Sunil Kushwaha was multitasking. First, as a part-time driver, he picked me up from the Gwalior railway station early on the morning of September 4. Then, as we covered the 140 km to Sheopur district’s Agara village, which hugs Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park, he made several short stops to attend to urgent phone calls from his superiors at one of the range offices near the park, where he was engaged as a contract worker.

The seniors were calling about the final list of “cheetah mitra”, or “friends of cheetahs”, that had to be sent to them. “The mitras are volunteers in villages around the Kuno park that will be trained by the forest department about the need to protect cheetahs, the animal’s behaviour and prey, and the fact that it is not dangerous to humans,” Khushwaha told me.

He added, laughing, Had the cheetah not been coming, I would not have had to work on a Sunday.” (Khushwaha’s name has been changed for this story to protect his identity, since he was not authorised to speak to the media.)

A little less than a fortnight later, on September 17, Prime Minister Narendra Modi rotated a lever that slid open the doors of the cages of eight African Cheetahs that had landed earlier that day in Gwalior after a ten-hour flight from Namibia. This was the world’s first inter-continental relocation of a large wild carnivore. The animals stepped out warily from their cages, looking about and taking in the new scents around them, as Modi clicked pictures from a raised platform.

One of the eight African Cheetahs transported from Namibia to India, soon after its release in Kuno National Park, in Madhya Pradesh. Photo: Prasar Bharti News Services/Twitter screengrab

“When the cheetahs will run in Kuno, its grassland ecosystems will be restored once more, biodiversity will increase,” the prime minister said in a public address soon after. Ecotourism would also be boosted, he said, as would opportunities for employment.

The reintroduction project has been much debated among conservationists, many of whom have warned that the new habitat is unsuitable for the animal, and that the move will likely lead to conflict between humans and wildlife.

Even those who are optimistic about the project have some misgivings – Devavrat Pawar, a doctoral student and conservation biologist who has worked in Kuno National Park, warned that the protection Kuno has received might make it attractive to other big cats, who would then be in competition with the cheetahs.

“In 2010, a male tiger did come to Kuno from Ranthambore and stayed in Kuno till 2020,” said Pawar. “To have tigers, leopards, and cheetahs in the same landscape might be a challenging issue.”

Meanwhile, less has been said about the human cost of the relocation. In order to settle the cheetahs, the village of Bagcha, located in the plateaued forests of Kuno National Park, and where about 250 families live, is being relocated to create a larger inviolate area for the cheetah.

The relocation plan is massively delayed. The 2011 version of the Cheetah Action Plan, the government’s first official roadmap for the project, stated that Bagcha, along with two more villages, Jangarh and Maratha, would be shifted by 2013. “So far, we have not been given the facilities to live in the relocated land,” Sita Ram, a resident of Bagcha, said. “We will also have to make our new homes upon relocation, but we don’t know how to prepare for it, since all the information has not been given to us so far.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking photographs of the cheetahs released in Kuno Nationa Park. Later, Modi stated that the introduction of cheetahs would boost ecotourism in the region. Photo: PIB/AFP

Fears of poorly planned and executed relocations are not unfounded. Nearly 25 years ago, 24 villages inside Kuno, where over 1,500 families lived, were displaced to make way for another big cat: Asiatic lions from Gir, in Gujarat. The project had aimed to establish a second independent population of the lion, outside Gir, to reduce chances of the animal’s extinction.

But in 2004, the state of Gujarat declined to part with the lions, and instead proposed that it would relocate them within the state itself. More than 20 years later, the park has no Gir lions.

But the forest dwellers were displaced, and now live uncertain, precarious lives, cut off from fertile lands they once cultivated, and the forest produce that assured them an additional income. Many now struggle to cultivate rocky farmlands, and depend heavily on income received from family members who migrate away for work. Hundreds of families are yet to receive pattas, or land titles, for the land to which they were relocated.

Na hi dharti apni hai, na jungle” – neither the land is ours, nor the forest, said 40-year-old Anega Adivasi, a resident of Pipalbavdi, one of the 24 displaced villages.

