Melghat (Maharashtra): Munni Dhandekar is skeletal, her face is weather-beaten and she talked nervously as she explained how she, her husband and out-of-school teenage daughter have been homeless since September 2020, spending a harsh winter in a half-built room with a tin sheet for a wall.
Munni’s room, about a quarter of a tennis court, is across a lake in Chikhaldara, a touristy little hill-station, 8 km east from her home. Her husband Raju earns Rs 300 a day as a boatman on the lake, a seasonal job. Until five months ago, they were somewhat better off, living as they did for generations in a teakwood forest, their poultry outside their brick-and-bamboo home with a thatched roof, a short walk away from firewood and forest produce such as bamboo.
On the evening of 1 September 2020, the Maharashtra state government’s forest department arrested Raju and his brother Gaju as they headed home to their village of Pastalai, inside the Melghat Tiger Reserve in eastern Maharashtra’s Amravati district. Both men, from the Korku indigenous community, were charged with violating the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, allegedly destroying wildlife or forest produce inside a sanctuary.
They deny the charge—the only material recovered at the time of arrest was a very small quantity of groceries and a borrowed motorbike—and were bailed out the following day, but were prohibited from returning to their families in Pastalai.
In December 2020, the Dhandekars told the Bombay High Court that their ousting from their home and village is part of a wider “forceful eviction and involuntary relocation” of Pastalai’s tribal residents, under the Union government’s Project Tiger programme that, among other things, recommends relocation of villages located inside what are called “core” forest areas, an inviolate area of 800-1,200 sq km large enough for the territories of 20 breeding tigresses.
The logic of relocations is related to man-tiger conflicts and a skewed tiger-prey balance, when the population of forest-dependent communities rises in core areas and in an ecologically sensitive “buffer” area of 1,000-3,000 sq km. Since the launch of Project Tiger in 1973, these communities were encouraged to move out as a tiger habitat conservation measure.
The Dhandekar brothers and four other Pastalai families, all Korku tribals who traditionally live off the forest, have refused to move until they get adequate compensation for their land, homes and until claims for rights over forest resources under the Scheduled Tribes And Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act, 2006, or simply the Forest Rights Act (FRA) are settled.
Pastalai’s impasse is emblematic of a tipping point for an estimated 150 million forest-dwelling Indians, including 100 million indigenous people.
Twelve years since a law was enacted to protect and guarantee their traditional rights to the forest, their homes and lives are at stake. Poor implementation of the law and pressure from the Project Tiger bureaucracy to move out of core forest areas has made the survival of traditional Adivasi lives, livelihoods and cultural practices increasingly tenuous. Meanwhile, the Government of India has instructed states to demarcate “critical wildlife habitats” (CWH) within protected areas, signalling another pan-India round of conservation-induced displacement of marginalised tribals.
The FRA can grant formal recognition of traditional rights over “at least 40 million hectares of forest land” being tilled or managed by such communities, according to a 2015 report by the Rights and Resource Initiative, a global coalition of more than 150 organisations.
While the central government maintains that relocation under Project Tiger is voluntary, Pastalai’s last remaining residents including Raju and Gaju have detailed, in a writ petition in the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court, the pressures brought to bear upon them.
Elsewhere, in three relocated villages that Article 14 visited, Melghat’s residents said there had been sustained pressure from local forest department officers, who confiscated livestock and filed criminal cases against villagers collecting firewood.
Indigenous People As Obstacles To Conservation
Researchers studying forest-rights struggles of indigenous peoples are wary of the hasty plans to carve out the CWHs, which are required under the FRA. The existence of indigenous communities in forests is seen by forest department bureaucrats and conservationists as antithetical to conservation, they say.
In 2018-19, Maharashtra’s forest department assembled 54 expert committees to identify and map CWHs in 54 protected areas. In 2019, the committee for Melghat began work on what would have been India’s first CWH, but the process was halted by the Bombay High Court after activists cited procedural lacunae.
In 2019, responding to a public interest litigation demanding that CWHs be demarcated, Purnima Upadhyay, a lawyer and activist working with tribal communities in Melghat for 25 years, argued in the Bombay High Court that the process being used to identify the CWHs was “haphazard”.
Those relocated earlier under Project Tiger were “suffering”, not used to life outside forests, she contended.
