Print edition : July 20, 2018

Pendrum Asubai, seen here along with other women of Mysampet. She has been hearing about relocation from 2012, when she moved here.

One of several unfinished houses in the village.

Mysampet, a village of about 80 families living deep within the tiger reserve's core area. There is a proposal to move this village of Raj Gond and Nayakapod tribes to create larger inviolate spaces for tigers and their prey base.

Lakshman, a beat officer of Rampur range, shows a salt slab fixed by the Forest Department for animals, which lick the slab and drink water from the watering hole created for them with solar-powered groundwater pumps.

Animals lick the slab and drink water from the watering hole created for them with solar-powered groundwater pumps.

Prabhakar, a beat officer of Kaddem range, stands at the site where villagers from Mysampet and Rampur will be relocated. He says it has not been easy to keep the land clear of encroachments from the neighbouring villages.

Strike force officials Jalapathi, Maru, Guglabad Anil and Venkatesh. They patrol the jungles in their forest ranges to track illegal activities and are paid Rs.6,500 each a month. Photo: SDS ADSAD

In a rare situation, bureaucratic delays are hampering the relocation of willing communities from five tribal villages in the Kawal Tiger Reserve in northern Telangana.

Pendrum Asubai is livid. She has been hearing from officials about her village’s (Mysampet) relocation for the past six years. But apart from their promises, and the signatures they took to formalise the relocation of her community of Raj Gonds living deep inside the forests of the Kawal Tiger Reserve (KTR), not much has happened. Mysampet is one of the five tribal villages in the core area of the tiger reserve slated to be moved in the first phase of what will likely be a protracted relocation process. The reserve is located in Mancherial district of Telangana.

Mysampet has 79 families and a cultivated area of about 100 acres. Villagers said they would let their lands remain fallow this harvest season as they had received word that the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) could approve the relocation within “weeks”. That was on May 31.

Speaking to Frontline, Telangana’s Forest Department officials as well as higher-ups within the NTCA admitted that bureaucratic delays were the main hurdle in the relocation process. 

Mysampet is of recent vintage when compared with other tribal villages within the KTR. The Gondi-speaking tribe moved here when their village at the Kadem reservoir site in Adilabad district was submerged. Kadem, a tributary of the Godavari, was dammed in the 1950s to irrigate about 25,000 hectares (one hectare is 2.47 acres) of farmland.

Asubai, who hails from Jainoor in Adilabad, moved to Mysampet, her husband’s village, in 2012, the year the KTR came into being. She has three daughters and two sons.

The village’s farms are rain-fed, with one harvest season a year. The main crops are cotton, jowar and lentils. The village is scenic and quaint, much like other tribal settlements in the KTR. Homes are built of bamboo mats and cane and bamboo leaves are used to thatch roofs. Some residents have built modest brick homes mainly with assistance received under the Indramma scheme of undivided Andhra Pradesh in 2006. NTCA efforts

Mysampet’s relocation is part of the ongoing efforts of the NTCA since its creation in 2006 following an amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 in order to provide a legal framework for tiger conservation. 

The KTR was created out of the erstwhile Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary, which came into being in 1965. It has a core area of 892 square kilometres, with 33 villages and a population of close to 20,000, a rather large number of people to relocate in one go. Together with its buffer area, the KTR spans 2,015 sq km.

In the five villages slated for relocation, run-down panchayat offices and rarely functioning primary schools stand in contrast to direct-to-home antennas in almost every home, mobile phones, and a few motorbikes. A young man in Mysampet has even managed to buy a tractor on loan. But literacy is low and only a few villagers have studied beyond class X and fewer still hold jobs in the formal economy. Locally brewed liquor such as mahua and toddy has given way to cheap whiskey, rum and beer. Empty plastic liquor bottles are seen littered across the forest floor. The lack of civic amenities has resulted in small piles of non-biodegradable garbage at the edge of each village. 

