By Mohammad Asif Siddiqui
Sheopur (Madhya Pradesh), Dec 6 (IANS): "We were born in the forest, and we would like to die here," say the Sahariya tribal people of two villages in Sheopur district that are in the process of resettlement due to the much-talked-about cheetah project in Madhya Pradesh's Kuno National Park.
Ever since the release of cheetahs brought from Namibia into the park on September 17, the State forest department has been taking steps to relocate both Bagcha, which falls under the park area, and Jahangarh, which lies in the buffer zone. Outside the buffer zone, a further 557 sq km has been newly demarcated as an eco-sensitive zone where people may continue to live but with restrictions on industries and land use.
As many as 216 families in Bagcha will be shifted to Rampura, located around 50 km away, where compensatory agricultural lands measuring not more than five acres each and places to build houses have been identified. However, things are bleak for the 70 families in Jahangarh as there is no provision to provide land for land while resettling people in the buffer zone. They will instead get a compensation of Rs 15 lakh, specifically for land purchase.
The forest department will facilitate their relocation by identifying suitable plots in other villages and will directly pay from the compensation amount to land sellers. In case a balance amount is available, it will be given in installments to the beneficiary family to enhance their livelihood options.
Confirming that the officials have visited Jahangarh multiple times to convince them, Shyamabai Janmed, a Sahariya woman, says the forest department first told them that they could shift to Raghunathpur. "But when we checked out the place, the residents there said they were not willing to part with their agricultural lands. So where will we go?"
Later, the authorities directed the villagers to Chanipura, but the fact remains that Chanipura gram sabha is yet to give its consent, which is mandatory to buy land there.
A history of resistance
Incidentally, this is not the first time that tribal people have resisted the move to drive them out of their forest. On October 12, 2018, the area under Kuno National Park was increased from 344.69 sq km to 748.76 sq km, with many villages added to the national park's operative area.
In the 1990s, when preparations were on to introduce lions to the area, 24 villages of Palpur range falling under the park area were shifted out. At that time, Bagcha and Jahangarh, which fall under Occhapura range and are home to the Sahariya, Bhil and Mongia tribes, were left out due to their stiff resistance.
This time around, the Bhils and Mongias are willing to move out provided they get compensation. However, the Sahariyas who constitute 65% of the total population of both villages have not changed their position. They say they should be resettled in another forest, if at all they need to, as they cannot live outside of it.
Mukesh Kanhai of Jahangarh tells 101Reporters that displacement would have a deep impact on the social and emotional well-being of tribals. "We will be shifted from our ancestral land. It will definitely impact our culture, health and food resources."
As tribal people see trees as abodes of gods, conservation of forests is a given for them. "Where there are no tribals, the forest cover is decreasing. We are the ones who protect trees. Outsiders just come and cut them down to make settlements," he says.
The tribal population also conserves the region's biodiversity as they rely on local crops, wild fruits, seeds, tubers and roots to meet their nutrition needs. "The tribals are equally important for the forest as much as the forest is necessary for the tribals," says Harimohan of Mahatma Gandhi Seva Ashram, Sheopur.
"I can predict the weather by looking at the cloud cover and wind speed. However, our future seems difficult to predict. I do not know when the officials will come to throw us out," laments Gulubai Ganpat of Jahangarh.
The tribal community sells shatavari, gudmar leaves, nagarmotha, honey, salai, khair, gum, kakoda (spiny gourd) and amla in Occhapura and Vijapur. Most families in Jahangarh have two to five bighas of land on which they grow paddy, sesame, millet and maize.
Raisabai Ramnivas, who came to Jahangarh after her marriage seven years ago, says, "Besides selling forest honey and herbs, we also cultivate seasonal crops in our land measuring two bighas. If we are expelled from the forest, what will we earn and what will we eat?"
The family of Sita Gilas has been living in Jahangarh for years. All in the family work as labourers, but supplement their income by collecting herbs and other medicinal plants. "The forest is everything to us. We only know how to live there. If we are made to move, we should be shifted to another forest," Gilas reiterates.
However, not all tribal communities are averse to shifting out. Mogias and Bhils have agreed to take the compensation to leave the forest. Incidentally, both communities are not on good terms with the Sahariyas, who consider them as outsiders.
"What can we do if the government has decided to remove us from our land? We feel it is better to take the money that we are offered and settle down elsewhere," the members of the Mongia and Bhil communities say in unison.
A surge in restrictions
Restrictions are on the rise after the arrival of cheetahs in Kuno National Park. Camera traps have been set up and the forest department is continuously making announcements to prevent villagers from entering the buffer zone. Residents have also started receiving notices for relocation.
"We are scared to enter the forest now, not knowing whether the forest officers would nab us. Earlier, we used to freely enter the buffer zone and collect minor produce. Now we can only earn a living through labour," bemoans Munnibai Ramswarup, a resident of Pura village, which falls under the eco-sensitive zone.
As per the rules, human settlements and activities are barred in the national park area. Farming and grazing of domestic animals are also prohibited.
Occhapura Deputy Ranger Raju Barber says relocation is imperative as cheetahs need a rather large home range. The forest also has leopards and bears. "The orders have come from both the district administration and forest department. But the tribals are not ready to leave."
Kuno National Park Divisional Forest Officer Prakash Kumar Verma tells 101Reporters that the notification to move out villages was released long ago, but the tribal people do not want to leave.
"We want tribal people to join the mainstream. This is why Rs 15 lakh is offered as compensation. We cannot offer anything more. But if required, we can train them in enhancing their livelihood options," states Verma.