As Khushwaha drove away from the double-laned highways to narrower roads, with denser forests replacing the flatter shrubby vegetation, I remarked at how green the forests had now begun to look. He laughed. “Arre, this is just level zero,” he said. “Wait till you see Kuno forests!”

He went on to describe the forest in vivid detail: the various gum trees found inside, leopards, with their fixed resting spots, the gentle flow of the Kuno river, which divides the national park into two almost equal halves.

At first, I assumed this deep familiarity owed to his work with the forest department. Then, I learnt that these were personal memories, from his childhood – his family lived inside the sanctuary until 1998. “I was about ten years old then,” he said. “And I clearly remember the day we packed all our belongings, loaded them on a trailer, and arrived outside the forest.”

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The last confirmed sightings of cheetahs in India occurred in 1947. As the book The End of a Trail: the Cheetah in India recounts, that year, Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Madhya Pradesh’s erstwhile state of Koriya, was out on a hunt and came across three male cheetahs – he shot them all dead. A report of the hunt was later published in the journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, in which the editors added biting remarks – they described the cheetah as a “rare and harmless animal” and noted that the hunted ones were “probably the very last remnants of a dying race”.

After this, reports continued to emerge of cheetahs exchanged as gifts between Indian royals, while some sightings were also recorded in personal diaries and reports up to the 1960s. But these incidents remained unverified.

The plight of cheetahs was discussed in meetings within the government and among conservation organisations for several decades. But it was only in 2009 that the issue gained momentum, in a consultative meeting organised by Wildlife Trust of India.

Here, national and international conservationists, and state and central officials, discussed the possibility of reintroducing the animal into the country, with the then Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, providing a much needed final push from within the government. Ramesh directed the Wildlife Trust of India and the Wildlife Institute of India to prepare a detailed road map for the reintroduction of the cheetah, and identify potential sites for it. The document, which was published in 2010, rated Kuno as the best option.

The plan to relocate cheetahs gained momentum in 2009, in a meeting organised by the Wildlife Trust of India. It received support from then environment minister Jairam Ramesh. Photo: Anindita Mukherjee/Reuters

There project encountered a setback in 2012. The plan for cheetahs was mentioned during a hearing in the Supreme Court in which the Gujarat government argued against relocating the Gir lions. In the course of hearing this matter, the court stayed the cheetah relocation plan, stating that there was no evidence to show that lions and cheetahs could co-exist.

The court lifted the stay in 2020, in response to an application filed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority – one of the three bodies overseeing the cheetah project – that sought permission for the reintroduction. This was quickly followed by the publication of a revised Cheetah Reintroduction Action Plan in January 2022.

When I visited Kuno in the first week of September 2022, preparations were in full swing. Officials from the forest department told me that bureaucrats, and Indian and Namibian wildlife scientists were holding meetings to finalise plans. Bulldozers were smoothening out the main approach road to the national park, which had been damaged by the monsoon. Locals and officials also told me that three helipads were under construction within the forest, and that final checks were being made to the wired fence enclosing the five-square-km area that would serve as the first home for the cheetahs.

In 2010, Kuno National Park was identified as the best site for the relocation of cheetahs. According to local officials and news reports, three helipads were constructed in the forest for the inaugural event. Photo: PTI

Podai Ram, a resident of Khalai, a village displaced for the lions that never came, sounded a warning to the residents of Bagcha, who were to be displaced for the cheetahs. “We are still suffering,” he said. “What will the residents of Bagcha get from moving out of the forest?”

The story of the displacement of Kuno’s villages began in the mid-1990s, when the park was chosen as the possible site for the relocation for lions.

After three years of preparatory activities, in 1998, the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department moved the first two villages out of the park. The department relocated the villages in different areas, most within 10 km of Kuno. Every displaced family was offered a compensation of Rs 36,000 and 2 hectares of land for each family member above the age of 18. This was a part of a Rs 1 lakh package for each family, which included expenditure by the forest department under heads such as “pasture development” and “community facilities”.

By 2003, all 24 villages had been moved out. Nearly 90% of the residents of these villages were Sahariyas, classified as a Scheduled Tribe and a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group in the state, while the rest included other Scheduled Caste groups, some Other Backward Castes, like Khushwahas, and a handful of upper caste families, like Brahmins and Thakurs.

