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Madia Gond tribes leave ancestral land to make way for tiger conservation

The Madia Gond tribes, who have lived in and around the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve for many years, are leaving their ancestral lands due to tiger conservation efforts for which certain areas have to remain undisturbed by human presence. Some of the tribal people that have been relocated to new areas are facing negative consequences due to inadequate resettlement facilities, raising concerns among those that are yet to be relocated. Sahana David Menon reports

In 2007, around 625 square km of area inside the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur District, was notified as a critical tiger habitat under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, by the state government. Following this, the state forest department started relocating the tribal families residing there as it was an inviolate space where the people could not reside nor use forest land for their livelihood or graze cattle anymore. Rantalodi, a Madia Gond tribal village situated inside the Tadoba-Andhari core zone, is one of the last six villages that is proposed for relocation.

Rantalodi, a Madia Gond tribal village, is one of the villages that will be relocated as it falls under the area within the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve which was
notified as a critical tiger habitat.

Madia Gond is an indigenous endogamous tribal community, living in parts of India, including in the Chandrapur District, residing in and around the Tadoba-Andhari reserve. The area is also known to have a significant tiger population. Tadoba was declared as a National Park in 1955 with an area of 116 square km. The adjoining forested area of the Andhari River was declared as Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary in 1986. Finally, in 1993, a total area of about 625 sq km was declared as the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR). In 2012, an additional area of 1127.17 km2 was annexed to the previously protected areas as the buffer area thereby making it one of the largest tiger reserves in Maharashtra, according to the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

Jitendra Ramgaokar, field director, TATR, said that the forest department has been relocating people from the reserve area since 2004. Though the critical tiger habitat was declared in 2007, the negotiations between people and the forest department and initial relocation process were carried from 2004, one of the reasons being to avoid incidents of human-animal conflict. In 2007, 140 families from Botezari Village were relocated; followed by 200 families from the Ramdegi Village in 2013; and 222 families from the Jamni Village in March 2014, according to media reports. The exact numbers recorded for official purposes may vary from publicly available numbers, notes a scientist based in the region.

A tiger in Tadoba. Photo: Stephenekka/Wikimedia Commons.

Human-tiger conflict
Human-tiger conflict has been common in Chandrapur District in recent years, though some of the local people say it was a major problem earlier but has reduced now. In 2022, six people were killed in human-animal conflicts between October 12 and 24 in Chandrapur District alone. One of the major reasons for rise in human-animal conflicts is the coal mines and power plants located close to the forest and natural corridors, where the animals travel to the adjoining forests, note experts. The population of tigers in TATR has increased in the last 10 years. According to the National Tiger Conservation’s 2019 report on status of tigers in TATR, there were a total of 49 tigers in the year 2012. By 2015, the number had increased to 88. According to the estimation in 2019, there were 115 adult tigers inside the Tadoba Andhari Reserve.

In Chandrapur, natural pathways that were once used by animals to travel between forested areas have been obstructed by the construction of mines and power plants. As a result, some of these animals are venturing into farming lands of villages, such as Bhagwanpur which lies on the east of the reserve. Some media reports claim that tree plantations in Chandrapur, mandated by the national forest policy, have provided a new habitat for migrating animals. This has increased the chances of human-tiger interactions. “We live in panic all the time,” says Shedmake, who lost his brother to a tiger attack a few years ago. Shedmake was relocated to Bhagwanpur from Botezari village.

In Moharali, a village bordering the reserve, much of the local economy is dependent on tourism. The forest department has trained the locals and created job
opportunities and considers it as one of the model villages for co-existence between the tigers and humans.

Mukund Kulkarni, a researcher and a social worker, said he began visiting these villages in Chandrapur in 1997 and noticed that they were living in a precarious situation. The main sources of employment were activities such as collecting forest goods for their livelihood, which were considered illegal by the forest department. “Their existence was not considered respectfully,” Kulkarni said of his experience in the early days of the relocation process in the region. “Their occupancy was considered as illegal by the forest department.”

Bordering villages co-exist with big cats
Moharali is a bordering village of the Tadoba Andhari Reserve. According to the Forest Department, it is one of the model villages that sets an example of co-existence between the tigers and village people. The Forest Department has trained the locals and also created job opportunities here. The residents, including some members of the tribe, are trained as wildlife rangers, guides, and guards. Much of the local economy is dependent upon tourism and most families in the area have someone working for the tourism sector in restaurants, running homestays or shops. This, according to Ramgaokar, has reduced people’s dependency on the forest. “As the wildlife here became a part of their livelihood, people were more aware of their responsibility to protect it, says Ramgaokar. “We trained them to become self-sufficient with tourism activities.”