While the FRA indeed allows forest rights to be modified or resettled wherever these lands are within proposed CWHs, this would still require claims to first be filed and assessed.
Sharachchandra Lele from the Bengaluru-based nonprofit Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) told Article 14 that the FRA offers India an opportunity to rethink conservation as a participatory process with forest-dwelling communities, and that the law lists measures to address tensions between the rights of forest-dwellers and the needs of wildlife conservation.
An August 2020 report by ATREE describes the State’s approach to identifying CWHs as an outdated “fortress conservation” approach that has bedevilled Indian wildlife conservation policy since its inception ... “and has resulted in enormous social dislocation, distress and conflict”.
In addition, Lele said the functioning of the CWH expert committees in Maharashtra is legally untenable.
The process of rights recognition is far from complete, he said
“In many protected areas where the forest department claims that there is no human habitation and no question of forest rights, there is habitation either inside or adjacent to the protected area that will have Community Forest Rights claims in parts of the protected area,” said Lele. “There are cases where even forest department records show habitations.”
In March 2020, the state contended that there was no human habitation “at least in 25 such sanctuaries/national parks” and that the CWH declaration for these can be made “without wasting any time”.
Scientific criteria and data, based on which the expert committees will determine whether there is threat of “irreversible damage” to forests or wildlife, have not been formulated, Lele said. Until rights are granted and villages decide what activities they will undertake through forest resource management plans, an assessment of likely “irreversible damage” is unlikely.
The committees do not include social scientists with expertise on forest rights, while even “experts in life sciences” are not qualified as experts in wildlife ecology, said Lele. Some committees include individuals who question the constitutionality of the FRA.
Upadhyay said some of the resettled villages were in a “deplorable” state. “Importantly, all relocation is outside the Scheduled Area, meaning they are in talukas where the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, is not applicable,” she said. The PESA Act empowers gram sabhas in PESA areas on matters relating to decision-making, and traditional community rights and practices are safeguarded and preserved.
While the CWHs are required by the FRA, the law’s central premise, to guarantee India’s indigenous communities historical rights over the forest, remains far from achieved.
By the end of March 2020, more than 4.2 million claims (41,02,437 individual and 149,108 community claims) were filed by forest-dwellers seeking land titles, a fraction of the estimated beneficiaries.
In a 2016 report that marked 10 years since the law came into force, a research initiative called the Community Forest Rights-Learning And Advocacy found that of the potential forest area over which community forest rights could be claimed, only 3% had been granted.The top reasons cited were obstruction by forest department officials, who felt granting land rights to India’s Adivasis impinged on forest protection.
Tourism Over Rights Of Forest Stewards
Passing within earshot of Pastalai are vehicles following the newly launched safari route in Melghat Tiger Reserve, the Vairat safari, advertised as venturing to the highest point in the tiger reserve at 1,178 m above mean sea level.
A signboard for the Vairat safari stands metres away from the gated forest department check post where Raju and Gaju were detained on 1 September, 2020. Pastalai is a short walk from here, but no visitors are allowed.
Entry and exit restrictions apply to the last four families living in the village. Article 14 was not permitted to enter, despite requests to forest department officials. Even activists carrying relief supplies for Pastalai’s residents during the COVID-19 lockdown struggled to gain access.
The densely forested Melghat Tiger Reserve, notified in 1973 as one of India’s first nine tiger reserves, occupies 2,000 sq km, the size of four-and-a-half Mumbais, in the Satpura range of mountains cutting across the girth of the Indian peninsula. The Satpuras are home to several tiger sanctuaries and hill stations.
One of these is Chikhaldara in Melghat, where a 407-metre ‘skywalk’ of glass and steel is being built on the edge of a plateau, to be suspended on concrete columns, offering a glass-floored view of a 180-metre deep valley. The project’s estimated cost is Rs 35 crore. In 2016, the state government approved a Rs 500-crore plan for the development of Chikhaldara.
“They chased us out of our own home saying we are a danger to wildlife, but they’ll bring tourists into the same village, correct?” asked Gaju, whose family lost poultry worth Rs 5,000 when they were debarred from returning home.
Following their father’s death and a family feud, the brothers found they had no proof of residence or ownership of the land they tilled. This meant that under the relocation programme, the brothers were deemed ineligible for compensation.
