Give the Mogiyas livelihood alternatives and watch the tiger numbers soar. MEENA MENON on a programme that actually works in Ranthambore.
Sixteen-year-old Rinku attentively sews a buttonhole under the expert eye of his teacher. He dreams of being a star batsman like his idol Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his mind wanders to cricket all the time. But, unlike the children of indulgent parents, Rinku can only dream of a cricket kit. His father Ram Singh, a member of the traditional hunter gatherer tribe, the Mogiyas, used to be an informant for poachers in the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. Now reformed, he works as a guard for a farmer in his village, Hajamkhedi.
Rinku, his older brother and cousin live on one floor of the Gyandeep Academy in Sawai Madhopur which has functioned as a boarding house for the last six years for boys between eight and 17 years. Part of the Mogiya Education Project run by the NGO Tiger Watch, the attempt is to give the children the chance of a life away from poaching. The boys live here and go to a nearby school.
Ram Singh's hopes rest on his sons. His only daughter now minds cattle after her makeshift school shut down. While Rinku learns to stitch along with his brother Rakesh, Mahavir and Mangilal are learning block printing from Gopal Nama. The boys are proficient at learning and one of them, Jaggu, comes third in his class, says Chandra Prakash Sharma, in-charge of the hostel.
After Tiger Watch documented 18 missing tigers in Ranthambore in 2004-2005, it helped the Rajasthan police and forest officials bust poaching gangs consisting of Mogiyas. It was then felt that the tribe must be involved in other activities which were income generating so that the tigers can get a breather. Tiger Watch managed to convince over 20 families to send their children to school. The government too runs a hostel for Mogiya children, says Dharmendra Khandal, conservation biologist with Tiger Watch, who was instrumental in the anti-poaching drive and in setting up the education project. A major success has been to get the children of hardened poachers like Devi Singh to study in the school. Devi Singh and others admitted to killing close to 25 tigers in Ranthambhore. They used to be paid Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 60,000 for a skin. After the arrest of a large number of poachers in 2005-06, the number of tigers have been growing in Ranthambore, for the first time in its history. Now there are 27 tigers and 14 cubs. After 25 years two cubs were born in the Sawai Mansingh sanctuary which is part of the tiger reserve. In the last five years, Khandal says, only one tiger was poached officially. But two cubs are missing, he points out.
Education is the key for Mogiyas, says Y.K. Sahu, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Ranthambhore. The forest department is working closely with Tiger Watch and shares information. There is also an intelligence and monitoring cell. “We have opened up the system and we want those interested in conservation to closely coordinate with these two cells. We get information on the movement of poachers and keep a close watch on them even in the adjoining districts,” he says.
There are about 100 Mogiya families near the reserve, says Khandal. They live in scattered settlements and it is difficult to have a specific scheme for them. Children from the Mogiya Education Project train with a social enterprise unit called Dhonk, headed by Khandal's wife Divya which supports Tiger Watch. “The main idea is to generate livelihoods for people who live around the reserve,” says Divya. It is at Dhonk's serene premises that the Mogiya children learn block printing and stitching. Women from adjoining villages also come here to be trained and work at creating local handicrafts.
Gopal Nama's block printing is part of the design feature of Dhonk's products. For Gopal, into block printing for 35 years, teaching the two Mogiya children is a special joy, since his own have not taken to the craft and sell mobile phones instead. He and his wife are the last of the block printers in Sawai Madhopur and he is busy showing them how to print correctly. “I feel this is a good skill for them to acquire. They were very good hunters in the past but now the time has come to change their line,” says Gopal whose vocation was revived by Dhonk when it was set up four years ago. “The dhonk tree gives shelter to the tiger in the reserve and has different colours in each season. We also sought shelter under its name,” says Divya.
Education among the Mogiyas is rare and Divya says that only one child had studied up to the 8th class. The other issue is that early marriage is still prevalent among them and one boy in the project has got married and wants to go home. Teenagers like Rinku don't seem very interested in a career in tailoring, they are dreaming of cricket or stardom. There is a genuine fear that the pressure to earn a livelihood could lead them back to poaching. What can make a critical difference is government support for a broad-based programme which is sustainable and gives the Mogiyas a sense of dignity apart from a livelihood.