Maharashtra government distributes Rs 25,000 cheques, claims relocation has resumed
Even as the forest department of Maharashtra is publicising the resumption of stalled rehabilitation work in villages within the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) in Chandrapur district, residents of Kolsa village have refused to relocate. They are demanding titles to forestland under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in place of relocation.
The contentious relocation has been under dispute since 2007. The matter flared up again on December 18, when, during the winter session of state Assembly in Nagpur, state environment minister Sanjay Deotale handed over cheques of Rs 25,000 each to four families from the village. He used the opportunity to announce that work on the relocation of the village has resumed.
Residents say they are being pressurised to accept the Rs 10 lakh package the chief minister recently announced for them. They say their rights under FRA and the 2006 amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act, both of which provide for settlement of rights as a precondition to relocation, and make relocation strictly voluntary, have not been settled.
Forest department's pressure tactics
“Since the new package was announced, forest range officers have been visiting at odd hours to meet individual families and get consent papers signed,” says Kantabai Kudmethe, former sarpanch of Kolsa. They ignore requests to come during day-time and talk to the entire village community as a whole at a gram sabha meeting, Kudmethe adds. The only gram sabha meeting that forest officials, attended, ended with residents refusing relocation. “We had raised questions about the fate of our community forest rights (CFR) application that was filed several months back, on which no action has been taken, but the officials had no answer,” says Gajanan Walke, gram panchayat member.
The residents are also irked with the arrest of activist Sarang Dhabekar of the Gurudev Sewa mandal, who had been helping the village fight for the cause. He was arrested just a day prior to the distribution of cheques at Nagpur.
“On September 29, when a range officer appeared in the village at 7 pm with relocation consent forms, some of us including Dhabekar stopped him and asked him to return next morning when the gram sabha was to meet,” says Kudmethe. The official said that he had been ordered to meet individual families and had a list of 10 families who had agreed to relocate. “However, when we wanted to see the order and the list, he had neither.”
Following this incident, a police complaint was registered against Dhabekar and residents Satish Shidam and Sudhakar Madawi, says Kudmethe. “Three of them were accused of threatening the officer. The incident was investigated and statements recorded a month after it happened. So, there is no reason why arrests were made a day before the event in Nagpur. We see it as a means to pressurise us to give consent,” she adds.
Commenting on the situation in Kolsa, V K Sinha, TATR forest officer says 27 families in the village have consented to relocate, and “discussions are on with the rest.”
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