The process was far from straightforward; some families who were dissatisfied with the sites to which they were relocated chose to return to the forest.

Such was the case in Nayagaon. Some of Nayagaon’s residents accepted the new site, about 7 km away from the park, which, like all the relocated villages, took the name of the original village. But some, like 55-year-old Beerva Adivasi, went back in 2005.

“Initially, the land they showed us in lieu of the lands we were losing inside the park was acceptable to us, as it was close to a forest,” Beerva said. “But ultimately what they gave us was completely different.”

Those who returned put up their homes again, with brick walls and thatched roofs covered with tarpaulin. They began ploughing the same fields that earlier generations had ploughed, though their neighbouring villages were by now deserted.

These attempts to return were not free of conflict. The first major such instance occurred in 2012, as members of about a hundred families of Nayagaon living inside Kuno were busy with their morning tasks. Some had gone into the forest to collect gum from salai trees and medicinal plants, while others were working on their fields. Suddenly, information spread about several officials arriving with large vehicles – people rushed from the depths of the forest to their settlements. “We were scared and worried,” said Beerva Adivasi. “They were taking away our ploughs, grains, and vegetables that we had stored.”

The residents confronted the officials, leading to clashes between the two, and injuries to both sides.

In the longer term, power was naturally skewed towards the officials. Beerva recounted that the government later filed cases against some Adivasis of Nayagaon, and that officials continued to try and block locals’ access to the forest. “If we stepped out of the forest to go to the market areas to sell our produce, the officials of the forest department would not let us go back in,” Beerva said. “To avoid such cases, we would go in large groups.”

It was a difficult existence. “But, even that life of struggle was better than what we have now,” he said.

Today, Beerva and the others who had decided to return to the forest live in Tinapura, a village 12 km outside the park, and around 20 km from their homes inside Kuno. They moved here in 2017, when they saw many families had slowly started to leave the forest again, owing to pressure from the forest officials.

While I visited Tinapura, utensils to store water had piled up next to a borewell, where women were waiting for the electricity to return so that the motor could be switched on. In the two hours that I was there, the electricity did not return.

“When we were shown this land by officials, we were also promised irrigation facilities, and improvement in our land quality, tube wells for drinking water,” said Sua Patel, Beerva’s neighbour. “All lies.”

Sua Patel, a resident of Tinapura, said that the government had promised resettled families irrigation facilites, tubewells and other assistance, but had not delivered on these assurances. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Those who have been displaced speak longingly of the lives and lands they left behind. “We were on the banks of Kuno, and irrigation was never a problem,” said Sua Patel. “But here, most of our irrigation is rain-fed, and the land is full of stones that we have still not been able to make fully cultivable in the last five years”.

Because farming here is far more difficult, many enter into arrangements of bataai – a kind of sharecropping system, where Adivasis work on their own land, while families higher on the socioeconomic ladder bear part of the cost of the agricultural inputs like fertilisers and tractors. Those families then take a share of the produce from the Adivasi cultivators.

The displacement has also meant a drastic loss of income from minor forest produce: according to the residents, the extraction and sale of gum from Kuno’s salai trees would bring in an average of Rs 55,000 per household per year. They also harvested a bounty of seasonal vegetables from the forests, which were typically used for the families’ own consumption.

In contrast, the forest near Tinapura which is about five kilometres away, largely comprises thorny bushes, and is used just for grazing the residents’ goats and few cows. Three of the other displaced villages I visited also had forests at similar distances, which were of similar scrubby nature, and don’t fall under any major forested region.

Residents also struggle for an important everyday resource – firewood. In most villages, only a handful of families used LPG cylinders – firewood-run chulhas, thus, remain crucial. “It’s too expensive for us to refill the cylinders,” 45-year-old Munni Adivasi said, echoing a sentiment that many other women expressed. So, instead, Munni and a group of other women rise early every other morning, pack some food for the afternoon, and walk the five-kilometre distance to collect firewood, returning only in the evening.

But even using these scrubby forested areas has been fraught.

