Even as the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic ravages Karnataka, affecting the remotest parts of the state, the Jenu Kuruba tribals witness the risk of being forcefully evicted from their homes and thus getting exposed to the infection. The state reported the highest new COVID-19 infections in the country on May 14, with 41,779 cases.
Over 6,000 members of the community have been protesting since March this year against the Centre and the state’s long standing bid to push eco-tourism in the ecologically sensitive Nagarhole National Park and Tiger Reserve, home to the particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG).
Latest on May 5, Jenu Kuruba priest and prominent protest leader JK Thimma alleged that he faced harassment and threats of violence by forest officials who stopped him from repairing his house. The incident took place in the Hundu Mundage Koli Gaddehadi village, wherein the Divisional Forest Range officer, along with the forest guards entered the village forcefully in a bid to stop Thimma.
While the officials stated that he could not construct or repair his house in the forest as it would violate the Forest Conservation Act, the tribal communities see the event as an attempt to clampdown on those leading the ongoing protest against the authorities.
Earlier in 2013 too, a case was registered against Thimma for constructing a house in his own village. A long, legal battle for his land rights followed. Finally in January this year, Thimma won the case for his habitat and individual rights. Speaking with NewsClick about the case, he explained, “I have been reiterating the fact that my individual land rights have been settled and as an individual belonging to the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group we can construct our houses here.”
The villagers also stated that the Forest Department officials threatened to physically harm Jenu Kuruba leaders, saying that “they will be beheaded and buried in the forest”. Further, cases have also been filed against six leaders including Thimma and JA Shivu, on charges of “assaulting and using criminal force” against officials during the incident.
According to the community leaders, the latest harassment is part of the authorities’ attempt to continue targeted attacks on the community – which was planning to launch an indefinite fast against eviction from the reserve. The community had launched a massive indefinite protest against their eviction previously in March this year. The indefinite protest started on March 17 outside the forest ranger’s office in the reserve spanning around 600 km.
Also read: Over 6,000 Jenu Kuruba Adivasis in Karnataka Begin Indefinite Protests against Tiger reserve
The villagers have demanded immediate action against those officials who threatened the community with violence. Moreover, the village committees across the National Park have also announced that they will be filing cases under the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, if action is not taken.
JA Shivu, one of the members of the community, told NewsClick, “Thimma has been an active leader over the years and has faced repeated attacks for doing so. This (May 5 incident) is a targeted attack against us to ensure we remain silent.”
Shivu also raised questions on the timing of the Forest Department saying, “Village committees across the Nagarhole area had decided to ensure no movement of outsiders to protect the particularly vulnerable communities from getting infected by coronavirus. Notices were put outside the gates of the villages prohibiting any entry of the central, state or local officials. However, despite this crisis engulfing the country, these warnings were ignored and officials entered our villages. If our community is infected, the Forest Department and its officials will be responsible.”
The Jenu Kurubas are a traditional honey gathering tribe, and are also dependent on cultivation and forest gathering for livelihood. Members of the community alleged that the Karnataka Forest Department has been obstructing these activities and also filed cases against the adivasis. They also alleged that their livelihood as well as their identity is at stake, as they are being driven out of the forest under the garb of tiger conservation.
Beginning from the 1970s till today, many of the Jenu Kurubas have been evicted from their homes due to conservation measures in the various tiger reserves of the Nilgiris, such as Nagarhole and Bandipur.
The eviction of forest dwelling tribes from their traditional living areas violates the Forest Rights Act 2006, which was introduced to recognise the rights of such communities to live off forest land. According to a report, the Jenu Kuruba had applied for their rights in 2009, but only a few hundred claims have been settled, with thousands more rejected.