Orphans of the forest

Displaced from their forests, brutalised by the forest department, condemned by the government, the Sahariya tribe in MP and Rajasthan are dying a daily death

Akash Bisht Shivpuri/Shoepur  

Sahariyas are a deprived, starving, primitive tribe in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan living in isolation and abject poverty for centuries. The name Sahariya is derived from the Arabic word Sehara or 'wilderness', and true to its meaning, members of this tribe seldom venture out of the forests on which they depend for their livelihood. There have been starvation deaths reported in the last few years in this region. The tribe is crushed by hunger and poverty and has derived no benefits from being in the scheduled tribe category, least of all reservation or affirmative action. Without basic human rights, here, illiteracy is high, health facilities are zero, there is no electricity or clean drinking water, a bankrupt public distribution system (PDS), no roads, malnourishment is rampant, several women die when in labour, other women are treated with scant respect by other communities. They are harassed and assaulted. Despite this abysmal condition, the governments of MP and Rajasthan have left them to die a daily death.

On the contrary, in recent times, the state government has taken up large conservation programmes to protect flora and fauna in the forests around Shivpuri and Shoepur, and to promote eco-tourism. More than 11 national parks and 32 tiger sanctuaries covering thousands of acres have been sanctioned. This means, an additional 450,000 tribal people have been shunted off their traditional lands. Each of these national parks and protected areas has meant mass displacement and deprivation for this tribe. And yet again, displacement and dispossession has resulted in starvation deaths, bonded labour and terrible living conditions.

It is estimated that the MP government is acquiring around 170,000 acres of land annually under compulsory land acquisition schemes whereas land distribution schemes are almost negligible. Various development projects since 1950, such as large dams, open cast coal mines, thermal power plants and mineral-based industries have displaced more than 50 million people.

Balharpur village is an hour's drive from Shivpuri. Villagers, mostly Sahariyas, were dependant on the forest for tendu leaves, honey, amla and other forest produce which they consumed and sold in the market as barter for essential commodities. But eight years ago, they were forcibly moved out of their village. Reason: Madhav National Park.

“These tribals were rehabilitated in a large tract of barren and rocky land. They left their cattle back in their village as they thought it would be impossible to graze their cattle here. These forest-dependent tribes are now living next to a highway with no means of livelihood,” informs Saurabh Kumar, a social worker with Action Aid.

Makkobai's family had 10 members before they were relocated. Since then, she has lost six of them because of malnutrition and tuberculosis. Now, her 30-year-old son is also critically ill inflicted with tuberculosis. Her life is steeped in intense and relentless tragedy.

In 2004, the state government initiated the Deendayal Antyodaya Upchar Yojana, aimed at providing 220 million people with better health facilities. This scheme has the provision of free health services up to Rs 20,000 per annum for poor families. As Kumar puts it, “Makkobai's family is also poor and she should have a health card issued under the yojana, but she does not have one. These cards are generally distributed to people from well-to-do families, for vote-bank politics or to those with political connections. More than 42 people have died in the recent past due to malnutrition and tuberculosis in this village but nothing is being done.”

In August 2006, the Sahariyas of Amola village in Shivpuri district were displaced to make way for the Mandikheda Dam project. Displacement took place during the monsoons and the authorities gave the villagers plastic sheets for shelter. Barely two months after they were displaced, 11 people died due to malnutrition and other diseases. Most of the children here look severely malnourished. There are a handful of pucca houses. Once out of the forest, these alienated people just can't cope with the harsh realities of deprivation. They now have to depend on subsidised PDS rations, even while their purchasing power is so low that even this becomes impossible.

After displacement, a new panchayat was formed and new PDS cards were supposed to be distributed. The new secretary reportedly sold PDS cards meant for Sahariyas to members of other influential castes for Rs 200 and fudged names using a whitener. When the locals complained, he was imprisoned. The ones who were fortunate to possess a card complained that the wheat is of a poor quality and not fit for consumption. “The rice is red and tastes bitter. We have complained several times but no one pays any heed to our calls,” complains Raja Ram of Amola.

