After being removed from the Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh without any alternate means of livelihood, the Baiga tribals seem a lost and confused lot.
“We don’t know what to do, nobody told us why we cannot enter the forest anymore,” says Juniya Bai who remembers being evicted as a child.
She looks towards her husband Bikram when asked for her age who takes a close look at her before hazarding a guess vaguely, “more than 50 must be.”
With no rehabilitation or alternative means of livelihood provided to the evicted people, she settled with her family in the nearby village of Lagma at a relative’s house. As she speaks to us flanked by her husband and other villagers, her young daughter-in-law stands in a corner balancing an infant and a child on each side of her. She has the ancient symbol of womanhood; a ‘v’ tattooed on her forehead like many other Baiga girls.
Before Kanha was declared a national park in 1955, tribals or the indigenous people, specifically the Baigas and Gonds, used to live in the forest that used to provide everything that they need. After eviction, their way of life has been turned on its head. They cannot collect firewood from the forests anymore and need to walk more than two kilometres to collect wood. The Baigas worship the earth as a mother and do not plough it. Some of them have become menial labourers in the area, some dig mud, some others dance and sing in the several resorts (more than 70) that dot the expanse of Kanha to entertain tourists.
All this helps them earn meagre sums of money, but clearly it is not enough. Their numbers have drastically dwindled, from a lakh to less than 40,000, according to a German researcher who is living amongst the Baigas in a bid to document their lives more closely.
“It has also become increasingly difficult to collect proper data on them anymore since they have been scattered all over the place. We dread the day when some of them might end up in one of the many slums of the cities as several other rural people across the country have done in search of livelihood,” says the researcher.
The village leaders have heard about some of the government schemes such as MGNREGA but no one has heard of government’s UID Aadhar number. Right to Education is yet to be implemented in Lagma or nearby village of Kohka, which has two primary schools and one Madhyamik school. The schools suffer from a lack of quality teachers.
“A government guest lecturer was to be appointed but we don’t know what happened,” says one of the teachers in Kohka.
The Kanha National Park is roughly spread over an area of less than 1000 square kilometres with a surrounding buffer zone of about the same size. The Park is known to be home to a significant population of the barasingha, leopard, wild dog, sloth bear and several species of birds and is said to be the inspiration behind Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. But it is most famous for its Royal Bengal tiger, an animal fast on the brink of extinction. Both the tiger and the Baiga are in need of urgent saving.