For a tribe that was forbidden from ploughing the earth by religious tenets and had a special ceremony to mark the death of a person killed by a tiger, the Baiga face eviction from the forest. Their lives, once so inextricably linked with nature, could well turn into jungle lore.
A sense of desolation hangs over the two long rows of cement houses at new Jalda, one of the six Baiga villages relocated from the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh. Most of the men have gone to plough their land riddled with tree stumps and clumps of hard mud. Of the 74 houses, some are locked or empty and in some you can walk undisturbed through the near empty rooms with bundles of clothes, a few pots and a cot or two.
Last week’s Supreme Court order banning tourists from the “core areas” of tiger reserves spoke of creating inviolate spaces, free of human beings, in the interests of tiger conservation. New Jalda is an example of how clearing forests of those who have always lived there, does not work so well for the people concerned.
In December 2009, in the dead of winter, the people of old Jalda located inside the tiger reserve in Mungeli and Bilaspur districts found themselves unceremoniously uprooted and brought to this place, near Kathmuda in Lormi tehsil . For months they lived in makeshift housing, under hastily assembled sticks of wood and plastic sheets. Soon, one man, Manglu Ram, died amid controversy that it was caused by starvation.
Claims and rights
Three years later, the ghosts of that fateful winter haunt Jalda. The Baiga are cursing their fate, though their circumstances are slightly better. The forest department has built them the promised concrete houses, but without toilets or bathrooms. In the relocation plan, there is a provision for both at a cost of Rs.20,000 for every house.
“The toilets will go waste. It is better to give them cash,” said Hemant Pande, divisional forest officer at Bilaspur. The Baiga are not used to electricity either, he suggests, saying they use their CFL bulbs so often, they burn them out in a month.
The Baiga are also not used to many other things. They are not used to staying hungry, not finding work and not having a little money to satisfy their meagre needs. And so in new Jalda, Sam bai makes jokes about her situation to cover her misery.
“Would I be here if there was work to do?” she laughs. “In our old village we had some money and many things to collect and eat from the forest,” she says. Their claims, under the Forest Rights Act, aimed at redressing a historical injustice, were not settled and here too the land is not yet in their name. But what she misses most is the datun or the neem twigs which are used for cleaning teeth. The Baiga, as the DFO would say, are not used to toothbrushes. Many of them are torn between accepting this rehabilitation and a feeling of regret. “We were tempted with the offer of Rs.10 lakh per family. But we realised that the money would be used [to build our] houses and five acres [of land] per head,” Sam bai says. Of the Rs.50,000 cash incentive, people said they got Rs.45,000 in bank accounts. There was a deduction of Rs.5,000 for transportation. Much of the land allotted to them has turned out be uncultivable.
While the Baiga families have rights to minor forest produce (MFP), the question is: where will they get it from?
To eliminate biotic pressure
The relocation plan for these six villages, in the words of the plan document, is being done “to ensure the habitat development of the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve particularly to create meadows as well as to eliminate the biotic pressure in the core area.” The reserve was notified in 2009. But while villages are being relocated, large herds of cattle seem to have a free run of the forest. The Yadav community seems to have converted large tracts of land in the 311 sq. km buffer zone into commercial cattle grazing grounds.
Mr. Pande says that last year, 60 cattle camps were evicted from the core area and about 7,000 heads of cattle impounded with a fine of Rs.60,000 levied on the offenders.
The Baiga are puzzled about this relocation in the name of the tiger. Mr. Pande says now there are five tigers and two cubs in a core area of 626 sq.km. In 2010, a single tiger was camera trapped after extensive effort. Of 25 villages, 19 of them are in the core area. Of these, six villages comprising 249 families have already been shifted.
A proposal to move five more villages has been sent to the Centre. “By removing three villages with a population of 121 families in Chapparwah range, 149 sq.km has become humanless and now you can see many deer. Even the tiger has started moving there,” Mr. Pande exults. He shows no remorse in saying that the villages were shifted out of the forest before their new homes were built.
“Even when we do something with bona fide intentions, people see something malafide. We felt the Baiga have to be involved in building their homes and we could give them work like digging and levelling land. That way they could earn some money.”
Asked if moving them in the cold was a good idea, he says, “As if the Baiga have blankets in the forest. They cut sal trees and set them on fire.”
In the winter of December 2009 people didn’t have the luxury of firewood and almost froze to death. “Do you expect that we should build homes first and give them the keys?” Mr. Pande asks rather surprised. The Baiga wouldn’t be used to that now, would they?