The NTCA’s guidelines for village relocation require compensation for immovable property but residents must provide documentary evidence of property and rights.The Dhandekar brothers’ families face being uprooted from their childhood home without this compensation.
Gaju and his wife Phulwanti have been living in her maternal home in Kulangana village, 45 km away.
Phulwanti was arrested too, and beaten, she said. On 9 November, told she was being taken to meet senior officials to discuss a proposed compensation plan if the Dhandekars vacated their homes, she was arrested from her home in Pastalai where she had been living along with their two children since Gaju’s ouster.
Outside the forest department office in Chikhaldara, she said, women staffers beat her. “A crowd gathered, people were asking why this woman was being assaulted,” said Phulwanti. “I kept asking why they’re beating me, I’m not a thief or criminal… My 18-month-old boy fell to the ground from my hands.”
Later that day, she was charged for allegedly having two stumps of teak wood in her pile of firewood, a crime that attracts a maximum punishment of six months in jail or a fine of Rs 500 or both.
The bail order did not restrain Phulwanti from returning home, but forest guards would not allow her back into Pastalai, she said.
“We are fighting for our rights, that’s why this is happening,” Phulwanti told Article 14.
Pastalai’s villagers had also applied for ‘community forest rights’ under the FRA, which gives villagers collective rights over forest land they have traditionally used for grazing, plantation and collecting forest produce. Their application was rejected, a fact they found out in 2018 when forest officials began to insist that they relocate.
On 15 September 2018, the villagers wrote to the district collector, declaring they would not accept compensation for relocation unless their community forest rights were settled.With no assurance forthcoming, some villagers slowly began to accept what they saw as inevitable.
‘We Will Make You Disappear’
On a written plea from the people of Pastalai, government officials made notings that said claims under the FRA were pending and that the villagers could not be evicted until these were settled.
Told of the Dhandekar brothers’ eviction in September 2020, the divisional commissioner of Amravati also stayed evictions from Pastalai, directing the forest officer to wait until all claims under the FRA were settled. Yet, the Dhandekars have not been allowed back into their native village.
Twice, Gaju tried to return to Pastalai. “They told me gaayab kar denge (we will make you disappear),” he quoted forest guards at the checkpost outside his home village as saying.
“The tigerwaale (the ‘tiger people’, the name locals use for staff of the Melghat Tiger Project) have resorted to harassing us to force us to leave,” said Lalman Dhandekar, 50, one of the petitioners. “They won’t allow us to graze our cattle or cut grass or fetch firewood.”
Dhandekar said the cattle of another petitioner, Sakharam Dhandekar, were impounded by forest officers in June from a water source, and released only mid-September on the order of a sessions judge. For three months, the animals were tethered in a forest department office with grossly inadequate care.
Lalman said villagers were also refused work under the national employment guarantee law, another pressure tactic. “The forest department gets labourers for its work from 50 km away instead.” The ‘voluntary’ decision of those who agreed to be relocated was similarly driven by such measures, the petition says.
In Kulangana, Gaju and his eldest son, not even 13, work as daily wage labourers whenever work is available. “We don’t have a home now. We are trying to survive,” Gaju said.
New Villages Lack Toilets, Street Lamps
At its new location, Somthana Khurd is a spotless village of about 45 families. On a weekday afternoon, the men were all home, with neither work available as labourers anywhere nearby nor any land to till.
Under the NTCA’s “voluntary village relocation”, the village was split down the middle in 2018, with several families relocating to the nearby Akola district and some about 100 km away to the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh.
At their original homes, Somthana’s residents were all land-owners. Through their conservation-induced dislocation, all of them were rendered landless, a condition they recognised too late as a central livelihood challenge.
The relocation package was Rs 10 lakh per adult and Rs 80,000 per hectare of farmland. “When we arrived here, land cost was nothing less than Rs 10 lakh a hectare,” said Mitheram Kasdekar, 50, who owned five acres of land and cultivated sorghum, soybean and cotton, like everyone else in Somthana Khurd. His four sons completed high school and are now labourers, when work is available.
Somthana never had a toilet, and villagers used shrubbery behind their original homes to do their business. Kasdekar’s wife Kaleibai, in her forties and already a grandmother, said residents now traverse a busy road to locate a spot. “We go in the darkness, early mornings or late evenings,” she said about the women.
