In 2007, 625.8 square kilometres of area inside the Tadoba reserve, in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district, was declared as a critical tiger habitat under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Following this, the forest department started relocating the tribal families residing there as they were not allowed to use forest land for their livelihood and graze cattle anymore. Rantalodi, a Madia Gond tribal village situated inside the picturesque Tadoba Andhari core zone, is one of the last six villages that remains to be relocated. Madia Gond is an indigenous endogamous tribal community, which has inhabited Tadoba reserve for many years.
The protected area, Tadoba Andhari sanctuary, where Rantalodi is situated, stretches over 9,458.3 square kilometers, and includes six national parks with tiger reserves, five conservation reserves, and 49 sanctuaries. The area is also known to have one of the largest habitats of tiger population in the country.
Jitendra Ramgaokar, the field director of the sanctuary, said that the forest department has been relocating people from the sanctuary since 2004. Though the critical tiger habitat was declared inside it in 2007, the negotiations between people and the forest department and initial relocation process were carried from 2004, in order to avoid human-animal conflict. In 2007, 140 families from Botezari village were relocated; followed by 200 families from the Ramdegi village in 2013; and 222 families from the Jamni village in March 2014.
Prakash Bawane is one among others who got relocated to Bhagwanpur from Botezari in 2007. He said, “Suddenly, the forest department appeared and told us, we need to leave back our village and everything we owned behind, our existence was declared illegal by the forest department, which was a very traumatising for us.”
Human-tiger conflict is common in Chandrapur district and lives are regularly lost. In 2022, six people were killed in human-animal conflicts between October 12 and 24 in Chandrapur district alone. One of the major reasons for rise in human-animal conflicts is the coal mines and power plants located close to the forest and natural corridors, where the animals travel to the adjoining forests, note experts.
The population of tigers and leopards has doubled in the last 10 years. According to the National Tiger Conservation reports, there were 49 tigers in the year 2012. However, by 2015, the number had increased to 88. According to the latest estimation in 2019, there were 119 adult tigers inside the Tadoba Andhari Reserve.
In 2017, the national forest policy mandated to maintain 33% of country’s geographical area under green cover. As a part of this Maharashtra government implemented a 50-crore plantation programme and they planted four crore saplings in July 2017. The tree planting in this region has created a spread of biodiversity, providing a new habitat for the animals to migrate. As a result, some of these animals have started to venture into villages such as Bhagwanpur, which lies on the borders of the forest areas. This has also increased the chances of human-tiger interactions. “We live in panic all the time,” said Shedmake, who lost his brother to a tiger attack a few years ago. Shedmake was relocated to Bhagwanpur from Botezari village.
Mukund Kulkarni, a researcher and a social worker, said he began visiting these villages in Chandrapur in 1997 and noticed that they were living in a precarious situation. The only source of employment were activities such as collecting forest goods for their livelihood, which were considered illegal by the forest department.
Co-existing with tigers
Moharali is a bordering village of the Tadoba reserve. According to the forest department, it is one of the model villages that sets an example of co-existence between the tigers and village people. The forest department has trained the locals and also created job opportunities around the sanctuary and national park. The residents, including some members of the tribe, are trained as wildlife rangers, guides, and guards. Much of the local economy is dependent upon tourism and most families in the area have someone working for the tourism sector in restaurants, running homestays or owning boutique shops.
This, according to Ramgaokar, has reduced people’s dependency on the forest. “As the wildlife here became a part of their livelihood, people were more aware of their responsibility to protect it, said Ramgaokar. “We trained them to become self-sufficient with tourism activities.”
Fate of Bhagwanpur
The village of Bhagwanpur, located 40 km from Chandrapur along the reserve’s eastern border, has houses, all with similar architecture. However, some of the houses have fallen into disrepair with collapsed roofs, rotten rafters, and cracks on the walls and floors. Many of these Bhagwanpur homes belong to people who have been relocated from Botezari, the first village to be relocated.
Bhagwanpur is a land of 1,100 acres carved out of forestland and was once used as grazing land for people who lived in neighboring villages. The people who relocated to Bhagwanpur said that there was conflict between these villagers and newly relocated tribes over sharing forest resources.
Bhagwanpur lacks basic facilities, and there is no proper public transportation to reach the village. It has limited educational opportunities with only a school up to Class 4. Higher education requires students to travel six kilometres to the school in Chiroli village. The village hospital operates only once a week with a medical officer from an outside town.
Gayabai Yeame was relocated to the village, and just after a year, her house broke down. She has now managed to build a temporary shelter.
Unemployment is another major strain for the villagers since Bhagwanpur is situated far from town. Finding a job is not easy, and most villagers have discontinued their education after Class 4, due to lack of a higher secondary school.
Akash drives a safari jeep at the wildlife sanctuary. He was one of the three villagers to get a job from the forest department in 2020. The forest department had promised jobs to those relocated, he said, but only three people of the village managed to get a job from the forest department. The jeep he drives belongs to a businessman from Mul, a town near Chandrapur. From his income, 50% goes to the owner and 50% to the state government. Akash is paid a salary of $91, which is insufficient for his family to get by even through half a month.
Moreover, Kulkarni points out that the land allocated to the Madia Gond tribes in Bhagwanpur, where they were relocated, is infertile and lacks water facilities. As a result, many of them were forced to become migratory labourers to other states with very little wage.
The last village
Rucha Ghate, a researcher and a social worker who worked with these communities and present at the time of relocations wrote in one of her research papers, “The colonial rule strategy of Divide and Rule was used in this village relocation project.” Officials exploited the social dynamics of the village, and only the headman and his friends were rewarded with lands and they had convinced them to move first, while the rest of the villagers were not informed at earliest, she said. The project authority promised transparency but did not follow through, and even the office of the principal chief conservator of forest-wildlife was not informed about the distribution of houses, she added.
The last village, Rantalodi, has now agreed to relocate after facilities were cut off.
Pragathi Jhumanake, a resident of Rantalodi, said, “Our neighboring villagers who have been relocated to Bhagvanpur are suffering with inadequate resettlement facilities.
A report by the Rights and Resources Initiative says that 50 trillion rupees are needed to resettle forest dwellers in India, while only 28.4 billion rupees are needed for community-led conservation. Community-led conservation is seen as the best solution for conservation and preventing global biodiversity collapse.
Santosh Thipe, a senior range forest officer, said it is important to come up with ideas for community conservation in order to save both the forest and the dwellers. “We came up with an idea to dig a deep hole and place a diagonally cut old syntax tank in it,” he added. “Then we made sure to fill in water all summer because of which the tigers did not venture into villages in search of water.”
Talking about the government neglecting indigenous knowledge during the relocation process, Kulkarni said that when the relocated people suggested building an irrigation lake on the upper side for better irrigation, the contractor chose a lower and more convenient location, ignoring the suggestion.
He also added that the villagers did not want 1,40,000 trees to be cut, in order to construct Bhagwanpur. They requested that only the residential and farm areas be cleared, not all of the forest. However, their suggestions were once again ignored.
Kulkarni suggested that when relocating indigenous communities, the government should create an appropriate environment for them to adjust to their new surroundings.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.