The conflict is between the forest department and the local people, mainly because of creation of a wildlife sanctuary under the Wildlife Protection Act of India.
Bhimashankar is situated on the crest of the Western Ghats biogeographic region - which is recognised as one of the 12-biodiversity hotspots of the world. The unique bio geography of the Sanctuary supports an immensely gifted biodiversity with approximately 337 flora and 259 fauna species. The Sanctuary is also recognised as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by Bird Life International.
The area is composed of forest fragments of various sizes interspersed with human habitation. Major population of the area depends upon agriculture, livestock rearing and collection of NTFP (Non timber forest produce) as their main source of income. The forest land is subjected to both settled and shifting agriculture and the practice of the latter has gradually reduced or in some areas has completely been abandoned now. Local people also extract and sell medicinal plants from the forests in the sanctuary and outside to be sold in either their raw form, or processed into different medicines.
Bhimashankar area is also known for its Deorais (sacred groves), particularly inside the sanctuary is one of the largest sacred groves of the area.But recently some researchers have reported a gradual forest degradation in some the Deorais because of gradually diminishing sacrosanct beliefs amongst the villagers.
Bhimashankar wildlife sanctuary was declared on the 16th of September 1985, 130.78 sq. km (under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972), for the protection and proliferation of Maharashtra's state animal Shekaroo, the Indian Giant Squirrel (Ratufa indica elphistonii), it being one of the three threatened Indo-Malayan Squirrels, along with the resources confined within the area.
The declaration came into immediate effect and this led to denial of access rights (Wildlife Protection Act, 1997) to or for local people into the forest on which they had depended for generations. This resulted into a constant conflict between the local people and the forest officials attempting to implement the act.
A total of 18 villages and their hamlets are geographically located inside the sanctuary, inhabited by about 3000 people as per 1991 census. The inhabitants are primarily tribal communities, namely Mahadev-Kolis, and Katkaris. In addition, the pastoralist Dhangar community and Dalit communities also reside in the sanctuary.
Under the Wildlife Protection Act, before the final notification of the sanctuary, a settlement of rights process (calling for claims of recorded rights and then either compensating and acquiring them or allowing them) is mandated. The report was completed in 1999 but the final notification of the sanctuary has not been issued yet.
Facing sudden restrictions on their access to resources and a constant threat of relocation from their ancestral villages, the local people organised various protests, held rallies and roadblocks. Over the years the situation of conflict continued with local people continuing to access the resources and “illegally” and facing harassment from the forest staff regularly.
In 2006, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was enacted by the Parliament of India, to recognise the traditional and customary rights of traditional forest dwelling communities. FRA provided for recognition of individual land rights, community forest rights and the right to manage, protect and conserve forests. This provided the local villagers to claim legal rights over their forests but due to the lack of awareness about the Act and procedure for implementation, it wasn’t implemented for a long time.
The situation is slowly getting better as there has been attempts by multiple NGOs, with varied approaches, to address this situation of conflict and injustice. These include efforts towards mobilising communities, particularly women, towards self-empowerment, helping villagers file claims for management and conservation of the forests, some villages drafting rules and regulations for management and conservation of forests, initiating sustainable honey harvesting practices, among others. The government is also implementing the eco-village development scheme in the villages, which entails village and ecological development of the area. Under this, some villages have initiated the eco-tourism model that helps creating community based responsible tourism for providing livelihoods. This scheme also provided cooking gas, water boilers to reduce the fuel wood consumption. Among the other objectives of the scheme is to share the financial benefits accruing from tourism in the sanctuary with the local people.
As a result of the local struggles and some of the initiatives mentioned above, the conflicts related to restrictions on access to the resources have reduced over the years. Although to a certain extent there is now collaboration between the forest department and the local people, particularly while implementing the Eco-development scheme, the relationship of mutual distrust between the two continues. While the villagers are increasingly becoming aware of their rights of access and questioning authority, the forest officials continue to assert their authority and power. Financial corruption, non-cooperation, and occasional harassment continue to be used by the forest staff. This has created a situation which is both difficult and discouraging for an efficient Protected Area (PA) management. In 2009, Forest clearance has been granted to Andhra Wind Power Project Enercon-India without completing the processes under the Forest Rights Act. The project lies within 10 km radius of Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary where the southern corridor and the buffer lies.