BHUBANESWAR, India - Hundreds of tribal people in eastern India have been duped out of their ancestral forest homes by authorities in a bid to conserve the country's endangered tiger population, the rights group Survival International said on Monday.
Ninety-four families, mostly from the Khadia and Ho tribes, have been relocated from their homes deep inside the Similipal Tiger Reserve in Odisha state, and another 124 families are due to be resettled in the coming months.
The London-based charity said there was no evidence that tribes people were causing harm to wildlife, and said many of them desperately wanted to stay in the reserve's forests where their families have lived for generations.
Members of the Munda tribe living in what is designated as a "core area" of the reserve met with officials from India's Forest Department in September, Survival International said, having received assurances their rights would be respected.
"But the villagers reported to Survival International ... that they felt 'threatened' and 'cheated' into signing an eviction document drawn up by the foresters," the group said, adding that many tribes people did not understand the document, as it was in the Oriya language which they could not read.
The statement added that some 32 families from the Khadia tribe who were relocated in December 2013 did not have proper housing or access to forest produce which they rely on for their livelihoods, and were instead dependent on government handouts.
Local authorities denied the accusation, saying resettlement had been voluntary and that land, financial compensation and other benefits have been provided to affected communities in the reserve, which is home to 25 tigers.
"The allegation is absolutely false. Nobody can evict people forcibly. We have offered compensation and a host of facilities. People are coming on their own to our office and expressing their willingness to be relocated," Anup Nayak, director of Similipal Tiger Reserve, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"For the conservation of tigers, the core area is to be inviolate. The core area is absolutely necessary for wildlife and for the survival of tigers."
Despite a slew of "pro-poor" policies, India's economic boom has largely bypassed India's tribes, who make up more than 8 per cent of its 1.2 billion population, living in remote villages and eking out a living from farming, cattle rearing and collecting and selling fruit and leaves from the forests.
Levels of literacy among tribal people are among the lowest in the country, and rates of child malnutrition and maternal mortality among the highest.
Neglect by the authorities and a Maoist insurgency in the country's central tribal belt have exacerbated their plight.
The Forest Rights Act, a law aimed at recognising the right of indigenous tribes to inhabit the forests where their forefathers settled centuries earlier, was enacted in 2008.
But some environmentalists fear it is hindering efforts to stop big cat poaching.
India is home to half the world's surviving tigers, with 1,706 living in the wild, compared to 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century, according to a 2011 census.
Experts say the country is losing the battle to save the big cats, citing poaching in its 28 tiger reserves as one of the main causes.