Learning from Ranthambore

With the interests of so many species in mind, authorities remain hopeful about relocation

Dharmendra Khandal Sawai Madhopur 

The critical tiger habitat of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve (RTR) is split in two equal-sized divisions. One part is the Ranthambore division, where at present the tiger population is booming, while the other is the Kailadevi division, which currently has no resident tigers. The reason for Kailadevi being barren of tigers is biotic pressure on the habitat caused by the high density of human population — there are 44 villages in this part of the tiger reserve. In an attempt to create space for the tigers, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) plans to relocate 65,000 families from all of India’s 42 tiger reserves in the near future.

It is always a big challenge for the authorities to convince the villagers to relocate. Sometimes, villagers feel that the relocation package given by the authorities is not sufficient, or sometimes they feel that the benefits of staying in the jungle are more suitable for their lifestyle. The NTCA gives two proposals to villagers: Rs. 10 lakh or some land and some money that together will equal Rs10 lakh. Some villagers are choosing cash, but many land-holders are trying to get land in return. There are many, however, who find themselves confused and without the courage to make such decisions. Counselling and motivation are needed in these cases to encourage them in decision-making.

Coming back to Ranthambore, the question stands: Can the Kailadevi division be converted into a tiger habitat in present times? Recent experience shows that village relocation is possible. To carry out the move benefits the wildlife and community both, but if not done with the right approach, it could put an entire community in trouble with no gain for wildlife, compounded by futile spending of government funds. Ranthambore’s recent village relocation yields an ambivalent sum. This sum product guides our present actions and provides important lessons necessary to the planning and strategizing of subsequent relocations.

The Ranthambore division was fortunate, as many villages were relocated in a timely manner by a legendary forest official, the late Fateh Singh Rathore. Wildlife has embraced this landscape as its home. Although the concept of village relocation for wildlife was new then, in the 1970s, it was easy to arrange the shift. Fateh relocated only 200 families from 11 villages, but procured an almost 300 sq km area for wildlife. The key was that he identified communities in ecologically significant spots and shifted them.

Since 2008, the Ranthambore forest department has once more begun relocating villages — eight villages have been selected and 875 families have been moved from them. Ranthambore forest officials had initially selected the large and less ecologically significant village of Hindwad for transfer. They transposed 375 landless or small land-holding families and got hardly 3 sq km of patchy habitat for tigers, while around 200 medium and big land-holder families still remained in the village. To control and protect these empty patches is a big challenge for the forest department. This was an unwise beginning.

Three villages — Padra, Indala and Mordungari — are completely relocated, while two villages — Bhid and Kalibhat — are about to move. The transfers of Hindwad and Mundraheri have been a challenge for the department.

Mordungari village sat near a dam, with good fertile soil and ample water for the farmers, and enough grazing space for their livestock, yet the villagers moved. The complete relocation of Mordungari is an ideal example for others to take. The forest department is still looking after the community relocated from Mordungari. The previous district collector, Giriraj Singh Kushwaha, who was spearheading the relocation, says that the Mordungari shift was possible because of the proper relocation of Padra. A community shift is entirely voluntary, but most of the time people decide after hearing the experiences of people who have already been relocated. Padra was shifted a few months ago, and Mordungari villagers visited them and found them happy. Positive feedback from residents of Padra is the only reason Mordungari residents decided to move. Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) RangalalChaudhary says that they involved other government departments such as electricity, water, public works and village development schemes as well as NGOs, business houses and private individuals, to support the villagers of Padra.

Assistant Conservator of Forests (ACF) Dinesh Gupta says if the prosperous village of Mordungari can be shifted, relocation from Kailadevi is not impossible; many areas of Kailadevi are in sad condition and people are open to moving. The Kailadevi division now hosts 44 villages and over 12,000 families. At first, the department was haphazardly selecting any family from any of the 44 villages who were ready to leave the area. However, after the bad experience of the Hindwad relocation, the department drafted a priority list of villages to be relocated. The present Forest Minister BinaKak, visited the area and drew up this plan with the help of top forest officials. The state has now posted exclusive relocation DFOs for both the divisions.

This priority list of relocation is based on ecological significance and areas with comparatively small human populations. Village selection is well-planned in Kailadevi, but little has so far been achieved on the ground. The challenge is to instil faith in the community — faith about the authority and confidence in the relocation plan. Only a streamlined government approach can achieve this, with all agencies working in tandem.

Settlements are offered the same packages, and, ironically, some prosperous villages have shifted while some really deprived villages are still not ready to move. What is the missing link? Does the approach need to be corrected? Kushwaha emphasizes that if the village relocation in Kailadevi is pursued properly, it ought to be much easier than Ranthambore. Kushwaha says Kailadevi’s rocky land is less fertile than Ranthambore’s plains. Also, the villages are more remotely located, farther from road and rail connections. These aspects also affect residents’ economic standing, since, for instance, they must sell milk at the market for less because of transportation time, and must pay more for transportation itself. When authorities visited Bheempura village in Kailadevi, some families were convinced after just one short meeting.

Relocation is not a devil’s plan against villagers, but a ray of hope for impoverished communities.  It is possible that aged people don’t want to risk going to a new place and don’t want to change their traditional livelihoods and lifestyles, but the youth is ready to embrace a new lifestyle and explore new horizons. Kailadevi is the only hope for  the tigers of Ranthambore: it can connect them to the forest of Madhya Pradesh.

In India, 1.5 per cent of the total geographical area houses tiger reserves — which is a very small space — yet these areas are also inhabited by people. It is possible for the wildlife and humans both to benefit if humans move to other protected areas: villagers would receive greater infrastructure and be connected to mainstream society, giving their children a better future, while wildlife would benefit from a small, inviolable space to survive in. Of course, it is a community’s decision, based on their priorities and beliefs, whether or not to shift. Wildlife is but a silent participant. Nevertheless, Ranthambore’s present relocation work is a success story. Hopefully, other tiger reserves will also be valuable locales of preservation.  

The writer works with Tiger Watch, an NGO.

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2013