- About a decade ago, in Chhattisgarh, people from six villages were resettled from the area where the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve now lies. The people still reminisce about their lost home and the challenges they face in the new location where, not only their geography but also their social and economic situation, changed.
- Now, efforts are on to resettle people from 19 other villages in Achanakmar. Seeing the state of what happened with those who were displaced earlier, the current lot of villages is concerned about what is in store for them.
- Meanwhile, in the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, families from the Kanha Tiger Reserve also underwent resettlement at the same time as the people from Achanakmar, about a decade ago. However, their story is starkly different, presenting a successful model of resettlement.
Thirty-year-old Bhagbali has vivid childhood memories of life in his village Bokrakachhar, amidst the forests of Chhattisgarh. Reminiscing about the time before his family and many others were displaced from their village, he said, “We don’t get to eat even tendu (a fruit) here. Our village had several natural fruits and herbs such as char, chironji, harra, mahua, berangi, musli and mahul. We used to eat and sell these as well. Those were happy days.”
With a deep sense of sadness, Bhagbali added, “We would freely roam around the forest. Everything we owned got lost when we were displaced from our village.”
Bhagbali’s family is one of the many from the Saunta tribe, that were displaced from their homes in the forests – their former home base is now a protected area, the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve. In February 2009, the government announced that Achanakmar will be designated as a tiger reserve. Ten months later, in December 2009, 38 tribal families were moved out of the reserve, overnight. They were taken to the Kondigiri panchayat, some 40 kilometres away from their village. The displaced families were told that from then onwards they will be living in Kondigiri. They were told that they would be given agricultural land and houses to live in. The displaced families were also promised roads, employment and schools for their children.
Bokrakachhar was not the only village to get displaced from the present day Achanakamar Tiger Reserve. In December 2009, six out of 25 villages of Achanakamar were displaced to make way for the reserve. The displacement, say the local people, took place without any gram sabha (a village discussion/consultation) and without settling the forest rights lease as per the rules. Of the six displaced villages, the people from four – Bokrakachhar, Bankal, Bahaur and Sambardhasan – were settled together at Khudia in the Mungeli district. Of the remaining two villages, the residents of Kuba were settled in Gourela and Jalda in the Lormi area. The names of these newly settled villages, accommodating about 249 displaced families remained the same. In just moments, everything from their geographic location to their social and economic status changed.
Now, the government is in the process of resettling 19 new villages. Of the 19, the process of 16 is already underway. The land diversion proposal of the remaining three villages, Tilaidbra, Chirhatta and Birapani, is pending with the central government. The people from these villages live in constant fear of being displaced any time – their fear is augmented by the situation of the other villages that have already been displaced because of the same tiger reserve.
Lives of villagers displaced in 2009
In 2009, as the creation of the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve was announced, an area of 914 square kilometres (sq km) was earmarked. Of this, 875 sq km was reserved forest and 39 sq km came under protected land. The announcement was considered a major step forward, by the Chhattisgarh government, to protect the state’s wildlife. However, this brought fear and uncertainty to the people of the 25 villages living in this forest.
Over the next few years, several promises were made by the administration, most of which went unfulfilled, justifying the initial fears of the people.
Most of the people displaced in the process were tribal people. These families were compensated with five acres of land and a two-room pucca (permanent) house. But the condition of these houses deteriorated in the last 12-13 years. The tribal people, who were accustomed to living in kutcha (temporary) houses built new kutcha huts around their dilapidated pucca houses. The toilets built behind the houses were also never used and remain in ruins.
Mansingh Tirkey of Bokrakachhar village is around 80 years old. He lives with his wife Shantibai. His son Motiram lives in a separate house. Tirkey relies on the destitute pension of Rs. 350 per month and 35 kg of rice provided by the government. Most of the relocated villagers are unhappy with the agricultural land they were given. They pointed out that most of these lands were barren and lacked any irrigation facility.
Phoolbai Panika is over 75 years old and lives alone. She lost her husband Mahesh Sakat after four years of being relocated to her new village. Five of her daughters are married, while three of her sons live separately. Panika’s livelihood is also dependent on government ration and the social security pension of 350 rupees per month. “When we lived in the forest, we would collect different types of forest produce, which would suffice for our living. Now, there is nothing except timber and wild trees in the nearby area. Every day, the village youth cut dry wood from the forest to sell it and make a living.”
In Bokrakachhar, Bankal and Sambardhasan villages, Mongabay-India did not find any person who had received a hundred days’ work opportunity under the Employment Guarantee Scheme. Even when some people did explore employment opportunities outside the village, they ended up with bitter experiences.
Bhagbali said, “In 2018, some people from the Darwaza village gave me and 20 to 22 other people an advance of five hundred rupees each and took us to Andhra Pradesh. I went there with my wife Shyamvati. For three months, we were made to do sugarcane harvesting and other work round-the-clock. When the work was over, we were beaten up and driven away without being paid a single rupee. We somehow managed to return to the village with great difficulty. Ever since then, we have never had the thought of going out.”
The youth in the village revealed to Mongabay-India that most of the households in these displaced villages, secretly manufacture and sell liquor. It is a source of income for the villagers, which also attracts outsiders, that often leads to tension.
