Times of India / Nitin Sethi, TNN | May 22
NEW DELHI: A renowned wildlife scientist, Ravi Chellam has been eased out as head of the country's foremost wildlife conservation NGO -- Wildlife Conservation Society-India -- for being part of a government committee that backed tribal rights over forest lands under the Forest Rights Act.
Officially, the NGO has asked Chellam to sign on a separation agreement but sources said that he was given a 'leave or be thrown out' notice by the group which has a close affiliation with the New York-based and internationally operational NGO which goes by the same name -- Wildlife Conservation Society. Chellam was contracted directly to the New York-based NGO.
Chellam had earlier accepted to be one of the non-official members on the committee set up by Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh to review the implementation of the Forest Rights Act – a piece of legislation many wildlife conservation groups have steadily opposed along with a substantial element within the forest bureaucracy.
The committee did a countrywide study and recommended a series of improvements in the law's implementation and also took on projects like Vedanta Aluminium refinery in Orissa for violating tribal rights under the Act.
Ramesh reacting to the WCS move to throw out Chellam said, "It is sad that he was penalised for being pro-tribal and pro-people. It shows how anti-democratic some of the self-styled champions of transparency really are."
Ravi Chellam refused to comment when contacted. Ullhas Karanth, another tiger expert and a strong advocate of 'inviolate' spaces for wildlife, now in effective command of the NGO, too refused to comment.
At the heart of the debate lies the FRA – an anathema for many wildlife organizations in the country, and now it seems internationally too.
FRA requires the governments to recognize and hand back the traditional rights of tribals over forests that they were divested of during the colonial rule and after. Vast swathes of forests had been converted into government property and 'closed' national parks and sanctuaries were created disregarding the rights of the people living in and around these lands.
Wildlife groups, some of them wielding disproportionate influence in corridors of power, fear recognizing the rights would now destroy these 'safe havens'. Others, including the government, contend that the forests cannot be protected at the cost of or by throwing out millions of tribals and other groups.