Forest dwellers are harassed and not allowed to collect minor forest produce, say activists

Walking barefoot in the rain-drenched forest, Chandravati, aged 20, stepped comfortably over stones, leaving the mud path. Asked how the leeches had not preyed on her, the Malekudiya woman jokingly replied: “They know us.”

In the forest (now within the Kudremukh National Park) where she lives, just as the day follows night, the rains are accompanied by leeches. The Malekudiyas use tobacco leaves to keep the leeches away.

They cannot do anything about the heavy rain that can hamper movement.

Recalling one experience, Vittal, also aged about 20, said that he was forced to stay over at a relative's house at Naravi village because he could not go back to his house which was about one-and-a-half-hour walk inside the forest. The major portion of the road to his house is an uneven forest trail that passes from one hill to another and crosses a valley. When it pours, his family remains cut off from the rest of the world.

A large number of Malekudiya families live in similar conditions. Some villages have anganwadis and others have been given solar lamps. Malekudiyas and other groups who live inside the forests that now constitute the KNP know what they need. “The district administration should give us durable roads to our houses and electricity, just as the Government does for other people,” said Puttanna, a Malekudiya from Navoor. If this was done, they would “definitely” wish to remain where they live now, he said.

Spread across Karkala, Belthangady, Sringeri, Koppa, and Mudigere taluks, the Kudremukh National Park houses over 2,000 families when it was notified by the State Government on June 18, 2001. More than three quarters of the families belong to Scheduled Tribes. The law governing the national parks does not allow human activity inside the territory. People living inside the forest as well as observers say that the KNP had not arrested development in those areas as there was no development in the first place.

Even now, Mr. Puttanna, does not expect much. “They did not initiate development activities before the park was formed. What will they do now, when the Deputy Commissioner himself says that constructing roads and providing electricity is not possible under the law,” he said.

Mr. Puttanna said that apart from the housing scheme, other social benefits had not reached the people in Navoor. “There is no one to tell us about them,” he said.

Those who want to move out of forest are not happy with compensation offered. If the Government was not willing to give them basic amenities, it should compensate them properly for their assets and not cap the compensation amount to Rs. 10 lakh, Mr. Puttanna said.

Poovappa of Kuthlur village said that a majority of the families in his village did not want to leave, even if they were compensated adequately. Following a meeting of Naxal-affected villages in Navoor in August, a committee of the people of the village from all the 12 affected villages was formed to draw up an action plan for initiating development activities. However, all that had turned up at their doorstep were batteries that were enough to power two light bulbs.

Ranjan Rao, trustee of Nagarika Seva Trust, said that “exploitation” of people living inside the forests pre-dates even the idea of the KNP. Forest dwellers “are easy to exploit” because of their remoteness. They are harassed and not allowed to collect minor forest produce or even lay a pipe to draw drinking water, he said.

Trust president Somnath Nayak said the Government should consider achieving the objectives of the national park “with the participation of the people”. He said that a study by environmentalists showed that setting up of national parks throughout the country had not achieved the stated objective of preserving forests.