These displaced villages have a very poor level of education. When Mongabay-India investigated this, it was found that of the 376 people living in Bokrakachhar, Bankal, Sambardhasan and Kuba, only two have gone to college and barely 10 have completed high school. Illiteracy and desperation push them to opt for traditional and superstitious health treatments instead of visiting a doctor.
Other government facilities are also of no use in these villages. Many families here have got gas stoves and cylinders from the government under the Ujjwala scheme, but most of them either cannot afford to pay for the refills or land up selling them to someone else in surrounding villages. Even today, most families depend on forest wood for cooking.
Jonihabai of Kuba village said, “From where will you get the cylinders for the gas stove? For cylinders, one has to go to Piparkhunti, which is 30-40 km away from here. If someone sends a motorcycle to get a gas cylinder, he has to pay 150-200 rupees extra for commuting and daily wages, in addition to the cost of the gas cylinder. Who would want to use such an expensive gas cylinder?”
Vinod Nagvanshi, Secretary of Sarva Adivasi Samaj in Chhattisgarh, expressed concern over rehabilitation of tribals. “The rehabilitation policy specifies clear instructions to arrange for rehabilitation before displacement. But the displaced that were brought here 12 years ago were left in the lurch.” He is worried that the same fate might be awaiting those from the remaining 19 villages, for which the forest department started the displacement process two years ago.
However, Rakesh Chaturvedi, state’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, cited other reasons behind the plight of the displaced. He told Mongabay-India, “After the displacement, these villages were declared revenue villages. There has been a lapse here because the collector of the district was supposed to work in coordination with other departments for the betterment of the displaced. However, it did not happen.”
Lessons from MP’s Kanha Tiger Reserve resettlement
In stark contrast, the status of those resettled in the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh tells a promising tale.
In 2009-10, when people of the six villages in Achanakmar were being displaced, 153 families of Jami village of the Kanha Tiger Reserve in its neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh were also being resettled. The forest department there was in regular touch with the displaced people. Mongabay-India met dozens of such families, whom the forest department of Madhya Pradesh continues to help even today. The displaced at this tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh get financial help from Kanha Vikas Nidhi, a development fund generated from tourism.
Forty-seven-year-old Chhatru Singh is from the Gond tribe. He was settled in Murkuta of Indri Panchayat of Mandla district in Madhya Pradesh. Chhatru had one acre of farmland in Jami, which was not sufficient enough to make a living. He bought four acres of land here under the supervision of the forest department and started cultivating wheat and gram. He bought bullocks and a tractor on loan. Singh got his son enrolled in a school in the nearby town of Bhimdongri.
With some initial hesitation, he told Mongabay-India, “I earn 30,000 rupees every month. The hard work is of course mine, but people from the forest department keep helping.”
The parents of 27-year-old Fagu Singh Dhurve and his younger brother, 21-year-old Shiv Kumar Dhurve, who settled in Indri village, had passed away. The displacement process provisions for compensation to adults only. But in 2009-10, the forest department considered them eligible for compensation as a special case.
Today, both the brothers own seven acres of cultivation, with an irrigation facility and a motor pump. They have constructed a toilet with their own money. Everyone in the family uses it. There is a cooler in the house and also a motorcycle.
Madhya Pradesh’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests J.S. Chauhan said that even after the displaced people from the Kanha Tiger Reserve were given a compensation amount of Rs. 10 lakh (Rs. 1 million), they were not left to fend for themselves. “With the help of a voluntary organisation, we kept in touch with them. We kept helping them by suggesting land purchases and other business initiatives,” he said.
Recounting an incident, Chauhan said, “One of the displaced families gave money for the land to a teacher from Kabirdham district of Chhattisgarh, adjoining Kanha. But the teacher neither gave the land, nor returned the money. The forest department of Madhya Pradesh intervened in the matter and asked for help from the Chhattisgarh Police. The displaced family got their money back. We held the hands of everyone who was displaced. Perhaps, this is the reason why most of the displaced are making a better living today,” said Chauhan.
Gautam Bandopadhyay, who has been working for more than three decades on issues of water, forest and land, explained the poor condition of those displaced due to the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh. He added that careful guidelines needed to be given to the forest management on how tiger reserves could be created without displacing villages. Bandopadhyay maintained, “Displacement should be the last option and participation of the people living in such areas is essential in the process of displacement.”
He described the displacement of the six villages from Achanakmar as a failed model of displacement. Bandopadhyay said that the land on which these villages were resettled was already being used by other villages. This caused conflict between the old and newly settled villages. He also pointed out that the forest rights law was not followed in displacement and the specific lifestyle of the majority of the displaced Baiga tribal community was not taken into consideration during the process of displacement. No grievance-redressal mechanism was constituted to address the future problems of the displaced.
Bandopadhyay said, “Without understanding the historical context of the people living within the forest, we will not be able to understand the ecosystems they have developed over the years, nor will we be able to provide them with similar conditions. The people living in the forest are not objects, they are living beings. Our understanding of putting them from one place to another is the biggest stumbling block towards better displacement. For this, a change in the understanding and structure of the forest department is necessary.” Expressing concern, he concluded, “Otherwise, the condition of the 19 villages to be relocated will be the same as the six villages in Chhattisgarh’s Achanakmar reserve.”
This story was first published in Mongabay-Hindi.
Banner image: Families displaced from Achanakmar Tiger Reserve left their pucca (permanent) houses and built kutcha (temporary) houses. Photo by Alok Prakash Putul.