The Simlipal National Park in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, which is mostly inhabited by indigenous communities, has been a place of conflicts between the local communities and the forest department. The Park, which is spread over 2,750 sq. km, was declared a Tiger Reserve in 1973 and a sanctuary in 1979. In 1986 the central government marked 845 sq. Km of the reserve as a core area; the same was later expanded in 2007 to 1,194.75 sq. km, englobing 5 of the 65 villages that were living within the limits of the park. Since then the forest department has been relocating a number of about 453 families both from core and buffer zone. This has led to a series of conflicts between the indigenous communities and the forest department on different fronts.
Till now the forest department has mostly relocated all the villages (Jenabil, Uppar Bara Kamunda and Bahagar, Jamunagarh, Kobathoghai) situated in the core zone. Only one village, called Bakua, and about two families (the others have been relocated) of Jamunagarh village, have been resisting the relocation. The contradiction is that all these villages have received community forest resource rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in April 2015. Local activists working in this area allege that the forest department has forcefully relocated these villages from the core zone in violation of the FRA; however, the forest authorities sustain that all the relocation has been voluntary.
The forest department is also relocating villages from the buffer area; till now a village named Kiyajhar (inhabited by the particularly vulnerable tribes (PVTGs) communities of Kharia) has been already involuntarily relocated in December 2016. The last relocation on 24 January 2020, displaced 110 families from the Khejuri village in the buffer area, inhabited by the PVTs of Mankidia and Kharia. According to local sources, the move is not entirely voluntary as has been hailed by the Forest Officials. Reports suggest that more than 50 families have refused to move from the village and are still residing there. The villagers have suggested that they do not want to relocate from the village as it is their home and the whole process has been carried out by the Government taking into account the vested interests of some “local dalals” (local sources). The news also reports that on 16 November 2016 the district administration held a gram sabha meeting with wildlife officials and NGOs, and on that occasion, the villagers rejected the proposal which provided 10 lakh rupees and 10 decimal land and house under the Biju Kutir Yojna scheme [4,5]. There is also a plan to relocate from the buffer zone the village of Badakhasaira ( inhabited by Kolho and Kharia tribes), located at the proximity of the core areas. Cases of harassment and intimidation by the forest guards have been registered in this village.
Under the banner of the Similipal Surakshya Manch (SSM), tribals and other traditional forest dwellers argued the relocation move was arbitrary and not in sync with the Forest Right Act, 2006. “Five villages have been forcibly relocated (….) outside the STR in violation of the Wildlife Protection Act and the Forest Right Act. Gram Sabha consents have not been taken while the families are being threatened to forgo their traditional right over the forest,” said Telenga Hasa of Jamunagad village . Telenga, who still continues to live along with other two families in the core area, despite the move of other 35 families in September 2015, is leading his villages to struggle against official move to evict them. Because of this, he has been threatened several times by the police officers who have been saying things like, ‘If you try to stay we will lodge many police cases against you, we will say that you are Maoists and we’ll arrest you.’ .
Besides the relocation from the Tiger Reserve, the conflict over forest rights is being also fought by the particularly vulnerable tribes (PVT) living at the edge of the park, the Mankidia . They claim to live in these forests since centuries and are now reclaiming their habit rights under FRA. The Mankidias are a nomadic tribe whose livelihood depends on the collection of siali fiber, which is found in the dense core area of the jungle. In 2017 there has been contestation over the habitat rights of the Mankidias, essential for the collection of their primary source of livelihood. According to the activists and the local people, the forest department opposed the decision of the district collector to recognize these rights on the core of the TR. This happened just after an order given on 28 March 2017 by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), which banned the process of distributing tribal rights in the tiger reserve across India. This order was highly criticized by the social societies, local communities and activists, as considered illegal; it was later put on halt, however, it created lots of violation of rights and harassment at the local level . Such as in the case of the Mankidia in the Simlipal area.
On the other front, the relocated families, who have been strictly prohibited to enter the forest areas, continue to protest against the poor living condition and the lack of primary sources of livelihood. Most of the families did not receive any land as promised, they have been building up their own houses, and stayed in winter under plastic tenths, violating the provisions of the FRA and WLPA, under which dwelling and houses should be already provided before relocation.