“We always go in a group because officials from the range office have been stopping us from entering the forest,” Munni said. “Once, they even seized my axe. But as a group, we were able to assert ourselves and bring it back.” She added, “Every time they stop us, we simply ask them – ‘Toh khayenge kya?’” then, what will we eat?

In response to these problems, youth in Tinapura, as well as all the other villages I visited, have been migrating to different cities to work, going as far as Ahmedabad, Chennai, and Bengaluru. In Khalai, another relocated village, I met 21-year-old Ranbir, who worked in Gujarat and Rajasthan with the Oil and Natural Gas Commission to lay pipelines. “It’s better to work outside of the village,” he said, briefly pausing the music playing through his Bluetooth earphones. “Here in the village, we just sit idle.”

Some families who currently reside in Tinapura earlier lived in Nayagaon, within Kuno National Park. They sought to return to their homes after being resettled, but later moved to Tinapura. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Tinapur’s residents were not the only ones who sought to reject the sites that had been allotted to them. Some Adivasis of Pipalbavdi – named after a peepal tree and a bawdi, or well, in their village inside the forest – also rejected the land offered to them during the relocation in the late 1990s, which was about 6 km from the Kuno forest. “We first attempted to live there for a year,” said 50-year-old Ram Lal Adivasi. “But when we saw that the land was full of stones, and that none of the promises of constructing wells or providing electricity in the relocated lands were fulfilled, we rushed out of the place.”

They then took the initiative to find their current place of residence, a site less than a kilometre from the buffer zone of Kuno forest, which refers to demarcated areas around protected areas such as national parks that local residents are permitted by law to use. The residents of Pipalbavdi began using the forest for grazing, wood collection and collection of forest produce, as well as some informal cultivation.

But since last year, they have been struggling to access the forest: the forest department has erected a stone boundary wall to differentiate the core areas of the forest from its buffer zones. Since the demarcations were not clear earlier, residents sometimes collected produce from the former. Now, some produce, like the medicinal plant chitawar, and tendu “are found beyond the wall, which the forest ranger or guard stops us from entering,” lamented the Pipalbavdi resident Anega Adivasi.

The inhabitants of Pipalbavdi have been struggling to access the forest after the forest department erected a wall to differentiate the core areas of the forest from its buffer zones. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

For some villages, displacement has not ended with their relocation for lions. Thirteen years after being moved from Kuno to its current location, residents of Khalai are coming to terms with a new displacement that awaits them: the village is one of 12 that are soon to be submerged for the Chentikheda Medium Irrigation Project, on the river Kuari. Seven of these villages had been relocated earlier for the Gir lions.

“To be relocated again, and to be born again, is the same thing,” said Podai Ram Adivasi, a resident of Khalai.

He noted that over the years, “we made this unproductive land slightly productive with each other’s help, we built our houses. Maybe we’ll spend our entire lives just relocating.”

Many of those who are to be displaced for the irrigation project just want to be assured that their livelihoods will not be threatened. “If relocating a few of us is going to benefit thousands of others, then it is okay,” said Puran Singh Khushwa, a resident of Chentikheda. “But all that we are demanding is that we are given productive land as compensation, and not money.”

Of 12 villages that will be relocated for the Chentikheda Medium Irrigation Project, on the river Kuari, seven had been relocated earlier for the relocation of Gir lions, which never arrived. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

The decision of some of Pipalbavdi’s residents to move away from the land they were allotted likely negated any chance they had of securing a crucial benefit: land titles. A land title, or patta, is a legal document issued by the government that serves as proof of ownership of land.

Pipalbavdi is not alone in this. “There are 440 families in six relocated villages who have not yet received their pattas after relocation,” said an official from a forest range office who requested anonymity.

The reason for this, the official added, is that the resettlement sites for those displaced from Kuno were on forest land, “which had to be converted to revenue land” before titles could be issued to residents.

A land title issued to a family in Nayagaon that was relocated for the Gir lions. Many families are yet to receive pattas because the land they are resettled on needs to be converted from forest land to revenue land. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

In total, the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department resettled families from Kuno on over 3,700 hectares of land in four tracts that fell on the north-eastern periphery of the Kuno sanctuary, and that were classified as Protected Forest – a category of forest in which some human activities are permitted.

