Tadoba tiger reserve An unsafe haven

By Aparna Pallavi
Published: Thursday 15 May 2008

Tadoba tiger reserve An unsafe haven

-- Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, Vidarbha's star tourist attraction, is buzzing with activity. Inside the 625.40 sq km reserve, excavators are hard at work, digging up earth for an ambitious road-building project. Strips of forest, several metres wide, have been cleared alongside existing roads. Outside, along the fringes of the reserve, entrepreneurs are busy building a cluster of guesthouses and resorts. State forest officials too, are hard at work--trying to relocate the five remaining villages lying within the recently declared critical wildlife habitat in the state's Chandrapur district.

The five villages within Tadoba reserve are among about 60 forest villages in Maharashtra facing relocation out of protected areas. Most of these (about 39) are in the state's three tiger reserves--Pench, Melghat and Tadoba-Andhari, all located in the Vidarbha region.An additional 50 villages are to be relocated from the site of the proposed Mansinghdeo Sanctuary in Ramtek, that is to be attached to the Pench Tiger Reserve.

Forest officials say that villages within the protected areas must be removed to "reduce human movement and minimize disturbance to wildlife". The Tadoba park administration is trying to curb all movement, including tourist footfall, inside the reserve boundaries. The government-owned Tadoba resort, which lies within the park boundaries, was shut down on April 1 and only 50 tourist vehicles will be allowed into the park daily from now on, informs Tadoba field director Sheshrao Patil. Then why the aggressive road-building?

Officials don't have their stories coordinated. g k Vashisht, assistant conservator of forests (acf), says it's only repair work--the existing roads are being laid with murum, a local variety of gravel, to prevent vehicles getting stuck in the rains. But Patil also says that "metalling" the road is imperative.

Enter tourists
Until four years ago, a government-owned resort inside the reserve was the only tourist facility here. The road connecting the resort to the reserve's Mohrali gate, was Tadoba's only metalled road. Now resorts and hotels are cropping up willy-nilly outside the reserves' gates. There are already three full-fledged tourist facilities along the reserve's western fringes. Two more facilities--a camping site with a faculty house and interpretation centre, and a local panchayat built guest house are coming up on the park's southeastern side.

Given the demand, land prices are shooting up. A 4.85 hectare (ha) piece of agricultural land adjacent to the Jhari gate recently sold for Rs. 125,000 per acre (the average price of land is about Rs. 50,000 to 60,000 per acre). Two years ago, a villager called Gedam sold a 4.04 ha plot next to Kolara gate, north of Jhari, for Rs. 110,000 per acre to one Mahendra Pratap Singh of Patna, the nephew of former Maharashtra principal chief conservator of forests, b k Singh. Villagers say the land really belongs to the former principal conservator, and that a resort is on the cards. Down to Earth A forest guard at the Jhari gate confirmed as much. "The land is being cultivated now but Singh saheb's resort will come up soon," he said.

"Since the Gedam- b k Singh land deal, the land prices in the entire area have shot up," says b Ramteke, the patwari (revenue official) of Kolara village. Now people have started demanding Rs 200,000 to Rs. 300,000 per acre." Buyers from Nagpur and Chandrapur have begun frequenting this area. At least two or three persons visit every month, says Ramteke.

The zone of contention
Tadoba-Andhari tiger reserve
Down to Earth
Source Rucha Ghate of Shodh, Nagpur
The land-buying spree by businessmen is held in check only due to the high prices and because most land in these areas is owned by tribals and can't be easily transferred to non-tribals.

Exit villagers
The flurry of tourism related activities has irked local communities whose own access to the reserve and its resources is being increasingly curbed.

For the past two years, villages along the reserve have been banned from entering the protected area to collect non-timber forest produce that are their major sources of income. "Since March this year, tourists have started entering the park from this [Pangli] gate, but they do not let us collect tendu, bamboo or even mahua. We are only allowed to take firewood for domestic use," says Lata Pendam of Pangli village.

The situation is worse for villages within the reserve. Since 2004, the state has intensified its attempts to relocate the six forest villages that remained within the reserve area--a move that had been hanging fire since 1986 when the Andhari was declared a game sanctuary was declared (see box Basic facts). While the officials insist that the relocation process is being carried out through negotiations and on an entirely voluntary basis, villagers say they are being coerced and bullied by district forest and revenue officials.

Development work in the six villages inside the reserve--Botezari, Kolsa, Jamni, Rantalodhi, Palasgaon and Navegaon--was stopped in 2000. Villagers have been warned not to collect forest produce. Villagers dte talked with say forest officials have threatened to fill up their irrigation tanks, cut off electricity and raze houses if they don't agree to move."They do not let us collect tendu or bamboo, they don't repair our approach roads. But now they are building these fancy roads for the tourists. They want us to move out so the tourists can have this place to themselves," says Kantabai Kudmethe, panchayat member of Kolsa village.

One of the villages, Botezari, agreed to relocate and was shifted out in March 2007. The move was hailed as a "model relocation project" and the state minister of environment and forests Mr Babanrao Pachpute wrote letters of commendation to five forest and revenue officials involved. Now a road is being built to run through Botezari. "The main reason the people of Botezari agreed to move out was because they didn't have a road. If the road can be made now, why couldn't it be made when Botezari was there? Who is the road for?" asks Shivaji Zumanke of Ratnalodhi village.