Even the much-publicised National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is a total failure; only dominant castes are benefiting. Ram Prakash Sharma of Ekta Parishad told Hardnews, “No work has been given to the tribals. Sometimes wages are so low that tribals do not want to go for work. After a day's hard work, they get Rs 25.”  Tribals complained that dominant castes with cards report for work everyday but just sit and smoke bidis, while the tribals slog for terribly low wages. “Only four people work and the wages are distributed among 10. Isn't that injustice? But who cares about us,” rues Datadin, a tribal from Shoepur. 

There is severe drought in the Shoepur and Shivpuri districts, forcing people to migrate to other places, especially Gwalior, in search of employment. Most of these tribals work in stone quarries near Gwalior. In recent times, hundreds of labourers have died in the district due to respiratory problems, especially tuberculosis.

Sahariyas migrate every year during the harvesting season as wage labourers and get a small part of the produce and some money. Shrinking agricultural land and draught has left them without any labour and food. “They are in a dismal state as more farmers are using modern machines. Severe drought has devastated the region. A good crop is impossible. Sahariyas don't get work as agricultural labourers,” informs Matadin, a local shopkeeper at Karal village in Shoepur.

M Geeta, District Magistrate (DM), Mandsaur, who was earlier DM of Shivpuri, says, “Sahariyas have been displaced from almost all their forests and this has resulted in a total decline of their culture. The only memories of their culture is in the Sahariya Museum in Shoepur. Today, most of them are landless agricultural labourers or have migrated to other towns in search of jobs. If you look at their houses, you will see that most of them are without roofs and their children are hungry and dying.”

Forest officials have often been accused of human rights violations during the eviction of forest-dwelling communities: burning of crops, rape and forcible acquisition of agricultural implements. The forest department, under central government jurisdiction and governed by several Forest Acts, has been under scrutiny by advocacy groups for the past 20 years. Activists say that this department still behaves as if India is under British rule. Most of its functionaries, locals say, are utterly insensitive, high-handed, anti-people and often corrupt.

The tribals have been doing collective farming for centuries. They are not listed in the revenue records. This land and forests belonged to them. But on paper this land has been marked in the name of a non-tribal sarpanch or some other influential person. With rising demand for land, fake papers have been made in the name of landlords and other vested interest. Sahariyas do not figure in these 'official records'. 

The tribals have preserved and sustained the forests and local ecology for years. They never cut the forests for commercial purposes. “The Forest Department blames the tribals of cutting trees while truckloads of wood are ferried at night in the presence of forest officials. Several forest officials in Shivpuri own chainsaws with which they chop trees while blaming the tribals,” complains Sharma. Locals revealed to Hardnews that sarpanchs of villages ferry more than 20 truckloads of wood every year but no one talks about it.

Forest officials don't let tribals enter the forest and collect wood, fruits, herbs and tendu leaves. This has led to severe food crisis in the region. Sharma says, “If the supply of PDS wheat is stopped then you will soon hear of starvation deaths as tribals have no other source of food except forests. Only the forest can save them in a drought like this.” According to the recent report of the health department in Sheopur, more children have been found to be seriously malnourished as compared to last year, despite the state government's claim that its scheme has brought down malnutrition within the community. 

The plight of the Sahariyas seems to be getting worse with each passing day. After being evicted from their forests, they have now lost their identity and find it hard to come to terms with the outside world. “Our forefathers lived and worshipped the forests, we lived and worshipped the forests, but our children are being thrown out. Our survival depends on these forests and we have lived with these animals in the wild in harmony; we have protected them for centuries. I just don't understand how we have suddenly become enemies of the forests and the animals who live there. If this is what you call development then we don't want it. We would rather prefer to die,” says a tribal.