WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Providing tigers an inviolate space would remain an unfulfilled dream unless villagers get a fair deal 
Akash Bisht Ranthambhore

Meandering through the heart of Sawai Man Singh Sanctuary in Rajasthan, a single-lane pucca road offers a panoramic view of agricultural fields in bright hues of yellow and green. On the left, the picturesque Aravalli ranges run parallel to the road, while on the right, mustard flowers and wheat saplings dance in symphony with the breeze, in a surreal farewell to the harsh winters. Farmers, shepherds and rustic women complement the surroundings with their traditional multicoloured attire and headgear. The sight is reminiscent of the Incredible India postcards on display at various tourist hangouts in Ranthambhore. 

Several hutments and pucca houses form clusters of villages scattered all across the landscape. Hajjam Kheri is a roadside village that houses 227 families. At one of the hutments, Ghanshyam Meena wears a worried look. Taking a long puff from his bidi, he reveals, "The forest department says the area falls under the Critical Tiger Habitat (CTH) and the government would give us Rs 10 lakh if we agree to move. But we don't want to leave our land for such a paltry sum." The entire region is witnessing flared emotions and rumour-mongers are having a field day.  

Hajjam Kheri is one of the 24 villages that the Rajasthan government intends to resettle in the first phase after the area was notified as CTH in 2007. Ranthambhore National Park, Kailadevi Sanctuary, Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary and Sawai Madhopur Sanctuary are part of the CTH that requires an inviolate space for tigers. The 2007 notification was a legal action to declare the four areas as a 'core' zone, following which, as per the National Tiger Conservation Project, the state government would have to ensure that there is no human habitation in the entire zone.

Ghanshyam says that people are willing to move out of the forest, but the compensation amount is too little and the relocation policy flawed. Soon many others join in to vent their dissatisfaction with the compensation package. At present, the government offers a compensation of Rs 10 lakh for every adult male. The forest department can choose to offer either the entire sum to displaced villagers, or 30 per cent of it, retaining the rest to spend on rehabilitation. 

"The second option is not being considered by the forest department as people are usually unhappy with the quality of land and other facilities available at relocation sites. The situation is similar to that of a boy who keeps rejecting potential brides for various reasons. Therefore, we decided to go for the first option," says Dinesh Gupta, Relocation Ranger, Ranthambhore National Park. 

According to Gupta, the main conflict is with large landowners who feel cheated as their land could fetch them much more than the compensation amount. "Villagers with small holdings or no land readily agree to move, but the reluctant ones are those with large holdings. In fact, there have been cases of poor villagers who have got more than Rs 1 crore as compensation because of their large families, making the landed gentry envious. In this caste-dominated landscape, their pride too has taken a hit," he says. 
"A cobbler who had no land, and whose house was built under the Indira Awas Yojana, managed to take crores, but I am being offered only Rs 30 lakh for my 25 bighas, house, well and trees. This is unfair," says Asharam Sharma of Hindwar, another village slated for relocation, where a large number of houses have already been dismantled. 

The forest department claims that 70 per cent of the families in Hindwar have opted to move out. Villagers narrate how those who had allowed their houses to be dismantled have started coming back. They have even harvested the crop on their lands. "Villagers who took compensation bought new Hero Honda bikes, splurged on whiskey, and exhausted their money. Now they are back and living in their dismantled houses, so the relocation claims of the forest department are baseless," Sharma says.  

There is a palpable rage brewing within the landed farmers. "The government can spend crores on a sports meet, ministers can siphon off crores and get away, millions are stashed away in foreign bank accounts, multinationals are provided land at subsidised rates. Why are the only the poor being targeted? This democracy is worse than the British Raj as at least the foreign rulers didn't make tall claims. The government can go ahead and shoot us all, like the British did in Jallianwala Bagh, but we will not move from our lands," says one of them. 

