Tigers in, people out

By Aparna Pallavi
Published: Friday 15 August 2008

Tigers in, people out

-- (Credit: APARNA PALLAVI)Maharashtra preparing to relocate people but without groundwork

"We were threatened that if we did not sign the consent notes for relocation, our names would be struck out of the rehabilitation list," said Yamunabai Khadke, a resident of Vairat village in Melghat tiger reserve in Maharashtra. Melghat along with Pench and Tadoba Andhari were notified critical tiger habitats in December 2007 by the state ministry of environment and forests. The notification meant relocating 69 villages from the three tiger reserves.

Baburao Pachpute, the state minister of environment and forests, had claimed after the notification of the reserves that relocation would be done on a "war footing" and the process of identification of families eligible for relocation would be completed by July 31.Of late, he has been emphasizing that villagers are more than willing to relocate and the Centre's "handsome compensation package of Rs 10 lakh per family" had proved to be an incentive. But Khadke's statement does not reflect that. She and other villagers claim that notifying the reserves as critical tiger habitats was done without consulting them. Experts add that it is illegal.

A K Saxena, chief conservator of forests, Nagpur division, agrees that villagers were not consulted. The reason, he says, is that the notification was done according to the Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972, which does not require people's consent.

Forest rights activists counter the argument saying an amendment to the act in 2006 laid down that "No Scheduled Tribes or other forest dwellers shall be resettled or have their rights adversely affected...for tiger conservation unless...agencies of the State Government...establishes...that the activities of the Scheduled Tribes and other forest dwellers is sufficient to cause irreversible damage and threaten the existence of tigers and their habitat..."

Also, under the Guidelines to Notify Critical Wildlife Habitats issued by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in October 2007, notifying requires a resolution from the gram sabhas concerned that the recognition and vesting of rights in the affected area is completed. The guidelines also suggest that the expert committee should conduct public hearings in the area with a quorum of at least two-thirds members of the population to be affected. "None of the above processes were carried out," says Mohan Kothekar, steering committee member of the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers. "It is a clear case of the government violating regulations." Until such procedures are carried out, no attempt should be made towards relocating the affected populations, he added.

Colin Gonzalves, a human rights lawyer, says "Failure to follow legal provisions makes the notification illegal and it can be challenged legally." But forest officials have already started the process of filling consent notes for relocation. In Melghat, residents of villages Vairat, Churni and Pastalai report largescale irregularities in the process of filling individual consent notes. Force, threats and opacity, all appear to be part of the game.

Alleges Namdeo Khadke, a Vairat resident "Forest officials do not give us prior notices. They come at any given time of the day or night, grab hold of whoever they find, and try to get them to sign the note. Once we had asked the range forest officer of Chikhaldara for photocopies of the notes we had filled up but that demand led to the abrupt cancellation of the meeting."

In Pastalai village, almost everyone signed the consent notes after forest officials dug demarcation trenches next to the boundary of the villagers' agricultural land, cutting off forest access.

Down to Earth  
Residents of Vairat sit in protest against relocation measures adopted by the state
"The range forest officer got the village elders together and said that if we did not sign notes, we would be arrested if we crossed the boundary. It was not possible to resist after that, since we need to go into the forest daily, at least for firewood," says resident Jasu Dhikar.

Village Churni is split in two factions. Officials have informally allotted half the villagers plots and the remaining villagers have been asked to take Rs 10 lakh and clear out. Says resident Devkabai Yeole "We want rehabilitation, not Rs 10 lakh, but no one is listening to us." Most villagers are sceptical of the Rs 10 lakh promise. "It is a trap," says Thakuji Khadke of Vairat. "We need land to cultivate, wood to make our houses and forests close by to meet our daily needs," he adds.

Malay Kasdekar of Pastalai is sure they will be "forced out with nothing. "Why are the forest officials harassing us so much if they intend to give us so much money?" she asks. In Makhala village, the sarpanch told Down To Earth (dte), "Each time forest officials come to the village, they come with a new threat. We have told them that we will not sign the notes even if they kill us."

No relocation till rights settled
Prem Singh Meena, secretary, Maharashtra State Tribal Development Department, and member of the expert committee for the notification of critical wildlife habitats, admitted the irregularity in proceedings saying he had no idea why relocation consent notes were being filled up before rights of villagers could be recorded.

"Nothing is final yet. Even the Rs 10-lakh package is not final as the cabinet is yet to approve it. Filling consent notes at this juncture is certainly not proper," he said. Meena told dte that a case-by-case recording of rights procedure under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 will be carried out in the affected villages first.

Down to Earth  
"We want rehabilitation, not Rs 10 lakh, but no one listening to us"
-Devkabai Yeole,
resident Churni Village
"The government of India has given a deadline of January 31, 2009 for the completion of the rights recording process. Unless this process is completed, no relocation activity can be undertaken," he adds. B K Majumdar, chief wildlife warden and chairman of the expert committee refused to comment.

Pachpute was not available for comments to explain how he was so sure that villagers were ready to relocate. Nitin Kakodkar, deputy secretary, environment and forests, said that the department "must have" received consent letters but later admitted that he "did not know". Kakodkar heads a committee appointed to determine the number of families eligible for relocation and to expedite the work.

There is much confusion among officials themselves. Three officials this dte correspondent spoke to were not even aware of the critical tiger habitat notification status. Says Kusum Karnik, forest rights activist, who has been studying the rights situation in the three protected areas, "There is very little legal awareness among government officials. No one is serious about protecting the rights of the affected people. The need of the hour is to stay the relocation process till the situation has been clarified and the affected people supplied all requisite information."

Caught up in the middle are people who feel they have little hope. Fakirji Khadke, a Vairat resident, says, "It is not a question of if we want to go. The forest department is determined to drive us out. We have struggled for long. We will succumb finally. The only question is when."

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