Catholic bishops have lent their support to tribal communities in Jharkhand , who oppose a planned ‘corridor for wild life’ that threatens to displace thousands of people in 214 villages.
The government has identified 296 hectares of land for a “wild life corridor” for elephants over four districts in the state. This meas that people in the 214 villages located in the area face impending eviction and strong arm tactics. [It is interesting to note that once the traditional owners of these lands will be moved out to facilitate the ‘peaceful movement of elephants ‘, things like cable cars and tourist attractions will be built in the place of their homes. All in the name of ‘wildlife protection’.]
Media reported how elephants who strayed into villages alongside the forest killed an average of 59 people every year in the past decade.
Bishop Vincent Barwa of Simdega in Jharkhand, said the plan is difficult for people to understand “because on one hand the government claims to be acting to protect the forest and tribal people, but on the other it moves to displace them.”
Bishop Barwa, who heads the Indian bishops’ office for indigenous people, said the bishops view the plan for the corridor as the latest in a series of moves the right wing BJP government has made to marginalize tribal people and take over their lands on behalf of industrial companies.
The government plans to evict people from areas marked as a three-kilometer wide elephant corridor. The work has started and officials are now issuing notices to people to move away, the bishop said.
“But we don’t know where they should go. The government has not given them an alternative. We cannot understand how an elected government can act in such a manner,” Bishop Barwa said.
Gladson Dungdung, a tribal activist in Jharkhand said that the government has promised a house and Rs 10 lakhs as compensation to each affected family. “But when and where they will get it is not clear,” he said. Governments in the past have been notorious for announcing such schemes, but backing out on payments.
He said tribal people for generations have lived depending on the forest and are not skilled to live outside it. Besides, people earlier displaced for several development projects have not yet been compensated as promised, he said.
Dungdung said more than 25,000 people would be displaced if the plan was implemented.
Bishop Barwa and Dungdung have also stated that the government is attempting to evict the tribal people from their homes in scenic areas of the forest because it has inked a deal with some corporate firms in September 2016 to develop a tourism project.
The state tourism department expects US$350 million investments through eight projects, which can generate employment for 13,000 people, Times of India reported.
Part of the investments will go to projects in the forest area. The state tourism department has already drawn up plans to set up cable cars, adventure tourism programs, wellness resorts, activity camps and malls at various scenic spots across Jharkhand.
Father Vincent Toppo, former professor of St. Albert’s college in Ranchi, the Jharkhand state capital, said tribal leaders need to understand if the government’s plan is good or bad for the tribal people “because tribal people are always fooled in the name of development.”
The Jesuit priest said that whenever there is a new plan in the name of development, tribal people are always adversely affected. “They are promised big returns, socio-economic development but in the end, tribals are left with nothing,” he said.
Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar state in 2000 by taking tribal dominated areas so as faciltate their socio-economic advancement. However, the BJP led government has watered down safeguards and is seen as acting against tribal interests.
Since last year the government has been adamant to amend land laws that do away with the protection of tribal community owned lands. Protests led by church people have foiled the move aimed at removing the legal protection of tribal people’s rights to their land and empowering the state take over of their farmland for developmental purposes.
In retaliation, it is wodely understood, the state passed an ‘anti-conversion law’ in August which is being used as a rabble rousing tool against tribal Christians, and to put pressure on various Christia-run institutions in the state.
Last month the state banned people who have more than two children from contesting local body elections. This, church leaders said, was a way to politically side-line indigenous people who traditionally have large families.
Jharkhand has some nine million tribal people, who form 26 percent of the state’s 33 million population. About 1.5 million people in the state are Christians, at least half of them Catholics.