First Asiatic lion, then cheetah: officials struggle to decide which animal to introduce, and when, in Kuno-Palpur sanctuary. But they evict tribal residents with poor compensation
RANGU of Khajuri village in Madhya Pradesh has camera fright. His fear stems from experience. In 2000, his family along with 1,650 others was evicted from the Kuno- Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Sheopur district. “One day, government officials came to click our pictures. When we asked them what it was for, they laughed and said, ‘You are being packed off to kala pani (cellular prison)’,” recalls Rangu. “We thought they were joking. But later they evicted us. Life outside forests in the past 12 years has been worse than being in jail.” Rangu belongs to the Saharia tribe. Meaning “companion of tiger”, Saharia is one of the country’s 75 most vulnerable tribal groups.
Between 1999 and 2002, all the 24 villages inside Kuno were shifted from well-drained, fertile, low-lying land to unirrigated and rocky upland farm plots, without adequate compensation. Reason: the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had taken up a conservation project in 1995 to translocate a pride of Asiatic lions from Gujarat’s Gir National Park, the only place where they are found, to Kuno. It has been 17 years since, and there is no sign of the lion in Kuno. Gujarat has refused to share its pride with any other state. As the possibility of Gujarat agreeing seemed remote, MoEF decided to translocate cheetahs from Namibia to Kuno to revive the now-extinct species in India. But that plan, too, fell flat.
Relief to none
As part of the compensation package, each family was given two hectares (ha) of farmland and Rs 36,000 for house construction. Those who possessed land titles for more than two ha were compensated in cash for the excess land, but nine years after being relocated. Many forest dwellers cultivated land without any official records. They were not compensated for this land. The income from minor forest produce (MFP) was not compensated. In the absence of an income source, many Saharias have started working as daily wagers.
Sujan Singh of Chak village was evicted from the sanctuary in 1999. Four of his 10 sons are migrant labourers. Singh says, “The land given to me is of little use. If one digs it one feet (0.3m), there will be only rocks. The yield from the land is not enough for my family.” The authorities had offered financial assistance for digging wells to irrigate fields in the displaced villages. Rangu with two others dug a well, but it did not yield water. Then he started digging a new well but was unable to complete it because money was not given on time. “I cannot afford labour charges. If I dig, who will earn for my family?” he asks.
A 2009 study by Asmita Kabra of School of Human Ecology at Ambedkar University in Delhi showed that eight in 10 people in the displaced villages of Kuno live below the poverty line. “A major reason for this was losing access to MFP,” says Syed Merajuddin of NGO Samrakshan, which works for the Saharias. Poor agricultural output, loss of access to wild meat, fruits and vegetables have made the displaced Saharias vulnerable to diseases, says Kabra’s study. Several deaths were reported in the initial years of relocation.
A lost cause
MoEF initiated the project for translocating Asiatic lions on the recommendation of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), which feared the growing lion population in the limited space of Gir may lead to inbreeding and make the lions become vulnerable to epidemics. After studies, WII selected Kuno for creating a second habitat for the lion. To ensure successful introduction of the lion, WII recommended that villages inside Kuno be shifted out to make the area inviolate. The recommendation was made without any detailed scientific study nor was any attempt made to explore the option of co-existence as recommended by law, according to Kabra. When Gujarat was asked to part with a few lions, the state refused and boasted that it had managed to increase the animal’s population from 191 in 1985 to more than 400 in 2010.
In 2006, Delhi NGO Biodiversity conservation Trust of India filed a public interest petition in the Supreme Court seeking directions to the Gujarat government to allow the translocation. The case is pending in the court.
Seeing that the lion translocation project may not take off, MoEF decided to invest Rs 300 crore to bring the cheetah to Kuno. The cat became extinct in India in 1952. WII, which studied the feasibility of the project, said once the cheetah population is established in Kuno it will not preclude the introduction of the lion.
In one of the court hearings in 2012, Gujarat argued that lion should not be introduced in Kuno as MoEF’s priority was to bring the cheetah to the sanctuary. The court—on the application of court-appointed adviser in the case P S Narasimha—stayed the implementation of the cheetah project. Narasimha had argued that the cheetah project was neither well-deliberated nor put before the National Board of Wildlife, the statutary body to decide on wildlife matters.
While the struggle to decide when and which species to introduce continues, the forest department is determined not to allow the Saharias near Kuno. Nayagaon village was evicted in 2001. Two years later, around 40 families from Nayagaon returned to the sanctuary. The fields given to them did not yield despite hard work and investment.
Within six months, officials evicted them again with the promise to make their fields fertile. The department’s half-hearted efforts forced the families to shift back in 2005. Due to mounting pressure of the department, they again had to move out in April this year. “The district collector had promised us boundary walls for fields, three hand pumps and Rs 25,000 each to construct houses. Later, he threatened us that if we do not leave soon, our huts will be burnt,” recalls Barelal.
The village residents now live in kacha houses and have got Rs 10,000 each for building houses and one hand pump. “We have no means of earning. We are surviving on what we had earned inside Kuno,” adds Barelal. The collector, D B Patil, however, claims the displaced families were happier outside the sanctuary. “We are doing lot of work in the villages under the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee scheme,” he says. “There might be a few families whose land is not yielding despite all our efforts. If they approach us, we will change their land,” he adds.
The ordeal for the Saharias does not end here. The state has proposed an irrigation project on a river near Kuno. If passed, it will submerge 1,220 ha in 10 villages. This means four of the 10 villages will have to go through the ordeal of displacement again.