Down to Earth Now we are not allowed to hold the jatra or even to carry out our ritual sacrifices or cook sacramental food at the site. We are only allowed to offer prayers

Nanaji Uike of Jamni village
Down to Earth
The government raised the compensation to Rs 10 lakh per family. If it had allowed us to wait, we would have benefited from this package
Vilas Kanake of Botezari who was moved to Bhagwanpur
What's enraged the people even more is the ban on the annual jatra (procession) to the shrine of their deity, Taroba, after whom the reserve is named. The shrine by Tadoba Lake used to be visited every May by a procession of Gond adivasis from the entire region. But four years ago, acf Vashisht banned the jatra. "Now we are not allowed to hold the jatra or even to carry out our ritual sacrifices or cook sacramental food at the site. We are only allowed to offer prayers," says Nanaji Uike of Jamni village.

Park director Patil initially told dte that the jatra "had stopped on its own in the last 10 years," but when pressed further admitted that the forest department stopped it because it was disruptive and tribals killed goats and drank alcohol during the festival. The villagers aren't buying this logic. "It's just one day in the year, whereas tourists keep pouring in all year round," says Vitthal Uike of Jamni village.

Model rehabilitation
In Keslaghat, along the reserve's eastern border, lies the spanking new Bhagwanpur.
Down to Earth
Solace in graffiti A saying of Bhakti saint Tukodji on walls in Rantalodhi village
Natty, square ochre houses with red-tiled roofs line straight roads that cross each other at right angles. On the surface, everything's just so in this "model village" where the residents of Botezari were relocated last year. Look closer and you'll see the floor and walls of nearly every house have developed cracks, some of them at least an inch wide. The roof rafters are rotting. One even collapsed recently.

"At the time of relocation the officials said that the fund for housing was just Rs 36,000 each. Now they are telling us that the houses have been built at the cost of Rs 72,000. If they had given us such money we would have made much better houses," says villager Shripad Gurubua Shrirame.

The entire population of Botezari--some 140 families, and another 48 landless families fromKolsa, now live in Bhagwanpur--so named after Shri Bhagwan, the then conservator of forests of Chandrapur North Circle. The village's two wards--Sanjeev Nagar and Arun Nagar--are named after the then Chandrapur collector, Sanjeev Jaiswal and Mul range forest officer (rfo) Arun Tikhe, who was secretary of the Chandrapur district rehabilitation committee. These two officials were among the five commended by the state for conducting a "model rehabiliation". But while the administration is patting itself on the back, the people of Botezari, who say they were forced to move before negotiations were complete, are far from satisfied.

"On March 14 2007, out of the blue a lot of officials arrived with trucks, held a meeting, gave speeches, broke a coconut and gave us marching orders," says villager Shrihari Kannake. Rucha Ghate of Shodh--a nonprofit that had been helping out with the rehabilitation facilitation exercise--confirms this. "Government officials from all departments were present. Not a single villager was allowed to speak. We had been invited to the meeting but did not know the officials were planning to move the village that day," she says.Bothezari was razed within days of the move.

Forestland for forestland
Mul rfo Tikhe is quick to point out that every family has been given land--the landed received as much land as they had in Botezari, and the landless were given two acres (.8ha) per family. What he doesn't mention is that while Botezari was a revenue village where most villagers had land ownership papers, land given out in the new location is forestland and the villagers haven't yet been given ownership pattas. Shodh has requested the Central Empowered Committee (a Supreme Court sub-committee set up to investigate and prevent encroachments on India's protected forests) to change the status of this land to revenue land, but hasn't received any response so far. "The land in Botezari will soon be converted to forest land so the residents will have no proper ownership rights at either place," says Ghate.

Bhagwanpur was carved out of a 445 ha of forestland owned by the state-run Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra. The land was being used by four neighbouring villages for grazing and gathering forest produce. With nearly half this stretch, 222 ha, being cleared for the new village, there's been increasing hostility between the old and new communities over sharing of resources. Though rfo Tikhe told dte that the forest cut down was in greatly degraded condition, local reports say it had a dense tree cover. The forest department's own figures show that that at least 145,000 trees were cut down to make way for the village. "Mountains of roots were removed from the land at the time of relocation," says Ghate.

Given the huge roots still embedded in the soil and the dearth of water tanks in the area the land is unfit for cultivation. "We had demanded three things as part of the relocation package-Land, good agricultural facilities and financial assistance to tide us over the transition period. We got nothing," says villager Rushi Soma Pendam, "In the name of financial assistance, we were handed Rs 1,000 per family and told that that was all that was left from the Rs 100,000 relocation package (after the new village was built)."

The villagers were unable to cultivate their new plots last year. "For the first time ever, there was a day when our entire village went hungry. There was no food in any house," says Mahadev Marlu Kannake, "In Botezari our granaries were always full of paddy."

Forest officials say the state agriculture department is currently levelling the land and building paddy bunds and the work will be completed within a month. But villagers are sceptical. "The land is too hard, and digging up roots isn't easy," says villager Mahadeo Kumre. "It will be five years before anything at all can be cultivated on this land. By then, where will we be?"

Down to Earth
Fuelwood, a difficult commodity to get
The villagers say that the forest authorities have acted in haste. They talk of the Union government's new compensation scheme for 39 villages that are to be relocated out of Maharashtra's three tiger reserves. The scheme announced in March proposes a Rs 10 lakh compensation per family. "If only the officials had allowed us to wait till now, we would have benefited from this package," says a bitter villager, Vilas Kannake.

Kusum Karnik, veteran forest rights activist has approached the Human Rights Commission regarding the flawed resettlement of the villagers or Botezari and Kolsa and is due to make a submission before the commission on April 23. Now key officials involved are seeking to distance themselves from the Bothezari relocation. Shri Bhagwan, who was the relocation project's chief engineer (and is now ccf, Thane) told Down To Earth that he was "not very much involved" in the process. He said he couldn't recall being present at Botezari on the day the villagers were evicted, despite several media reports mentioning otherwise. afc Vashisht, one of the recipients of the famous commendation letters, also denies playing any major role.

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