There is a smell of damp earth after light rains in Ghameri, one of the 19 villages in the core area of the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh. The tall trees around breathe coolness and the neat houses exude warmth. On the way to Ghameri, one could mistake it for grassland instead of a tiger reserve with large herds of cattle grazing undisturbed on the periphery of the reserve. The Baiga, designated as a primitive tribal group, blame the huge settlements of Yadavs and their cattle which rake in good money for milk and other dairy products for this mistaken notion.
Old-timers like Sunarin can hardly see and doesn’t know her age, but remembers that she and some of the people in this village have been evicted many times. “First we lived in the hills in Boirha and nearby. We travelled a lot before ending up here. Now we hear there is some sanctuary and we could be moved out again,” Sunarin grins.
Rashmi Dwivedi of Baiga Mahapanchayat, Chhattisgarh says that she has recorded the movement of this group of people since 1989 and found that they have been chased out of settlements 12 times.
“At first, the Forest Department opposed the shifting cultivation or bewar that the Baigas practised. They brought us down from the hills and made us give up bewar ,” recalls Sunarin. She recites the names of the 16 types of seeds they used to plant every monsoon, including millets, vegetables and nutritious plants. That biodiversity is almost extinct now and they grow mostly paddy and some greens now.
The Forest Department is not comfortable with the Baigas residing in the core area and even more displeased with Ms. Dwivedi who is perceived as someone “who is encouraging the Baigas to clear land and settle down.” While there has been no formal notification to relocate Ghameri yet, people have been told by Forest Department officials that they will have to leave eventually since plans are afoot to relocate 15 of the 19 villages.
Mansingh Maravi has a title deed for some 3.5 acres and is a little worried about moving out. There are 65 houses here and most people are game with the idea of moving out as the Rs. 10 lakh per family offer is tempting. Life in the Achanakmar forest is be easy; there is little scope for education and medical care though they do get work at times and always have something to eat.
The Rajak village with 60 families is on the list of five which the Forest Department wants to relocate this year. “The beat guard is telling us that we have to move. There is little information on where to. We have seen some forest land at Tilwankhar. We will go if we have no choice,” says Andhru. His wife Chaiti, however, is defiant: “There is no way I will leave this village. Our forefathers are buried here. Why should we leave?”
The Baigas in the six villages already relocated from the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve in 2009 are facing issues of livelihood. The land given to them, two hectares per family, is newly-cleared forest land (diverted after due permission) — some with large tree stumps, uneven and without proper embankments. “Right now it is difficult to grow anything on it but we are trying,” says Manmati, a resident of the new Jalda village.
A similar story unfolds in the relocated villages of Bankal, Sambhardhasan and Bokhra Kachchar. Though Samarin bai’s son Lakhan got a job in the local school at Bankal, there is no work for other people. “They said they will prepare the land, give us seeds and look after us for a few years but nothing has happened,” she says.
Aghan Singh says he manages to get five sacks of rice from his land which is inadequate for his seven-member-family’s consumption round the year. Sometimes they get work in the forests but mostly go to the nearby villages for daily wage jobs.
In Bokhra Kachchar, Gulab Singh says that healthcare facilities are at Kudhiya which is about three km away but there is no money to pay. “We leave it to God if we fall ill. The Baigas are not used to chemically grown food,” he adds. His words reflect the general feeling of despair when he talks about his life in the forest.
Ironically, three of these six villages — Kuba, Bahaud and Jalda — are located in the natural corridor with Kanha and on the periphery of the tiger reserve, say conservation activists who predict increased man-animal conflicts in the future in these areas in the absence of a proper wildlife management plan.
Some years ago, the Baiga had to move from the Bhoramdeo wildlife sanctuary. There is a small cluster of houses near the famous Bhoramdeo temple in Parsa Dobri in Kawardha district. Chaiti Bai and her son left their home inside the forest three years ago. In their old Durduri village, they were harassed. “My mother was beaten up. They chased us out without letting us to take our belongings,” says 20-year-old Manan Singh who now ploughs others’ land for daily wages. However, they managed to get a house under the Indira Awaas Yojana.
Some distance away, at Tedgi Mahua, a new settlement has sprung up for sheltering the displaced from Bhoramdeo. There is no access road and the village is located behind a hill across a stream. The new place is over 30 km away from their old home inside the forest. They have a school and water supply thanks to the local panchayat office. The only thing they lack is a road but they have learnt to live without it.
The Forest Department officials refute allegations that they beat up or force people to leave and said officially no village has been displaced. Vishwesh Kumar, divisional forest officer (DFO), Kawardha, says that the six villages were located in the core area with no proper access. After the sanctuary was notified in 2001, people had restricted access to the forest and they started leaving, he claims. There is no relocation plan since this was not a critical wildlife habitat. There was also no question of granting forest rights since the land they were settled on was revenue and not forest land, Mr. Kumar says.
Not far from border of the Kanha Tiger Reserve, about 14 Baiga families set up homes in Umariya. Kunwar Singh and his wife Nankusiya lead the straggly group living in newly-built huts with roofs of plastic and teak leaves. They used to live in the buffer zone of Kanha in Bandukunda village.
“Our land was hilly and our crops were destroyed often by monkeys and other animals,” says Nankusiya, adding that people from five or six villages left since January and are settled nearby in some inaccessible places.
Jasvirsingh S. Chouhan, field director of Kanha Tiger Reserve, says there was no proposal to move villages out of the buffer zone and they had nothing to do with the Baigas' relocation.