To allow forest land to be used for activities that would permanently alter their nature, such as farming and the construction of homes, the Central environment ministry has to “de-reserve” it – that is, convert it into revenue land, under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. The ministry does this after the state in question places a proposal before it.

In the case of these six villages, the official said, the Madhya Pradesh government “has finished the procedure, and is now waiting for the Centre to act on it”.

Tushar Dash, an Odisha-based forest-rights researcher, noted that delays in such situations were not uncommon. “Such diversion of forest land comes in lower priority in comparison to larger developmental mega projects for which diversions are expedited,” he said.

Not having land titles disadvantages relocated people in several ways. For instance, it denies families the ability to take loans from banks or register under the PM-KISAN scheme, which provides an income support of Rs 6,000 per year for each landowning family.

They also cannot avail of compensation during natural calamities. Last year, Anega and Ram Lal, along with some other residents of Pipalbavdi, had to move to the hills of Kuno’s buffer forest, owing to heavier rains than they had ever seen in the village, which left it under knee-deep water. They lived in the buffer zone for two months, “but the forest ranger constantly told us to vacate the forest as soon as possible,” Ram Lal said.

When they returned, their crops of sesame and bajra had been destroyed by the rain. “Without the proof that the land was ours, we couldn’t get any monetary compensation,” Ram Lal added.

Last year Ram Lal Adivasi (in maroon) and other Pipalbavdi residents moved to the buffer zones of the forest to escape floods in their village. But forest rangers repeatedly told them to leave. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Even some villages that accepted the government’s resettlement sites are yet to receive pattas. Among them is Ladar, whose residents face similar problems as those of Pipalvadi.

Three years after being relocated in 1999, the village faced a drought, leading to a widespread failure of crops. It was the first time they had faced a drought – living next to Kuno river inside the forest had assured them a perennial source of irrigation, even if their wells ran dry. When the drought hit, Ladar’s residents could not apply for compensation because they did not have pattas.

As with Pipalbavdi, the shift dramatically affected Ladar’s residents’ ability to keep cattle. “When we were inside the forest, apart from the 40 to 45 bighas that each one of us used to sow and earn from, most of us also reared 40 to 50 cows and buffaloes. Milk and ghee were never scarce,” said 47-year-old Ram Singh, a resident of Ladar.

The lands around the new village could not support these cattle, leaving residents to make a difficult choice when they shifted.

“When we were relocated, we left most of our cattle inside the forest,” Ram Singh said. “We rarely keep cattle here. Where do we take them to graze?”

Like Ram Singh, many other residents did the same. Unbeknownst to them, this proved to be a factor in Kuno’s favour years later as a site for cheetah relocation. The 2022 action plan notes that the park “has an approximate population of 500 feral cattle … left behind by people when they moved out. This population of feral animals’ forms part of the prey base for any large carnivore inside the park.”

Inhospitable land wasn’t the only problem that resettled villages faced. In many instances, they were shifted to sites near existing settlements, whose residents were far from welcoming.

The situation was particularly fraught in cases where oppressed groups encountered more powerful communities, such as Gujjars. Dr Asmita Kabra, a professor at the Ambedkar University Delhi’s School of Human Ecology, who has worked with the relocated villages since late 1990s, noted that in Ahirwani and Ladar, while the resettled families were largely Adivasi, the existing residents were largely Gujjars. Kabra explained that before the relocation, the Gujjars had been cultivating lands over which they had titles, as well as common lands, which were legally classified as protected forest land.

The government demarcated some of these common lands for resettlement. When the lands “were given to the relocated Sahariyas, the Gujjars refused to vacate it,” Kabra said. “In fact, in some villages where the relocated Adivasi residents got titles, they were not able to cultivate it because the Gujjars continued to use it.”

Accounts of resettled Adivasis that I heard on the ground confirmed these observations. In Ladar, Ram Singh told me that Gujjars had encroached upon common grazing lands of the village, leaving Adivasis with no place to graze their animals.

