It is not too rare to see very bizarre letters. In fact, there have been letters unearthed from over 2000 years ago from the dawn of writing itself often written by people who wanted to complain about services or to authorities. More recent funny letter compilations abound on the Internet, many of them quite lame leave letters supposedly written by staff of IT companies around Bangalore. But, this letter I chanced upon at one of Karnataka’s tiger reserves (BR Hills) definitely takes the cake on absurdity and ad-hocism, let alone other more serious issues with the letter like making a mockery of people’s rights for starters.
For those who know of India’ Forest Rights Act, which restored rightfully the ownership over land inhabited for generations by some of India’s indigenous peoples, you may move right on to the next paragraph. For those of you unaware of this landmark legislation, you should note that India has passed notable wildlife protection legislations to ensure protection of biodiversity-rich landscapes and forests for nature conservation. However, these laws passed in the 70s and 80s neglected the several populations of indigenous people inhabiting some of these biodiversity-rich landscapes. Often, these communities did not have as much negative consequences on their landscapes as a lot of the “development” activities such as resource extraction (mining), infrastructure (highways) or tourism had. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA) was a powerful legislation that corrected this decades of denial of rights over access and ownership of ancestrally tribal lands to them. One such community that was given such ownership was also the Soliga people around the BR Hills area, which then was a wildlife sanctuary, and much later after the law became a tiger reserve, the latter enjoying the highest order of wildlife protection among India’s protected areas. Under FRA, the Soligas’ rights over their land, access to and fair utilisation of minor forest produce on which they subsist and clearly grazing of livestock owned by them is guaranteed. In any case, what FRA does is that it insulates indigenous communities like the Soligas, who often do not have easy access to the authorities in view of their relative isolation, from ad hoc powers of local authorities at village or district level. At least that’s what is clearly stated in this Government of Karnataka notification, of which each of the Soliga people have a copy (see this celebratory note by Survival International for example on the rights being given to the Soliga people 2 years back).
But, who knew that authoritative letters granted by the Government of Karnataka could be easily overruled by absurd and ad hoc and often threatening letters by local forest department officials! See the letter below (translated into English) recently written by he Range Forest Officer of the BRT Tiger Reserve given to some of the poorest and most helpless Soliga livestock-owning families living in a 10X10 thatched houses. The letter demonstrates sheer neglect of the tribal people’s rights as well as makes a mockery of the FRA, while also insulting the intelligence of the reader.
The relationship between forest departments and people has been tenuous to say the least. The colonial mindset of excluding local communities, over time alienates them. While negotiating wildlife conservation priorities with local communities is an extremely important enterprise, such negotiations cannot and should not be attempted in a vitiated atmosphere that the department often seeks to create. One wishes that a greater degree of trust-building could precede people’s involvement in conservation effort, but alas these skills are not among the ones privileged in the department. At least, that’s not what such communication demonstrates. As you can see, the letter tries to make use of the District Deputy Commissioner’s letter rightly calling for a ban on animal sacrifice and use of plastic to try and get the local tribal people to get rid of their livestock. Imagine somebody in Bangalore or Mysore receiving such a letter stating that their SUV is severely polluting the air and hence they ought to sell it immediately in the interest of our environment. This wouldn’t happen because such a violation of people’s rights in Bangalore would not be tolerated. Apparently, some people’s rights are more tolerably broken. In fact, Karnataka is trailing in implementing these rights nearly 10 year after the Act came into effect as this recent communication to our Chief Secretary from the central government shows.
Range Forest Officer’s Office, Wildlife division, Yelandur
20 April 2015
Subject: Regarding the rearing of cattle, sheep and goats within the BR Hills region of Yelandur
Reference: (1) DC’s order letter MAG(1) MLO: 396/2014-15 dated 19/03/2015
With reference to the above subject, sacrifice of animals and sale of meat is prohibited within the premises as well as around the Shree Biligiriranganatha Swamy Temple within the Yelandur wildlife division; And, the region being a Tiger Conservation area, use of plastic, passage/transit of domesticated animals and dangerous materials across the checkposts has been prohibited by the order of the DC (see reference 1). Also, BR Hills being an enclosure within the BRT Tiger Reserve, under the Wildlife Protection Act, there is no allowance for the rearing of cattle, sheep or goats within the region. Also, considering the possibility of the use of cattle, sheep and goats within BR Hills for animal sacrifice, you are hereby informed to sell all your cattle, goats and sheep within 15 days.