In 2019, the then Erode District Collector Kathiravan imposed a night traffic ban to prevent wild animals from getting hit by vehicles on the Dhimbam ghat road, which passes through the forest where the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve is located. The ban was lifted after continuous mass struggle.
S.P.Chockalingam had filed a petition in the Madras High Court seeking the re-imposition of the night traffic ban imposed by the district collector in 2019, alleging that between 2012 and 2021, 155 wild animals had been killed after being hit by vehicles in the mountain tracks. Hearing the case, the High Court ordered the implementation of the night traffic ban on Dhimbam road from 2022 February 10. Accordingly, heavy vehicles will be banned from 6 pm onwards and light vehicles and passenger vehicles will be banned from 9 pm.
Due to this ban, the agricultural produce from the hills cannot be transported to Mettupalayam market and people of the surrounding areas can’t go out even for emergency needs. People from various walks of life including Thalavadi farmers, traders, Tamil Nadu Scheduled Tribes Association, van drivers and others protested against the ban. The court, however, refused to lift the ban.
An RTI reply received from the field director office of Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve states that between 2012 and 2021 only 40 road kills happened on the road. Seven animals have died on Bannari road outside the prohibited forest area. Out of the remaining, 20 animals died during the day and 13 at night. This exposes that the litigant has given false information to the Court that 155 wild animals have been killed during this period, taking into account all the dead peacocks in the entire Erode district.
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The judges are shedding tears over the plight of wildlife due to vehicular traffic. What actions had they took on the hit and run of animals on the national highways that were laid by tearing the forests apart across Tamilnadu, or for the people who died in accidents?
According to the government, in 2021 alone, 14,912 people have died in 55,713 road accidents in Tamilnadu. Why is that a court that does not care about several thousands of people showing mercy when it comes to the fact that two animals die every year? What is hidden behind this clemency?
Malicious Forest Department Officials
The tribals living in this area cultivate millets like bajra, sorghum and ragi on the land for six months in a year to meet their food demands. For the remaining 6 months, they meet their economic needs by collecting 35 types of Minor Forest Produce (MFP) such as honey, shikakai, amla, broom grass, myrobalan, etc. from the forests in a sustainable way. The non-tribal forest dwellers live in the forest by tending cattle and working as labourers.
At present, tribals are often not allowed in forests to harvest Minor Forest Produce; They are only taking the broom grass. That too is being allowed for the corruption of forest officials, says tribals. A 10-member Village Forest Council (VFC) is formed by the people of the village. One member of the committee will be elected as the Chairman. The forest guard of the same forest will be the Secretary. The income from the minor forest produce will be saved by opening a bank account in the name of these two persons.
A village forest council leader from the Thalavadi hills says, “The wage to cut broom grass is ₹25 per kg. ₹5 each will be allocated for VFC and the tiger reserve. The VFC is not under the control of the people, it is under the control of the forest department. The money saved in the council is 8 lakh. But they don’t even utilize it to meet our basic needs. Salaries to the forest guards and  anti-poaching watchers are taken from this fund. They don’t return the money back. If a five ton load of broom grass is sold, whether profit or loss, ₹50,000 should be given to the forest department”.
Similarly, in the accounts of 28 village forest councils, about ₹1 crore of hard earned money of tribals is saved. With it, people can meet basic necessities like electricity, housing, water, etc. But the forest officials are deceiving the tribals by not allowing them to do so. People in the area are being threatened by the forest officials. They register false cases against tribals and beat them up in the name of calling for interrogation.
Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, which was set up illegally in 2013, is the root cause of the Dhimbam ghat road problem. It is only after its establishment that the forest department’s crackdown on tribals and blocking of traffic have been on the rise. The Forest Department has set up a collection centre in the name of ‘Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve Trust’ to forcibly collect money from motorists going to Mysore. As a result, the tribals had to pay an entry fee of ₹50 at the checkpoint to get back to their native places.
The Madras High Court has struck another blow on these people who are already losing their livelihood. On March 4, it had issued a prohibitory order banning the grazing of cattle inside the forest. Against this, the forest dwellers of Tamilnadu, Kerala and Karnataka adjoining the tiger reserve had staged protests. In Tamilnadu, the people of Masinagudi have staged a protest and submitted petitions to the Collector. The people of Thalavadi hills are losing their livelihood on all fronts. Misfortunes never come singly as they say.
Forest Rights Act: An eye-piercing ‘golden’ needle!
What is the reason for such attacks on the innocent tribals and forest dwellers, who regard the mountain and the forest as gods? Some people have come out alleging that the tribals are destroying the forest, which is keeping them alive. They have maintained the forests for all these years. While tribals feel that the Forest Rights Act, 2006 will protect them, this pro-corporate clique is trying to use it as a weapon to exterminate innocents.
