June 30, 2004: The India Eco-Development Project -- a project meant to enhance the country's biodiversity and provide people living inside and around protected areas (such as national parks and reserves) with sustainable livelihoods; a project once showcased by the Indian government and external agencies such as the Global Environmental Facility and the World Bank as the acme of conservation -- is officially declared null and avoidable. By the Bank itself.
But the government refuses to give up on eco-development. A new version is already in the pipeline. Once again, the World Bank has been approached for money. At this juncture, NITIN SETHI wonders: why does conservation in India veer away from its imperatives? How is it that when government thinks of conservation, it comprehends only money? Borrowed crores?
One stove, one pot
What eco-development means to people in Nagarhole
When forest department officials find a handful of tourists staying overnight in the Nagarhole forest they put on a video show in the evening. For the last two years the same cassette has been played: Nagarhole's magnificent wild animals and forests, the backwaters of Kabini and tribals the department "saved" by relocating them outside the forest. This video cost the department and the Indian Eco-development Project (IEDP) about Rs 16 lakh; is inflicting it on tourists the department's style of cost-recovery?
It could be. Nagarhole National Park in Karnataka was one of the seven chosen IEDP sites. The project began here in 1996 (as in the other sites) and ran for five years. Then, after a year's extension (elsewhere, two years) the World Bank pulled the plug. And most tribals here are yet to recover from IEDP.
About 1,500 odd families of the Jenu Kuruba, Betta Kuruba and Yerava tribes live inside the park today in 51 hadis (hamlets). They survive today on a mix of running home kitchens, agriculture, hunting, gathering forest produce and daily wage labour. A total of 255 families, relocated outside the forest as per project plan, live on a patch of cleared reserved forest. Today, both sets of people seethe with anger.
If one is fortunate enough to avoid the morning guided tour to the forest, one can slip into Gadde hadi -- home to 56 Jen Kuruba families; about 50 families have been relocated from this hadi. It has to be done on the sly. Outsiders are not allowed to visit tribals without department permission. If one is unfortunate, and the local state bus carrying tribals turned daily wage labourers from the hadi to Coorg has not left, one is accosted by the young and angry leader of Gadde hadi. Thimma spits his phrases: "Are you from press? International, national? Documentary maker?" He mispronounces 'consultant' but knows what it means. "Are you from NGO?" The tone turns decidedly acid. "We have dealt with them all. We are still living in this hell, seven years after the project began. They are all gone. What do you want? None of us have anything left to say. Go!"
But persist and the fruits of IEDP in Nagarhole fly into your face along with incensed drops of saliva: "A solar lamp and a brass pot for each family. That is all. And yes, one warm blanket per family." Thimma pulls these out of his hudlu (thatched hut) and displays them. "The lantern stopped working a few months after it was given to us, no one came to repair it. The pot is iron rimmed and not really copper. One cannot heat anything in it."
"When the project was on, people used to visit us on official tours, as our hadi is the easiest to approach from the city. We always put our blankets on display," says a woman resident of Gadde. "Sewing machines, either with forest officials' families or in the department storehouse, were always returned to us when there were visitors," says Thimma. "Yet we are better off than those of us who live in hadis difficult to reach. Our children are at least allowed to travel in the department bus to school."
Thimma does not know the bus, now parked in the department shed, is meant for their children. At least a bus exists for Gadde hadi. Children of distant hadis cannot even dream of such comfort, however notional. Aane hadi, at the park's southern end, is desolate. Not one villager interviewed here knew what of an eco-development committee -- the official hadi-level participatory agency meant to facilitate IEDP. A broken solar lamppost is the sole signifier of project presence.
The village eco-development component of IEDP was given Rs 9.74 crore. The money was meant to help tribals inside, and villagers on the forest periphery, find alternative livelihoods. The state Lokayukta, investigating allegations of corruption, found that the public exchequer had lost at least Rs 6 crore due to "misappropriation". A forest officer had stolen Rs 14 lakh.
Nearly everyone has visited the five settlements at Nagpura colony in Hunsur, Mysore, the new address for 255 families relocated. 'Voluntarily', as every official and believer in benign relocation puts it. The colony is planned in serene symmetry. It begins where a kutcha road takes off perpendicularly from the main road connecting the park to Hunsur city. On both sides are perfectly square brick houses, with perfectly trimmed hedge-fences. The kutcha road ends at the doorstep of a community hall. Beyond lie two-acre fields, prepared by chopping off reserve forest and then given to each relocated family.
The community hall in colony number five is used to store seeds, cement and fertilisers. One house here stands out. It is larger, more ostentatious. Veena is its proud owner. She is the adhyaksh (president) of the eco-development committee. Sitting in her freshly constructed porch, she talks of her husband. "He works with an NGO which used to be a consultant for the forest department on eco-development." She also tells of her own work. "The department hired me to educate people about the project and make them understand why it is good for them." She is happy with eco-development. She praises it even though she admits that none of the borewells, dug in the village for irrigation, work.
Says A R Muthana of LIFT, a Coorg-based NGO which favours relocating tribals to Hunsoor instead of Coorg (where many tribals prefer to move): "The tribals can get developed outside the forest. Inside they were living inhumanly. Here they have proper houses to live in. The houses have clear fences and the place is clean. Their children here can go to a proper government school. They can be civilised and live in families. Inside the forest anyone used to sleep with just about anyone. Isn't this what we mean by development?" Muthana wants to help the relocated Kuruba. LIFT is associated with the Kodagu Ekikrana Ranga, an NGO which promises to protect Coorg's forests from destruction. Muthana's views on the project are as radical as that on tribal development. "The project corrupted the forest department; relocation could have been done better had the project not injected money." At Nagarhole, IEDP was to benefit the park and tribals. They are the only two not to have benefited. All kinds of interest groups made the park their happy hunting grounds. Now that the World Bank has gone, they have vanished (see graph: the web of lucre).
At Veeranhosahali check post, an exit point from Nagarhole, an empty 'interpretation room' (it is supposed to introduce the visitor to park biodiversity) and an inverted artificial tusker's head -- it is artificial -- wishes the visitor a safe journey. Wasn't that exactly what IEDP was meant to be?
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