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Left high and dry

Saturday 21 May 2005, by BUNSHA*Dionne

in Kuno

The villagers moved out of the Kuno forest to make way for Gir lions complain that they have got little of the rehabilitation package they were promised.

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There is little that is green and growing as far as the eye can see for Kheru and his companion, relocated to Pehra village from the Kuno forest in Madhya Pradesh.

AKKE and Kheru gaze bleakly at the stark landscape that stretches in front of them as they share a beedi with their friends. Under a blazing sun, all that meets the eye is a rugged terrain. No trees, no cattle, no shade. Nothing grows here, so there is no crop and therefore, little food. All they can do is break rocks for construction; 100 boulders fetch about Rs. 70.

Their village, Pehra, is perched on the outskirts of the Kuno-Palpur forest in the Vindhya hills in northwestern Madhya Pradesh. Six years ago, its residents were shifted out of the forest. Around 24 villages with 1,545 families, mainly Sahariya Adivasis, were relocated outside the forest to create a sanctuary for five to eight Asiatic lions from the Gir forest in Gujarat.

These six years have been full of hardship and poverty. The lions are yet to be brought into the forest. Meanwhile, thousands of displaced villagers are practically starving. In the stark landscape of resettled Pehra, there is not even a tree that can provide shade to Hakke and Kheru. Just vast stretches of thorny scrub bushes and the hills in the distance.

"This land is useless. Every crop I tried has failed. The soil does not retain any water. The government told us that we would be given fertile, irrigated land with bunds," Hakke said. "Forget irrigation, the land is too shallow to hold any water. The crop just dries up or gets washed away." People who grew two crops in a year when they lived in the forest have been reduced to being footloose daily wage labourers, scouting for work every day, not knowing where the next meal will come from.

"Now our village is empty. There are only 20 families left in a village where there are more than 100 houses. Many have locked their homes and left for Sheopur town to help out with the harvesting in other people’s fields," Kheru said. "When we lived in the forest, only a few would migrate during the lean season, and it was out of choice. Here, everyone has to keep travelling, searching for work. Earlier, we did not even know how to break stones."

Kheru was full of memories of the good old times: "We could grow two crops without irrigation. At this time of the year, farmers would be selling their harvest. We would swim in the river there. And now, here we are, sweating in the sun, breaking rocks."

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A scene of life in Jahkoda village in Sheopur district. Adivasi villagers uprooted from their homes in the forest now find it hard to afford one square meal a day.

The Adivasis were poor even when they lived in the forest. But the quality of life has worsened after relocation. Munna from Jakhoda village, who has been suffering from tuberculosis for two years, said: "The forest gave us all we needed - milk, ghee, fruits, vegetables, animals, herbs, berries. We got money from selling tendu leaves, gum and so on. Here, people do not even get to eat rotis on some days, so they fall ill. Earlier, we never needed a doctor."

The displaced villagers do not have enough to eat now and their children are malnourished. One of the children Frontline met at Paira died days later. People had been moved out with the promise of better facilities, but even water is scarce in their new homes. "In the forest, we had the river. Here there is just one handpump in the village for so many families. There is no water to bathe," said Kheru. "Cattle cannot survive because there is no grazing ground. We had to abandon all our cattle in the forest. Now, if we want to plough the field, we have to hire a tractor."

WITH every attempt to sow the land, debts rise. The money borrowed to sow the fields is not realised because the crops fail. After several years of losses, the people of Pipalbawdi village decided to return to the forest for the monsoon crop in 2004. The Forest Department let them do so. It knew that the land they had been given was barren. Ramdayal, back again in his old home, said: "We stayed there for three years, but there was no crop, no work. Here, there is as much fertile land as your heart desires. We do not need to go anywhere for work." Ramdayal was part of a large group that gathered round the Frontline team, weary but eager to talk. "So many years without any crop drained us completely. After many crop failures, people have huge loans to pay off - up to Rs.30,000-40,000, at 60 per cent interest," he said.

Sabu’s family harvested a mustard crop this year, but all of it went to the trader from whom she had taken a loan. In the end, the family was left with nothing. Still, she was hopeful: "At least, now we are making up for the years of losses." The nearest doctor or bus stop is nine kilometres away, at Agraa village. There is no transport, people have to walk there. The school inside the forest does not have a teacher. Yet, the people of Pipalbawdi feel they are better off inside, which says a lot about their "rehabilitation" and the "better facilities" they had been promised. Besides Pipalbawdi, there are two other villages inside the forest. However, they are willing to go back to the `resettlement’ village if they are given land on which they can grow a crop.