In Ahirwani, which neighbours Ladar, Kallu Adivasi recounted the day they moved to the site from inside the forest. “When we arrived, the Gujjars of the village lined up and demanded money from us to enter the village,” he said, puffing his beedi as we sat in a small daily needs shack operated by a relocated family. Today, the homes of Adivasis in Ahirwani are in a separate area from those of Gujjars, and the two communities do not invite each other for important family functions, like weddings.

Kallu Adivasi recounted that the day resettled families arrived in Ahirwani from within the forest, Gujjars of the village demanded money to allow them to enter. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Relocation also led to problems in villages where there was a less sharp community divide. In a 2014 paper, Kabra and Sonam Mahalwal documented the changes that occurred after resettlement, in the livelihoods of existing residents of the village of Agara, most of whom were Adivasis or belonged to Scheduled Castes.

As part of the resettlement process, large tracts of forest land and common grazing land were cleared. These included portions of land that the earlier inhabitants had been farming.

The consequences were dramatic. The average size of operational land holdings went down from between three and five acres, to between a third of acre and 1.5 acres . Meanwhile, the average distance that residents had to walk to collect timber from the forest went up from 5 km to 25 km. With the loss of grazing lands, these inhabitants also moved away from rearing livestock, as a result of which milk production plummeted from 150 kg per day per family to just 5 kg.

According to the Cheetah Reintroduction Action Plan, the relocation of Bagcha is underway.

Sita Ram, a resident of Bagcha, caught me up with the situation on the ground. “The forest department has shown us the alternate land for relocation,” he said. “While the land looks rocky, there is a stream running close to it, which can provide for irrigation. However, there is no forest nearby, and that is a vast difference from our lives right now.”

This could present a crucial problem. In Kuno, Bagcha’s households depend primarily on collecting gum and tendu leaves, with cultivation serving as a secondary livelihood. “We will have to leave all this,” Sita Ram said, referring to forest-based livelihoods. “After the relocation, our lives will be solely dependent on the land given to us.”

Residents are also grappling with lacunae in procedures. Initially, the forest department drew up a list of families for relocation, and shared it with the village – they found that there were only between 100 and 150 families on it, whereas, residents told me, around 250 families live in the village. “We went and met various district level officials to include all of us in the list, without which we do not want to move,” Sita Ram said. “But since the cheetahs’ date of arrival is coming closer, all the attention is currently on the facilities for them, and we are still unsure of when we will have to move.”

The official from the range office offered a possible explanation for the delay in relocating Bagcha, which echoed the flaws in the process of relocation of villages for lions. “Currently, for Bagcha’s relocation, 421 hectares of forest land have been demarcated,” he said. “Again, this has to be converted to revenue land, and the delay in carrying out the relocation can be attributed to that.”

An estimated Rs 65.58 crore has been budgeted for the first year of the relocation project.

Of this, the plan budgets Rs 50 lakh per year for five years for “support to local people (ecodevelopment)”, under which it lists activities such as dissemination of information and building of awareness about subjects such as challenges to conservation, and schemes of the forest departments. The list also includes activities such as the construction and repair of village roads, disbursal of financial aid for education, and construction of check dams, drinking water facilities and open irrigation wells.

No such work was visible during my visit to the five villages. While these were initially relocated for lions, the same villages are now among those involved in the cheetah relocation programme – the cheetah mitras, for instance, are being selected from them. Residents of these villages and forest department officials were not aware of any such work that had been executed in these or other villages.

When I inquired at the range office about projects to support local people, the responses leaned heavily towards the work of building awareness. “We have been doing a lot of efforts for the awareness of the project and the cheetah among the residents here,” said RP Raikwad, Forest Ranger at Agara Range Office. “We spread information through comics and our mascot called Chintu Cheetah, and through cheetah mitras.”

Two junior local government employees who escorted me through the buffers of Kuno joked about the expenditure on the project, saying that the department would now be inundated with Right To Information applications about the money spent. “How much money was spent on helipads, for example,” one of the employees said.

Making a game out of this, the other one chimed in, “How many people have been employed to take care of the cheetahs?”

The first one retorted quickly, “What was the cheetah fed for breakfast?” And the two roared with laughter.

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.