It is estimated that nearly 100 million people live within India's forests. Some of these people, living in forest interiors, subsist with minimal access to electricity, education, medical facilities or markets. These forests are the last refuges for many threatened species, including the charismatic tiger and Asian elephant. Voluntary resettlement of families from protected areas can be advantageous for both people and wildlife when conducted in a fair and transparent manner.
The Wildlife Conservation Society India Program (WCS India) supports families who want to resettle from forest interiors, helping resettling or resettled families secure adequate compensation from the government, identifying alternative land, acquiring official identity cards that allow them to apply for various government-sponsored subsidies, obtaining education and medical attention, and integrating them into mainstream economies through livelihood support. WCS India has supported over 1,300 families who have expressed willingness to resettle from within various protected areas in the Malenad conservation landscape of south-west India.
A number of obstacles, in particular the slow sanctioning of funds from the government, hinder voluntary resettlement. September 2015 saw a long-awaited victory for residents of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu, when the National Tiger Conservation Authority sanctioned funds for resettlement of 88 families from two villages within the Reserve. This came after 25 years of appeals to elected representatives, legal petitioning and protest marches.
In 1990 the Chetti community, resident in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, collectively decided to move out of the Reserve after years of crop losses from wild animals. To spur government action, residents of the Reserve filed two legal petitions, in 1990 and 1998, seeking an official court directive to the Tamil Nadu State Government that would provide guidelines for their resettlement. In 2007 the legal action taken by the Chettis was successful and the courts directed the government to resettle families from the Reserve within 1 year. Although the government constituted a District-level Implementation Committee and identified a suitable site for resettlement within 1 year, it took them much longer to start resettling the families.
The delays in government action did not discourage the Chettis. They formed a Village Relocation Committee on their own initiative, a responsibility that otherwise rests with the government. Additionally, representatives of these families held protest marches, and submitted written communications to several ministers, to bring their plight to the attention of officials and the general public. In 2010 WCS India began supporting the Chettis in their struggle. A WCS India conservationist, P.M. Muthanna, with experience of resettlement programmes, provided advice and guidance for catalysing government action. At the national level, Ullas Karanth, of WCS New York, raised the issue during multiple official meetings of the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
In July 2015 the Chettis successfully requested a Parliamentary Committee on Technology, Science, Forest and Environment to direct immediate government action to solve their problem. In September 2015 the National Tiger Conservation Authority finally removed what was the single largest obstacle to the resettlement of the Chettis, sanctioning funds for their resettlement. With this financial support, alternative lands already identified, and a village committee constituted, we hope that the resettlement will now progress smoothly.
Villagers from a nearby forest have also recently expressed their willingness to resettle but are apprehensive as a result of the long struggle faced by the Chettis. This demonstrates the importance of prompt government action for successful voluntary resettlement from forest interiors. If conducted in a fair and timely manner, the resettlement of villagers from within protected areas can serve both livelihood improvement and wildlife conservation goals.