Bhagwanpur has school up to Class 4. The residents hope for a school up to Class 10 so that the students don’t have to travel for further studies.

The village of Bhagwanpur, located 40 km from Chandrapur (town) along the reserve’s eastern border, has houses, all with similar architecture. However, some of the houses have fallen into disrepair with collapsed roofs, rotten rafters, and cracks on the walls and floors. Many of these Bhagwanpur homes belong to people who have been relocated from Botezari, the first village to be relocated. The people who relocated to Bhagwanpur say that there was conflict between these villagers and newly-relocated people, over sharing forest resources.

Bhagwanpur residents say that there is a lack of facilities, such as water for irrigation, medical facilities and the limited public transportation to reach the village, which cuts them off. It also has limited educational opportunities with a school up to Class 4. Higher education requires students to travel to a school in Chiroli village and the residents share that they hope for Bhagwanpur to have schooling up to Class 10.

The villagers say that other than farming, employment opportunities in the village are limited. Mongabay-India spoke to Akash (who only preferred to share his first name) who drives a Safari jeep at the wildlife sanctuary. He was one of the three villagers to get a job with the Forest Department in 2020. The department had promised jobs to those relocated, he says, but only three people of the village managed to get a job. The jeep he drives belongs to a businessman from Mul, a town near Chandrapur. Akash gets about Rs 2500 and the rest of the amount is divided between the owner and the government.

There is an employment problem in the village, say the residents and the city is not close enough for them to go earn a livelihood there. They are reliant on farming for their income. Kulkarni points out that the land allocated to the Madia Gond tribes in Bhagwanpur, where they were relocated, is not very fertile and lacks water facilities. As a result, many of them were become migratory labourers to other states. He, however, sees hope in the resilience of the local people, particularly the young people.

Rantalodi, the last to relocate
Pragathi Jhumanake, a resident of Rantalodi, says, “Our neighboring villagers who have been relocated to Bhagvanpur are suffering with inadequate resettlement facilities. I’m afraid whether we too will be thrown into a similar condition.” Rucha Ghate, a researcher and a social worker who worked with these communities and present at the time of relocations, wrote in a 2007 commentary based on her research, the colonial rule strategy of divide and rule was used in this village relocation project, she wrote about Botezari. The officials exploited the social dynamics of the village, restricted communication to the patil (headman) and his friends and used acts of prestige to convince them to move first, she wrote. The patil’s was the first house to be relocated and was awarded with agricultural land of his choice. It was assumed that the rest would now follow.

Residents of Rantalodi are sceptical about post-relocation facilities but have agreed to relocate.

While Botezari had given their consent to shift, they did not know they would not get the same legal landholding at the new place. Information about the change in land tenancy was not provided until the end of 2005 to avoid discouraging people from moving, she added in the commentary published in the Economic & Political Weekly. Talking to Mongabay-India on the situation of relocation in Tadoba Andhari, Kulkarni suggests that when relocating indigenous communities, the government should create an appropriate environment for them to adjust to their new surroundings.

During his work in the region, Kulkarni observed that the government neglected indigenous knowledge during the relocation process. He says that when the relocated people suggested building an irrigation lake on the upper side for better irrigation, the contractor chose a lower and more convenient location, ignoring the suggestion. He also adds that the villagers did not want 1,40,000 trees to be cut, in order to construct Bhagwanpur. They requested that only the residential and farm areas be cleared, not all of the forest. However, their suggestions were once again ignored.

A report by the Rights and Resources Initiative says that 50 trillion rupees are needed to resettle forest dwellers in India, while only 28.47 billion rupees are needed for community-led conservation. Community-led conservation is seen as the best solution for conservation and preventing global biodiversity collapse, it suggests. Santosh Thipe, a senior range forest officer, states it is important to come up with ideas for community conservation in order to save both the forest and the dwellers. “We came up with an idea to dig a deep hole and place a diagonally cut old Sintex tank in it,” he adds. “Then we made sure to fill in water all summer because of which the tigers did not venture into villages in search of water.”

 (Courtesy: Mongabay India)