on the land before it was designated a sanctuary were kept in the dark about developments: ‘We were not consulted before, and until today the Forestry Department never consulted us. We just came to know that our area is a sanctuary’, he said.

To enter the sanctuary by road you must pass Forest Department checkpoints complete with security barriers. Pictures representing the rich diversity of Indian fauna line the road – even though some of the animals pictured have never inhabited the region, let alone the reserve. For example, Shoolpaneshwar is supposed to be a sloth bear sanctuary. When I asked some of the tribals if they had ever seen a bear they looked bemused, until one admitted that he had ‘once, in a zoo in town’.

In 1992 the authorities introduced a panther to the Pulsar area of the sanctuary – an animal not native to the region. Within one month it had killed a young village girl; yet it was only removed after villagers rioted. ‘The sanctuary is for the wildlife’, commented Panjibye bitterly. ‘But where is the wildlife? Where are our rights? Our right to live in peace, and our right to forest land which we have been cultivating for two or three generations.’

Dr Anil Patel from ARCH-Vahini, a social welfare group working in the sanctuary, told me that there is ‘pressure from on high in the Ministry of Environment and Forests to clear the area of “human interference”. But you can’t just kick them out, so you make life intolerable for them’.

The Forest Department police are armed, and empowered by Wildlife Protection laws to enforce restrictions in the sanctuary. Tribals must not hunt, enter the sanctuary with weapons, or light fires without permission. They must not hurt or frighten wildlife, poach, damage trees, mine, collect forest produce, fish, trap animals, or clear land for cultivation.

Ramabye explained the intolerable situation the tribals find themselves in. ‘Legally we cannot go outside the revenue lands – the only land which is in our possession’, he said. ‘The only way we can prove it’s our land is to show them receipts of fines we have paid in the past. Outside that all is the sanctuary, so going into the sanctuary itself is an illegal act.’

Tribals found with tools or bullocks on sanctuary land face a similar fate to Huluben Vasava – confiscation of their bullocks and ploughs, fines, and the possible seizure of what little property they possess. Cases have been filed against people wishing to repair or extend their houses. Contour bundings on forestland under cultivation – used to prevent soil erosion – have been destroyed.

Developmental work and road-building in the sanctuary have been stopped. As Panjibye told me, ‘Our village is 13 kilometres from the main road, and we have demanded a road from our village to the road for the past seven years’. Without roads villagers are cut off from schools and health services, and have to walk up to 20 kilometres to trade their produce. Without roads, water-pump rigs cannot get to the villages, denying villagers the benefits of irrigation and clean drinking water.

In the village of Patali, villagers told me that when their precious bullocks died in an epidemic, the Forest Development Corporation denied them compensation. The Forest Department argued that the villagers would only use bullocks to cultivate forestland. The surviving bullocks were confiscated.

It seems that environmental campaigners have stayed silent over the fate of tribals in the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary because the success of their campaigns is implicated in the creation of the sanctuary and the consequent ‘imprisonment’ of the tribals. Their silence on the fate of these people makes you wonder whether campaigners’ opposition to the Sardar Sarovar Project was ever based on support for the plight of the tribals in the Narmada valley – or whether the campaigns were driven by opposition to the Narmada dam project itself.

Meanwhile, tribals living in the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary are left isolated, with the support of only a few groups such as ARCH-Vahini. No wonder the villagers, believing that ‘wildlife is put superior to us’, claim that ‘this sanctuary is a prison for us’.

Kirk Leech is a contributor to Ethical Tourism: Who Benefits?, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

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