The Forest Rights Act was enacted in 2006 as a result of a series of struggles to protect the livelihoods of the tribal people. This law was relatively helpful to the oppressed people. It also gave certain powers to the gram sabhas of the tribals. The Act recognises land rights to the cultivating tribes, the right to collect and sell minor forest produce, the right to use traditionally used paths and water bodies, the right to graze sheep and cows, the right to protect and manage forest resources. While all of this is good to hear, practically there have been counter-reactions.
The Act has not come into force in many places and the state governments have mostly used it to deny the rights of the people in the areas where it has been implemented. Lakhs of individual claims have been rejected on the basis of this Act. As of November 2018, Chhattisgarh had rejected most individual claims (4,55,000), followed by Madhya Pradesh (3,50,000) and Maharashtra (1,20,000).
The Act recognises individual rights of tribals over forest areas, if they can prove occupation before December 13, 2005. Other traditional forest dwellers, those who do not belong to a scheduled tribe, need to prove “continuous existence” in the forest for 75 years (three generations). The bureaucracy has been harassing the ignorant – innocent tribals and forest dwellers with these conditions. All over India, it is this bureaucracy that dominates like kings and zamindars, and is intended on driving out the tribal people.
The forest department officials have been resorting to unfair rejection of applications seeking pattas. They do not respect the legal provisions which mandates them to provide reasons for the rejection in writing. This law is a proof that the word “sugar” written in a book won’t taste sweet.
In 2008, “Wildlife First”, an organisation that had filed a case in the Supreme Court seeking the eviction of tribals from forest areas, argued that land pattas should not be given through the Forest Rights Act. It absurdly argued that the tribals would destroy the forests. On the basis of the aforesaid rejections, it demanded that tribals without pattas be driven out of the forests. While the Centre did not respond to this, the Supreme Court, in 2019, passed an order evicting those who did not have a patta. The apex court then temporarily stayed its order after the Centre filed an appeal after widespread protests.
Is the intention of the government protecting forests or serving corporates?
“In those days the animals were in the forest, and we were here; From where did this new concern for animals came?”, “We and the animals live in harmony and there is no need for any reserve”, “the forest department has not planted a single plant since the tiger reserve was established”, “Even if the money comes from outside the tiger reserve, none of it is used to feed the tigers” says the adivasis.
The tribals of Ramaranai village of the Thalavadi hills engaging in making brooms.
None of the officials, commissions and NGOs, who are crying that the forest and wildlife are in danger because of the tribals, show any evidence of the same. The evidence they show is nothing but lies, such as those shown in connection with the Dhimbam ghat road. What is the purpose of blaming the tribals who have lived in the forests for thousands of years and have been making their livelihood by maintaining the forest? Why do you want to drive them away?
Between 2001 and 2006 alone, the government occupied more than 5 lakh hectares of forest area and drove away the tribals there. These lands were handed over to big corporates and industries. Notably, Chhattisgarh, where one-third of the population is tribal, rejected the land patta claims of 4,55,000 tribals. This is the highest in India. The government’s concern for the forest can be understood when we view Chhattisgarh government’s handing over of large areas of forest land to the big mining companies in tandem with their concern for the forests.
It is from this point of view that the amendments brought by the government have to be seen. In 2019, the Modi government introduced a Bill in the Parliament seeking an amendment to the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. The amendment provides for the privatisation of forests and hills and gives maximum powers to the District Forest Officer. The amendment shifts the burden of proving innocence to the accused. It allow forest bureaucracy to use fire arms and enter and search any premises on mere suspicion, just by informing Gram Sabha, to check forest offence.
Privately owned forests spread over several hectares in the middle of the sanctuaries are removed from the purview of the Forest Conservation Act and are allowed for commercial use. Moreover, it allows to extract natural gas and oil resources that are several thousand feet deep beneath the forests. By allowing wildlife parks, forest tours, etc., it is making forests fall prey to the profiteering frenzy of private companies.
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Mukesh Ambani’s son Anand Ambani is setting up a private zoo in Gujarat. By 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has decided to enter into an agreement with private players for the development of 160 wildlife parks. The aforementioned two information exposes that corporate interest is responsible for the centre’s over-concern for the protection of forests and wild animals and driving away of tribals.
Not only this, the corporates are also showing interest in privately developing forests with the intention of carbon trading. The government’s plan is to hand over forest areas to corporates and allow thousands of crores of rupees to be pumped in every year. For this, the government needs masks like tiger reserves to drive tribals out of the forest areas.
In order to achieve these objectives, the traffic ban on the Dhimbam ghat road has now been imposed. Tribals and farmers who will lose their livelihood due to the ban will either leave the forests on their own or be evicted by the government.
It is the duty of each and everyone of us to expose this intention of the corporates among the people and stand with the tribals and forest dwellers who are fighting for their right to livelihood.
புதிய ஜனநாயகம்
The Reporter, New Democracy


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