Fear of eviction haunts tribal people in national park

MANGALORE DEC. 4. The recent naxalite problem in Dakshina Kannada and areas bordering the Kudremukh National Park (KNP) in neighbouring districts is not of recent origin. The main cause of the problem is apparently the "ruthless" imposition of KNP rules on tribal people who have lived inside the park limits for decades.

According to people familiar with the history of the region, records show that some families have lived for 200 years in areas which are now in the park limits. The old settlement around the 700-year-old Mahalingeshwara temple at Sulkeri Mogaru village exists even today, they say. For example, the family of Cheluvaiah Malekudia has lived at Kutluru for over 200 years. Documents have been issued by the Forest and Revenue departments giving the family members clear titles to 90 acres of land in Nangaje, Bardaje, and Panjalu villages, which they have used for the past 150 years.

For the past 10 years, young members of over 1,350 families which have dwellings in the newly earmarked KNP area in Belthangady taluk have protested against the Forest Department's move to evict them.

In recent times, the Forest Department has joined the efforts of the Revenue Department to evict farmers from KNP limits. The departments ask them to pay fines for encroaching on government land and warn them that if they do not leave the park, they will be treated on a par with poachers.

Farmers have been growing paddy, fruit, and berries for their sustenance inside the park limits. Some of them are "patta" holders who have paid tirve (land tax) for the past 40 years. It is argued that the Government should treat the cultivations not as encroachments but as regularised agricultural land as they bring in revenue.

The Reserve Forest Evacuees' Horata Samithi, an NGO which is leading the anti-eviction movement, says many of the farmers are tribal people who have lived inside forests for seven or eight generations. By accepting tirve, the Government acknowledged their presence, the samithi points out. In any case, there are records to show that they have been living there much before 1978, the benchmark year set by the Supreme Court for eviction.

According to P.N. Rajan, President of the samithi, and the legal adviser, Ranjan Rao Yerdoor, some "encroachers" have been given certificates of regularisation of land by the Revenue Department. Many of them hold permits authorising them to cultivate land. This strengthens the argument for earmarking the 2,756 acres of land occupied by tribal people as exclusive for tribal habitations. In the disputed lands, schools and anganwadis have been started by the Government, it is learnt.

Tribal people, who are faced with the threat of displacement from their traditional agricultural pastures, fear they cannot survive elsewhere. According to them, they will not benefit from the package announced by the State Government as they will be given land in places where they cannot eke out a living. The fear of alienation has driven tribal people to resort to violent agitations, and their target is the Forest Department, which they feel has taken away their right to live in the forests.

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