Barring a few exceptions, the mandate and money meant to free the country’s finest tiger forests of human settlements is going waste in the absence of practical, transparent and sensitive groundwork.
Most of the mandate and money meant to free the country’s tiger forests of human settlements is being wasted.
First, grasp the human scale of this exercise: resettlement of about 350,000 people or 65,000 families in more than 1,500 villages across the country. Even the Sardar Sarovar dam, India’s biggest infrastructure project, did not displace as many. Globally too, there is no precedent for moving a bigger population except for the Three Gorges Dam project. But that was China, and they tossed some 1.1 million people around.
Now, calculate the cost. This is no infrastructure project with measly overheads for rehabilitation. The stakes are much, much higher. The ecological imperative of protecting India’s few remaining tiger forests demands that these be made inviolate. So, people settled inside tiger reserves are being offered a generous resettlement package of Rs 10 lakh per family to move out. For 65,000 families, that comes to Rs 6,500 crore.
The ‘Voluntary Relocation of Human Settlements’ from core or critical tiger habitats under the new package—ten times the earlier deal of Rs 1 lakh a family—is a crucial if ambitious scheme. Crucial, as the future of India’s wilderness hinges largely on the success of this programme. Ambitious, as only 3,000 families in 80 villages have been relocated so far since Project Tiger was set up back in 1973.
In fact, the Tiger Task Force, constituted in 2005 by the Prime Minister after the local extinction of tigers in Sariska, was not too sure if it was feasible to generate the necessary resources for shifting the remaining 65,000 families out of forests, but nevertheless asked for a financial and logistical plan to be drawn up within a year.
In 2006, the Forest Rights Act came into force, and the issue of relocation became a hot potato. So under the Tenth Plan, the compensation package went up tenfold: beneficiaries could now either take Rs 10 lakh and move out, or take up to 30 per cent of the amount while the forest department used the rest for their rehabilitation.
In September 2008, 40 villages across nine tiger reserves (see map) were selected for relocation under the new scheme, in addition to Nagarhole and Corbett which were already on the list. Subsequently, three more reserves were picked.Till date, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has released Rs 267 crore to nine states for relocation. But apart from releasing money and issuing basic guidelines, it has little control over ground implementation. So the success of this massive, expensive and emotive exercise depends on the skills and whims of forest officials in each state. The NTCA guidelines say as much: ‘The relocation process would be an open ended one, since the progress… would depend on performance by states.
’Barring a few positives, the experience so far is a familiar chain of arbitrariness, corruption and insensitivity. Crores are being spent, scores of people are moving out, but very little land is being freed for the forest.
HALF EMPTY, HALF FULL
The flat rate of Rs 10 lakh compensation per family—the only option offered in some states—has few takers among those with significant landholding. While the landless and small landholders, particularly families with a number of male members above 18 years (each considered a nuclear family and eligible for compensation), are happy to resettle for money, big landholders are dismissive of the offer. As a result, most villages are only being partially resettled.
Ghanshyam Meena of Hajjam Kheri village holds 15 bighas next to Sawai Man Singh sanctuary of Rajasthan’s Ranthambore tiger reserve. If he agrees to resettle, he and his two adult sons are eligible for a total of Rs 30 lakh. “I didn’t study beyond the seventh standard, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand basic arithmetic. If we buy a plot and build a house, there will be no money left to purchase even 5 bighas,” he spits angrily.
In the neighbouring Hindwar village, Ram Dayal Meena has 30 bighas, a small family and a point: “Why should I reduce myself to the status of a landless neighbour who is getting as much or more compensation just because he spent all his life producing children?”
Not that the package has takers only among those with scant regard for family planning. Kishore Gujjar, who comes from Mordungri, a small village inside the national park, has one son and is moving near Bundi. Ironically, Rs 20 lakh spent to resettle Kishore’s family has freed all of 1.5 bighas. That was all they owned.
In most villages earmarked for relocation around Ranthambore in the first phase, people like Ghanshyam and Ram Dayal make for about 20-30 per cent of all families. So forest department officials claim that they are resettling the majority of families. Ironically, the 70-80 per cent that are moving out are mostly families like Kishore’s and own just 30-40 per cent of the fields.
“A lot of money is being wasted to actually free very little land,” says Kamlesh Gujjar, who practises at the Sawai Madhopur court. “Even the land that is being freed will not become forested or be of any use to wildlife because these fields fall between the fields of those who are staying back. It is a matter of time before those who stay back encroach on the vacated land.”
In Ranthambore, of the 25 villages targeted during 2009-10, only one village, Machanki, has been completely relocated in the last financial year. Then again, Machanki was a village of Bairwas who anyway work as labourers—rather than farmers—and many of whom had already settled outside the reserve. They were only too willing to dismantle their shanties inside Kela Devi sanctuary and take away their straggler families for Rs 10 lakh each.
