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Travel across Melghat, and discussions with forest officials and local Korku tribals will confirm the deepest fears: egs cannot succeed wherever there are huge tracts of forest land, tracts where also some of the country's poorest people live.
"Melghat is spread in Dharni and Chikaldara taluka s of Amravati district, Maharashtra, with a total area of about 4,000 sq km out of which almost 3,000 sq km is forest land. There are only 100 villages within the protected forest area (the Melghat Tiger Reserve) whereas another 300 are outside the forest areas. The total population of these two talukas is about 2 lakh, of which almost one third is labour force. This means at any given point in time 45,000 people need to be employed. And even if we follow nrega (the current programme) and provide employment for only 100 days in a year, the cost comes to Rs 22.5 crore per annum for Melghat alone," says R K Wankhade, deputy conservator of forests, Melghat Tiger Reserve. As per district administration figures, almost 246,621 labourers have already registered themselves for egs work across Amravati, out of which 45,777 are from Chikaldara and Dharni taluka alone.
But why is almost one-third of Melghat without any source of livelihood?
In early February this year, a large group of tribals from Melghat organised a padayatra and walked from Paratwada to Amravati to meet the district collector, Ravindra Jhadav, and demand work under egs . All had a common complaint -- their agricultural land is disputed and they rarely get work under egs .
Says Bhai Ranu Jamunka, a 75-year-old farmer from Keli village in Chikaldara taluka, "Out of 600 people in my village, only 18 own land and the rest work as labourers. Even the land of these 18 is under dispute... I am tilling my land for the last many decades but now the forest department says it is their land. What am I to do? In any case, in forests there is no source of income, no irrigation facility, nothing." It is the same story for Sabulal from Biba village in Chikaldara taluka, "Forest department has recently cut a plot in my land and says it belongs to them. I do not have 7/12 (record of rights) to prove my ownership over the land." On being questioned about availability of egs work, Sabulal said it takes one to two years to get that work.
Vithal, a 45-year-old villager from Bodhu village in Melghat has a different problem. "My village is in the interiors of Melghat and till date has not been electrified. We have small patches of land on which we do agriculture. Since there are no irrigation facilities, every year villagers make a temporary dam on a rivulet and divert some water to our fields. But the forest department says this is illegal. Every year we have this fight with the forest department... As far as egs is concerned, it can at best provide us with 15 days to a month of work in a year. Do you think we can survive only on that? We mostly migrate to cities in search for work." Tribals also complain it takes months before they receive egs payments.
A major problem with carrying out egs works in forest areas is the requisite '60:40 ratio' of unskilled to skilled labour. Most of the structures cannot be constructed because they do not fit into the cost norms of the state government. Secondly, Melghat is thickly forested: there are no big open spaces to do egs work such as continuous contour trenching, and no sites for plantations.
Forest officials claim they are made to sound like villains when all they try to do is follow the rules. Says an executive engineer at the egs department, Amravati, "No other department is allowed to work on forest land. And neither can they take up work and leave it unfinished because of a patch of forest land that happens to fall in between. But rather than lambasting the department, which is only following the Forest Conservation Act ,1980, we should think of ways by which egs can contribute positively in forest areas. Forests no doubt have become a curse for Vidarbha's people because in the name of conservation, they remain underdeveloped."