In January 2019, residents of Somthana Khurd were among a group of angry tribals who staged a demonstration in their original villages to protest the lack of basic amenities in their new settlements. That protest ended badly, with violence from both sides and did not yield any new government assistance.
Nearby, residents of Dolar, now written as Dolar (Waghdoh) since being relocated to the immediate vicinity of Waghdoh village two years ago, said they were promised an entire village at a new location, 18 amenities including a primary school, a samaj mandir or space for gatherings, a cremation ground, a primary health center and more.
“We are still waiting,” said Motiram Jambekar.
The new Dolar bears the appearance of a temporary camp, with dusty, unpaved roads, and gaggles of young men gathered around over a dozen large multi-utility four-wheel drive vehicles.
“Many of us bought a car with the compensation paid,” said the 50-something Jambekar. Maintenance costs are high and demand for commercial vehicles is low.
Residents here were given to believe that youngsters turning 18 within a couple of years of relocating would be eligible for a separate compensation sum.It is not clear how they got that impression, but this is not the case.
“My brother just turned 18 and got married,” said Ramesh Jambekar, 23. “Now he has no work, no money, we have no land, no way to gather firewood from the forest, nor any milch animals.”
In addition to the income shock, there are unexpected expenses—most recent, Rs 2,300 for electricity meters and monthly domestic power bills of Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,200.
The original Dolar village did not have electricity, and modern amenities had been a key negotiating chip for government officials persuading the poor villagers to relocate. Still, until 2020, Dolar (Waghdoh) didn’t have roadside drains. Walking to a grocery store meant wading through the slush.
There are still no street lamps. A new water connection has finally materialised, although there are no home connections. Until mid-2020, the source of water was the neighbouring village. The closest medical centre is in Pathrod, 8 km away, or Anjangaon, 14 km away. The village has no toilet, not even a community toilet.
The relocated Pastalai is now split into Pastalai-Yevta and Pastalai-Vadgaon. In Pastalai-Vadgaon, a single community toilet lies unused, villagers saying it was incorrectly constructed. More than a year after relocating, the homes are still semi-constructed, as families struggle with the drop in income.
Evicting The Real Forest Conservationists
K C Padvi, Maharashtra’s minister for tribal development, told Article 14 he’s uncomfortable with the relocation and the manner in which original stewards of the forests have been moved out.
“There are indeed serious problems being faced by the tribal communities,” said Padvi. “We are talking to the forest department, and will make sure that their rights are not denied.”
Maharashtra minister Yashomati Thakur, who represents the legislative assembly constituency of Amravati, has also received numerous representations from villages that were served relocation notices. She has asked local administration and the forest department to ensure that evictions are not carried out without following due process of law.
Yet, local forest officers have evicted people, including during the pandemic and lockdown.
Within Melghat, and across India wherever communities have been granted rights to manage forest resources, there are success stories of regeneration of biodiversity as well as sustainable livelihood practices.
About 45 km south of Chikhaldara, Payvihir village wears the appearance of a manicured movie set, surrounded by hills, its walls painted with scenes from the Korkus’ customary rituals. Since 2012-13, migration for work as labourers has dipped from 75% to zero.
A mix of afforestation and scientific watershed management has led to the greening of a hillside laid barren over 25 years of excessive forest lumbering. Residents have installed a solar-powered drip irrigation system on a 132-acre tract of forest land, on which stand mango, neem and teak trees.
In 2016, villagers harvested and sold 10 tonnes of these custard apples. In 2020, Payvihir’s residents appointed a team of five “forest conservators”, village youth paid by the local self government institution, to patrol their stretch of forest.
In 2014, Payvihir also won a biodiversity governance award jointly conferred by the ministry of environment and forests and the United Nations Development Programme to recognise grassroots champions of conservation.
“But the most significant success is that we have conserved our identity as adivasis, our lifestyle, cultural practices,” said Ramlal Kale, among Payvihir’s young team of village leaders. “Getting the title to the forest land helped us become self-sufficient, which means nobody goes away to the city for work. We all gather on our festival days to sing Korku songs and celebrate in our time-honoured way.”
(Kavitha Iyer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. Reporting for this story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.)