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Villagers shifted out of the forest were promised better amenities, but even water is scarce in their new homes. Women in Jakhoda fetch water from a well.

A few days after Frontline visited Pipalbawdi, there were reports that forest officials scolded the villagers for not moving back to their relocation site and for speaking to journalists. Around 40 men and a few women were reportedly forced into Forest Department vehicles and taken to an outpost at Pohri, 50 km away, according to Samrakshan, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working in the area. However, Chief Forest Officer J.S. Chauhan said: "They were asked to come out for their own good. We let them cultivate the rabi (winter) crop inside and now they have nothing to do. If they come out of the forest, we can give them some daily wage work." He denied that the eviction was prompted by Frontline’s visit.

KUNO was selected for shifting a pride of lions after scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) felt that translocation of some of the expanding population of Gir lions was necessary to preserve the last surviving lions of the sub-species. If an epidemic were to hit the lions in Gir, an entire sub-species could be wiped off. So, it was pointed out that a satellite population in Kuno was necessary. That meant declaring 345 sq km of the forest as a sanctuary and shifting the residents of 24 villages out of the forest. But the lions have not arrived, because the Gujarat government refuses to part with them.

The Kuno rehabilitation package offered the evicted Adivasis a deal that was supposed to improve the quality of their lives. They would have access to electricity, transport, schools, dispensaries, irrigated land, grazing grounds, firewood plantations and money to build houses. It was "voluntary" and the villagers agreed to move. The rehabilitation was considered "successful" by many wildlife conservationists. J.S. Chauhan, then co-ordinating the project, was given the Sanctuary Wildlife Award 2002 for Earth Heroes. Despite a comparatively good rehabilitation package (compared to displaced people in other parts of the country), the relocated villagers are worse off in their new homes.

A few of them, however, feel that they have got a good deal. For instance, Mahesh Mirda, sarpanch of Palpur village, had this to say: "We have better amenities now - electricity, a doctor close at hand, transport. Yes, there are many things that were promised but not given, such as fodder and firewood plantations, some irrigation wells that haven’t been dug, and electricity to operate pumps. But then, there are bound to be problems, nothing is perfect." But his brother Suresh disagreed: "They brought us in the middle of nowhere, where there was one handpump and nothing else, and left us to die. What is the point of running a school if there is one teacher for 250 children? They fooled us and got us out of the forest."

Village leaders were shown various properties and asked to "approve" their relocation sites. Then, land was distributed among people on the basis of a lottery. "The powerful people took land closer to the river, and we were left with stone," said Ramkali from Paira. Moreover, when the villagers were shown the land by the forest officials, they were promised it would be cleared of bushes and made suitable for cultivation. The clearing was done but there was no land or watershed development.

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Kuno is ready but the lions have not arrived yet because the Gujarat government does not want to let go of them.

Chauhan defended the Forest Department: "The entire responsibility of rehabilitation cannot be placed on the Forest Department. We do not have the technical expertise and need the help of other departments such as Irrigation, Education and Health. We have tried to respond to all complaints. For irrigation, we have asked for more funds. It is not easy to irrigate 3,000 hectares. With the help of other departments, it will take five to six years. If we have to do it on our own, it could take 15 to 20 years." He admitted that the Forest Department should perhaps have acted with greater vision, but asked: "Why did people agree to move?"

So how "voluntary" was the resettlement? Were people really given a choice between staying in the forest and moving out? Suresh said: "They wanted us out of the forest. So they promised us Rs.1,00,000, but we got only Rs.38,000 in cash. The government spent the rest of the money to build facilities and clear the land." Hakke said: "We agreed to come out because they promised us so much money and assured us that we would get the same kind of land. People had never seen that kind of money, we got greedy and realised later that we had been fooled."

The Kuno forest is now supposedly free from `human degradation’. Forest officials claim the prey base (like deer, chital, wild boar) for lions has increased and the scene is set for the arrival of the Asiatic lions from Gujarat.

But at what cost? Was there another, less destructive way possible? Ravi Chellam, a lion expert who was part of the WII team that recommended the translocation of Gir lions to Kuno, said: "In India, finding a forest large enough for carnivores is difficult because our population density is so high and our forests are degraded and fragmented. After looking at all other alternatives, Kuno was found most suitable. When we spoke to the people there, they were willing to move.. They could not remain inside the forest with the lions. That might lead to incidents of conflict."

Yet, with no other alternative, many Adivasis, like those in Pipalbawdi, would prefer their old forest homes.

(This is the concluding part of a two-part series.)

See online : Frontline


Volume 22 - Issue 11, May 21 - Jun. 03, 2005

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