Balodabazar (Chhattisgarh), Sep 29 (IANS/ 101Reporters) As a student, Manoj Ugre memorised his lessons with his friends in the light cast by a lantern. Now, in his 20s, electricity still eludes his village Bar, located inside the Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary in Balodabazar district of central Chhattisgarh.
Ugre wants to relocate elsewhere for better opportunities and many of his fellow villagers share his sentiment. “Shifting is preferable as crop damage by wild animals is high here,” he said, adding that places near Patewa village in adjoining Mahasamund district were desirable as they had good roads and electricity.
However, the population of Bar is divided over the issue of shifting. Warning that it involved internal politics, Rajim Ketwas of the Dalit Adivasi Manch said, “Some people, especially the Agaria community, are eyeing government compensation for voluntary relocation. They want to settle in cities. But the adivasi folk, the original settlers, have sizeable lands here.”
Such people do not want to leave, despite the problems. In Bar, people owning lands are mostly into paddy cultivation. Farmer Naresh Yadav has five acres of land and is always apprehensive about crop damage by wild elephants.
In addition, they have to make do with solar power that lasts only for a few hours daily. Not just electricity, the place does not have proper roads and mobile connectivity as it comes within a protected forest area. “The villagers cannot construct homes; they cannot collect forest produce freely; and even the sarpanches find it difficult to run the panchayat,” Ketwas listed out the problems.
Bar resident Rajkumar Diwan said the village has no good schools. “We have to either send our children to Balodabazar or Mahasamund. Most families cannot afford it,” said Diwan, whose son works as a teacher in Mahasamund district.
Diwan owns two acres of land suitable for paddy cultivation. The landless here are engaged in labour work.
“Some people tried to relocate a decade ago, when three other villages were resettled. But that did not happen,” Diwan said, referring to the relocation blueprint that was put down.
Settling down elsewhere
In Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary, the relocation of 20 or so villages located inside the forest was put in motion almost a decade ago, when Nawapara, Rampur and Lata Dadar were resettled.
Krishanu Chandraker, the range officer of Bar at the sanctuary established in 1976, said people generally refuse to relocate but they agreed to shift for better prospects. Some people chose to stay behind. In Rampur village which lies in Bar panchayat there are currently only 10 families staying back. The rest, about 126 families, went to a place now called Srirampur in Mahasamund district.
According to Chandraker, the sanctuary had tigers until 2008. He hoped the relocation of the remaining villages would help reintroduce the big cat to the place. If that happened, the sanctuary area may go up to 500 sq km from the present 240 sq km.
“Animals need a good habitat and feel disturbed due to settlements inside the forest. Human-elephant conflict is a serious issue here. Farmers who face crop loss try to scare away the animals and that is when the conflict exacerbates. All 18 villages are willing to shift, but they have to seek permission from the gram sabhas where they want to settle down in future. We have shown people potential land sites,” he added.
Compensation will amount to Rs 15 lakh per adult.
Odisha-based wildlife conservationist Aditya Panda pointed out that communities living inside forests have the choice of continuing their old ways of life with limited access to schools, hospitals and markets. Alternatively, people can choose improved livelihood opportunities by claiming the benefits of voluntary relocation.
In Akaltara village, farmer Ramji Netam told 101Reporters that many families have submitted forms in the hope of quick relocation. They prefer to settle down in Loharkot in Mahasamund district. The gram sabha of Loharkot has approved it, according to the documents verified by this reporter.
In fact, Akaltara villagers have cleared the first and most important hurdle before those wanting to relocate finding places where they are welcome. According to Fakir Bisal, who still resides in Rampur, the forest department has asked people to search for lands themselves. The government would simply facilitate the transfer of people and their belongings.
For instance, though people like Diwan got assurance about relocation from the forest department and the gram sabha gave its consent to those who wished to move out, no village has shown readiness to accept the residents of Bar.
Ketwas recalled how people refused to allow a new settlement in their revenue lands when the forest department took some potential resettlers to Bade Loram village in Mahasamund to look at the land.
The grass is greener
Nawapara Ramsagar, it was called Nawapara before relocation, has both tribal and non-tribal residents. With a population of 749, it comes under the Bhawa gram panchayat and is located about 25 km from its original location. At the time of shifting, Rs 10 lakh was spent on each family for houses, farmlands and amenities under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA). It took two years to complete the government-sponsored housing, equipped with three rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom.
“Usually, many people protest and refuse to relocate, but we left willingly as animals damaged our crops daily. Besides houses, we got five acres of land. It is much better here,” said Nawapara Ramsagar village chief Tejram Yadav. However, he admitted that the new place had drinking water scarcity.
For many, land is also the reason for shifting elsewhere. Jayant Kulkarni of Pune-based Wildlife Research and Conservation Society said that people naturally are apprehensive about shifting. The land they newly got would also take time to become suitable for cultivation.
Ketwas said the settlers in Srirampur had complained that the lands they got were not fertile and their new houses already had cracks in walls. “In fact, when it is the mahua collection season, they come back to their old settlement in Rampur and live in makeshift shelters till the harvest. They continue to have a deep connection with the forest,” she said.
To go or not to go
Bisal is apprehensive that shifting elsewhere would undermine the adivasi culture. A resident of Rampur, he is one of the few people who did not relocate when most families left. At that time, Bisal stayed back even though he was offered five acres of land outside the sanctuary. This was because his son, though he was over 18, was deprived of the opportunity.
Sulochana Bai, a Kandha tribal from Rampur, recounted how people happily left the village then. “The lure of five acres of land offered to every adult aged above 18 made many people leave. Now, we are being put under pressure to shift.”
“Rampur’s condition is really sad. This time, the Forest Department did not allow tractors to enter the area for cultivation. They have no ration cards, and their complete pension has been cut. People are sending their kids elsewhere because schools and Anganwadis have been demolished. The forest department does not even employ them for any work,” Ketwas said.
She added that Rampur has been taken off the map of Bar region, with the remaining nine families included in Haldi panchayat.
Those staying behind also alleged that the forest department damaged their dev gudi (sacred place of faith). Yet they are stubborn that they will not leave. For people like Bai, life is comfortable in the jungle, where the lands are fertile and the air is pure.
(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)