MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Indian government has directed states not to grant rights to indigenous people and forest dwellers living in tiger reserves, a move that could hurt vulnerable communities, trigger clashes and endanger wildlife, human rights activists said.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority issued a notice to states two weeks ago asking officials to suspend granting of rights to tribals and other forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act in all critical tiger habitats.
"In the absence of guidelines for notification of critical wildlife habitats, no rights shall be conferred in critical tiger habitats," said the notice to 17 states with tiger reserves.
The Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 gives indigenous people and forest dwellers the right to harvest and use forest resources to maintain their traditional livelihoods.
More than a fifth of India's 1.2 billion population was expected to benefit from the law covering vast areas of forest land roughly the size of Germany.
But implementation has been slow and conflicts between states and tribal communities have risen as demand for land increases in one of the world's fastest growing economies.
Scarcity of land has also brought the competing needs of wildlife and humans into conflict across the country as land is increasingly sought for industrial projects.
Land reserved for wildlife including tigers, elephants and rhinoceros is also inhabited by tribal villagers and hundreds have been evicted in violent clashes recently.
The new order will only trigger more such clashes and impoverish vulnerable communities, said Brajesh Dubey at the conservation non-profit Foundation for Ecological Security.
"We are going to see more people displaced because the government wants to show they care about tigers," he said.
"But it has been proven that tribal communities help prevent poaching and also help in conservation efforts."
India has about half the world's estimated 3,200 tigers in dozens of reserves established since the 1970s.
Wildlife tourism is a growing money spinner for India, even as conservationists are divided over whether visitors help protect threatened species or encroach on their habitat.
Brinda Karat, a member of the opposition communist party, asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to withdraw the order.
"This open contempt for laws that provide some protection for the rights of millions of tribals and forest dwellers is unprecedented," she said in a letter to Modi.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)