Shiv Charan Gupta, divisional forest officer, Kela Devi, admits as much. “Gujjars need the forest for their livestock to graze. Other communities, such as Bairwas, have little at stake and are keen to move out. Since most villages have a mixed population, it is difficult to shift everybody. But it is a tough life inside the forest, and now with increasing menace of dacoits, we hope it will be easier to convince them to move out.”
Gupta, however, need only look at neighbouring state Madhya Pradesh, where the compensation is equitable, rather than equal. Instead of treating the landless and landed alike, the Madhya Pradesh forest department involves the revenue department to assess the actual property value of each family selected for relocation.
“The total amount available for a village is used as a common pool to settle the rights of each family as per the actual value of their property, including land, wells, fruit-bearing trees etcetera. We also ensure a basic minimum compensation for those with no property. Then, if any money is left in the pool, it is equally distributed in case of monetary compensation, or put in infrastructure funds for developing the relocation site,” explains HS Pabla, former principal chief conservator of forests, Madhya Pradesh, who was in office when this method was worked out in 2008-09.
Two villages have been moved out on this formula in Pench (money) and Satpura (resettlement). Says NS Dungriyal, field director, Satpura: “For forest villages, the total money needed for settling rights is usually much lower than what the NTCA is offering. So the surplus is put in the development fund. For certain revenue villages, we may need extra funds to settle the rights, and that expense will be picked up by the state. There is no point in partially relocating a village.”
Ironically, at an NTCA meeting held in New Delhi in June 2009, Pabla actually explained this formula in detail to officials from the other tiger states, but it seems not many bothered to take note of what he had to say.
COUNT ON, COUNT IN
For a public issue like settlement of rights, the forest department is surprisingly secretive about the exercise in Rajasthan. Nobody, it seems, knows exactly who is eligible for compensation around Ranthambore. “Three villages in my panchayat are being relocated. You have to ask the forest people for the list of eligible families. I do not have a copy,” declares Prakash Gaur, secretary of Dumoda panchayat. Even Siddharth Mahajan, collector of Sawai Madhopur, ducks queries: “Relocation is a difficult process, but it is progressing well. For specific figures, you had better approach the forest department.”
Sample this: five of the 10 villages scheduled for relocation around Ranthambore’s Sawai Man Singh sanctuary in the first phase—Hindwar, Khatuli, Mundrahedi, Bhid and Kalibhat—have 1,831 families.
The eligibility for compensation is the same as that for voting: one has to be 18 or above. But surprisingly, there are only 1,058 males on the 2009 voters’ list of the five villages in question. Accounting for a liberal 20 per cent addition for widows and abandoned women who are also eligible for compensation and young boys who might have been 17 when the lists were drawn up and have since qualified, the total number climbs to 1,270. Still 561 short of the 1,831 families the forest department has listed.
Hindwar, the biggest of the five villages in question, has 734 families as per forest data; the voting list names only 499 men. For Kalibhat, the smallest, the numbers are 62 and 46, respectively.
“Is it so? Surprising. You have to ask the forest officials, as they made the list. There was not much for me or the tehsildar to do,” pleads Musharaf Ali Khan, patwari, Dumoda.
Assistant Conservator of Forests Ranglal Chowdhury, who, along with range officer Dinesh Gupta, is monitoring the relocation process in Dumoda, beat a hasty retreat when asked for details. “This is a very difficult job, shifting villages. Nobody is perfect or foolproof. I request the media to cooperate with us,” he folds his hands, repeating the lines, and drives away.
But the air is thick with suspicion. And animosity. Those who have refused the package name several villagers who have made it to the list on false claims. “Take Babu Harijan, son of Ram Deo, settled in Kota more than 30 years ago. He and his son are getting the package,” says one villager who refuses to be named. “Hari Ram left in the 70s to settle in Ujjain and is back to collect his money. Dozens of people being listed for compensation in Hajjam Kheri are from Gothra near Surwal dam in Atoon Kalan panchayat. They managed dual identities in the same district,” cuts in another. Another voice insinuates, “Many minors have also forged certificates to qualify for the money.”
But while bogus beneficiaries have allegedly crept in, genuine ones are struggling to be counted in. Prabhu Das Swami has 10 bighas of land and a house in Hindwar. He and his son shifted to Sawai Madhopur for work two years ago. While Swami’s own case has been cleared after some delay, his 22-year-old son Satya Narayan’s fate is still hanging fire even after furnishing seven identity proofs. Swami’s only option now is to impress Hindwar sarpanch Ramratan Meena “who can settle any case if he wants”.
Ramratan Meena, it turns out, gets to know who is asking uncomfortable questions around and avoids that kind of media. Villagers explain that he is busy negotiating land deals for those who are moving out. Some allege that he is buying plots near Kusthala road cheap and selling at a premium. Unfortunately, Ramratan is too busy to clear the air on all this.