Ram Phul of Mordungri asks why adult females were not being offered compensation: "The government keeps pontificating that boys and girls should be treated equally, so why does it treat them unequally in the matter of compensation?" SP Yadav, DIG, National Tiger Conservation Authority, however, says this practice is in accordance with the National Rehabilitation Policy, which requires only boys above the age of 18 to be offered compensation.

Villagers rued that they had been brought from other places to be settled here, but are now being asked once again to leave. For instance, Ghanshyam's family was relocated to Hajjam Kheri in 1956 and they got the statutory papers in 1990. 
"We are tired of relocating. The forest officers have no idea of what it takes to relocate from one place to another. We built these houses with our own hands, dug wells, planted trees. We want tigers and other animals to live, but what about us? We will leave, but give us some hope for survival," says Ram.   

Villagers here fondly remember the successful relocation policy adopted in 1975-76 by the then field director, Fateh Singh Rathore. In 1973, when Ranthambhore was brought under the ambit of Project Tiger, 13 villages had been identified for relocation from the core area. "It was an ideal relocation package and many readily agreed because Fateh Singh understood the problems of villagers and their love for the land they tilled," explains Ram. In 1975-76, 200 families from 12 villages were relocated to Kailashpuri and Golpura, leaving only one 
village, Padada, which was relocated in 2004-05.  

"From 1976 to 2002, all efforts to relocate Padada failed miserably. It was only in 2004-05 that we were able to break ice with the villagers and convinced 88 families out of 111 to shift. The rest still remain in the forest," says Dinesh Gupta. Almost everyone in authority admits that it would be hard to convince these landed farmers to relocate. 

"It's a fact that these farmers are emotionally attached to their ancestral lands. Relocation is a slow process and needs continuous dialogue to convince them that they have no future in these jungles and their lives would change for the better if they move out," says Deputy Conservator of Forest RP Gupta, who is also Deputy Field Director, Project Tiger, Ranthambhore.

Relocation of settlements from core or critical tiger habitats  has to be voluntary and hence the forest department has allowed those reluctant to leave to remain in the forests, but without the indispensable support of those villagers who have chosen to move out. "A village needs cobblers, labourers etc, and if they all leave, even the rest would have to follow suit, if not today then later," says Dinesh Gupta. 

The forest department is not worried about the return of villagers to their old villages even after accepting compensation, because once the entire village accepts compensation, no one would be able to raise any infrastructure or build roads etc, and lack of basic amenities would ultimately force everyone to move out. 

Dharmendra Khandal, a field biologist with Tiger Watch, has been working in the villages near Ranthambhore for nearly a decade now, and is credited with being involved in nabbing some dreaded poachers. He feels the villagers have become greedy over the years and, therefore, find fault even with a good compensation package. The requirement that relocation has to be voluntary, he thinks, has added to the tiger's woes. "Tigers need inviolate space, free of any human intervention, and so the villagers need to move out," he says. 

Khandal believes the entire relocation policy is flawed and the forest department should have handled it better. "Why is Hindwar, one of the largest villages in the area, being relocated first? They should have first relocated the small villages in close proximity to Ranthambhore. I believe they only wanted to please their bosses with the sheer number of relocated families. The large landowners will not budge from the forest, so how are they going to remove these villages?" he asks.                
Gupta feels the policy of offering Rs 10 lakh to every adult male has boomeranged, and so he intends now to follow a model wherein the total compensation for the village would be used as a common pool. The rights of each family would be based upon the actual value of their assets, including wells and trees. "Landless individuals will be given the basic minimum compensation, and if there is any money left, we would distribute it equally," he says. 

Although it might be too late for the forest department to implement this plan in some villages, it can certainly do so in others for better results.

The village relocation programme in Ranthambhore is in dire straits as it is in other parts of the country. The task at hand is huge and involves the relocation of more than 3,50,000 persons or 65,000 families in more than 1,500 villages across the country. "As long as there are villages inside the forests, tigers would remain confined in small habitats where they face the danger of death due to territorial fights, or they will become victims of irate villagers as is happening in Ranthambhore. The future of tiger conservation doesn't seem bright," says Khandal.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2011