While most are scared to point fingers openly, Kamlesh Gujjar, the Hindwar lawyer, agrees to go on record: “Someone somewhere must be taking money to enter bogus names, and that is why the list is being kept secret. You just heard (he points at a government official who refuses to be named)—people are sending feelers to officials to get them the package for a fair share of the money.” The official nods and puts a figure to the going rate: Rs 2 lakh and above. It is no coincidence that the bulk of the negative input is coming from Ranthambore. The forest department here has struck off the option of resettlement in a bid to fast-track the monetary compensation process. As a result, a lot of money is changing hands, breeding corruption, while genuinely displaced villagers are left to fend for themselves, deprived of the security of their traditional communities.
The rules for relocation, it appears, are being written as-is-where-is, or not at all. Most enforcing authorities are unsure if unmarried girls above the age of 18 are eligible for compensation, as their brothers are. Technically, the package is modelled on the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy, 2007, which does not recognise the right of unmarried daughters above the age of 18 for benefits.
But there is a difference between project-affected people and those who are voluntarily relocating. The latter are forfeiting their right over property by consent, and since both sons and daughters have rights of inheritance, the consent of only the father and sons may not be enough.
“In some cases, especially in matrilineal societies, the girl has primary rights, and hence her consent is invariably required not only for more legitimacy, but also for legal propriety,” explains Sanjay Upadhyay, a Supreme Court advocate.
Vijay Ranjan Singh, DFO, Nagarhole, is all set to resettle the first 100 of 1,550 Kurba families by 30 June with land and houses. Eight of them have opted for monetary compensation. Singh won’t say if he counted the unmarried daughters above the age of 18 while enumerating these families.
Dr Rajiv Srivastava, field director, Mudumalai, has submitted the relocation plan and is waiting for the funds to resettle 1,550 people or 377 families in 29 villages. He has listed 20 families who have opted for the money option. Dr Srivastava says he would have counted both boys and unmarried girls above the age of 18 as eligible families, but he did not come across any such case.
In Ranthambore, the confusion touches its absurd height. Here, only boys above the age of 18 are considered eligible in Sawai Man Singh sanctuary. In Kela Devi sanctuary, DFO Gupta checks with ACF BS Rathode and maintains that the cut-off age being followed is 21, and that both boys and girls are eligible for the package.
But whether girls make the cut for compensation or not, their future may not be secure—as it is their families that get hold of the money. The usual tendency among these villagers is to go on a shopping spree. New motorbikes, even a few cars, are suddenly showing up all around these forests. Many have taken to expensive Indian Made Foreign Liquor overnight.
Many young girls are wary of a situation where their fathers and brothers might spend the money and move to cities without bothering to get them married. Among the Moghiyas of Ranthambore, there is talk of men abandoning their wives to get married again in distant towns.
The NTCA guideline talks of ‘handholding’ after relocation through different agencies, but such assistance has been sought in few places. In the absence of any skill development for alternative livelihood, these families may eventually end up destitute once they blow up their booty.
Worse still, families shifted from one village are settling down in another that is also due for relocation. For example, families from Hindwar are settling down in Nimli village, without knowing that Nimli is also slated for relocation.
So the government will either have to compensate the same families twice or simply fail to move them the second time. In any case, such families will again face the same dilemma and uncertainty for no fault of theirs.
OVERSIGHT AT SITE
Even one of the biggest success stories has invited criticism from tribal activists. The relocation of Jenabil village from Simlipal tiger reserve of Orissa was voluntary; some 62 families, caught between Maoists and the security forces, were more than happy to move out last month.
But their joy was short-lived. At the relocation site in Ambadiha, they were left to spend the scorching summer in tin sheds on barren land. Subsequently, roofs were thatched and provisions made for water and food. Though the sheds were meant to be temporary arrangements until the villagers built their own houses, the “inhuman” attitude of the authorities invited criticism.
“The local forest authorities have done a commendable job of shifting the largest village, Jenabil. The exercise was done in a hurry due to Naxalite threats, and that probably explains the inadequate infrastructure in the early days,” says Biswajit Mohanty, secretary, Orissa Wildlife Society, adding that the department now must fulfill the promises made to the families.
All the Orissa forest department had to do was borrow Satpura’s example while it resettled a village, Bori, last year. “First, we made adequate provision for water at the relocation site. Then, the men from the village themselves set up temporary sheds with materials of their choice. Once they started building permanent houses, we brought their families,” recalls Dungriyal.
Dr Rajesh Gopal, member-secretary, NTCA, admits there is room for improvement: “We have recently set up committees to assess the progress in the relocation project and suggest ways for expediting it in a sensitive manner. The teams will submit their reports in three months. Then, we will be reviewing our strategies.”
Fateh Singh Rathore had relocated 12 villages in the 1970s from Ranthambore as the field director. He knows a thing or two about the business: “It is always a difficult, complex task. Times have changed and so have sensitivities. The process must be an open book for anyone’s scrutiny. It is about gaining or losing trust. People themselves offer to shift when they see others are happily settled outside. Similarly, one mistake creates permanent mind blocks. Now that money is not a problem, the states must share their experience and standardise good practices rather than leave it to individual whims and fancies.”
The author is an independent journalist.