Until 2012, the villagers collected tendu leaves and bamboo from the forest to make a living. They used to make bamboo mats and baskets and sell them at Rs.130-180 apiece to traders who came once a week on minivans taking the dirt road through the forests, often without permits. This trade has been badly hit since the creation of the KTR. Check-posts have been erected on National Highway 24, which runs through the tiger reserve. Only those living within the core area are allowed entry between 6 p.m. and 9 a.m. Even collecting firewood has been disallowed, but the Forest Department has distributed free gas cylinders to all homes in the five villages, which has won it much praise. Exasperated residents

Across the five villages, residents expressed exasperation at the delay in relocation. Caught between the restrictions placed on their sources of livelihood and the constant fear of animal attack and damage to crops, villagers are looking forward, albeit with trepidation, to a life considerably different from the one they lead now.

Some 265 acres of territorial forest land have been identified and even cleared for the community’s resettlement about 30 km away. They would have to be dereserved and converted into revenue land. Residents of Rampur, a much smaller village of 25 families located close to Mysampet, will also be moved to this site. Rampur’s residents belong to the Telugu-speaking Nayakapod tribe. They own just over 14 acres of farmland.

C. Saravana, KTR’s Field Director under the NTCA, said the department was unable to find any revenue land for the villagers’ relocation and that District Collectors too had expressed their inability to part with common or government land, hence the decision to clear forest land.

He said the loss of such a large area of forest land to farming would pay off in the long run as it would create larger inviolate spaces for big cats and their prey base while at the same time accommodating tribal people who prefer the familiarity of a semi-forest environment but are freed from the everyday ordeal of guarding their farms and livestock.

Forest officials said that convincing members of both communities to move was not easy. While they were aware of the remoteness of their villages and the lack of infrastructure, moving out of the forest appeared intimidating and uncertain. Voluntary groups such as the Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society played a key role in convincing them to move.

Apprehensive villagers were taken to successfully rehabilitated villages in other tiger reserves. They made several trips to the Tipeshwar Wildlife Sanctuary and the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) in Maharashtra and Kanha in Madhya Pradesh. Azhar Sheik, who lives close to TADR in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra, recalled how the residents of Mysampet and Rampur were not even willing to step out of the forest guest house during the first of their three visits to the rehabilitated villages of Jamni and Navegaon, which were earlier located within TADR’s core area.

Sheik is involved in the ongoing relocation process at Tadoba. He recalled villagers saying: “Kill all the tigers. All the problems would be solved.” But the second visit, Sheik said, was of people under 40, who were more receptive to change and eager to interact with relocated villagers.

In the past five years, people from Dongapalli, Malyal and Alinagar, the other three villages proposed to be moved, have also paid visits to relocated communities in other tiger reserves to get an idea of what relocation could look like. They seem happy with what has been provided at Tadoba and expect the same at the KTR. This exercise has also helped build trust with the Forest Department.

Compensation

As per NTCA guidelines, every tribal family slated for relocation has been given two options: Rs.10 lakh as a lump sum for every adult member (men) or five acres of cultivable land at an agreed upon relocation site along with a Rs.10 lakh housing-cum-social infrastructure grant. Out of the Rs.10 lakh grant, the family would get Rs.2.5 lakh to build a house and the rest would go towards providing facilities for a gram panchayat such as a gram sabha office, an anganwadi, primary/secondary schools, water pumps, a primary health centre, street lighting and overhead tanks. The villagers of Mysampet and Rampur have also sought a separate cemetery, which the Forest Department has agreed to provide. 

An overwhelming majority of elders in these two villages have chosen the land option for the families, while younger members have accepted the lump sum. This has given joint families with three or four adult members land parcels of 10 acres and Rs.25 lakh in hand, which they could use as they please. This NTCA policy has been combined with the Telangana government’s two-bedroom housing scheme, which allows families to save on home-building expenses.

The KTR had a similar scheme in the past, which has resulted in half-built homes littered all over villages in the reserve. They were not completed either because of lack of funds or because the contractor just disappeared. 

The Indramma Housing Scheme, launched by the Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy government of undivided Andhra Pradesh in 2006, provided a subsidy of Rs.25,000 for the construction of brick homes, with unit prices fixed at Rs.55, 000 then. The rest of the amount needed for construction was to be sourced from micro-credit institutions. 

Gadde Narsaiah, a resident of Rampur, hired a contractor who was brought to him by the village sarpanch about five years ago to construct his house. 

Narsaiah said: “The contractor came with an agreement, which I attested with my thumb impression. I do not know how he [the contractor] got the money and from where, but he was to complete the entire house. After the walls were done, the roof had to be built. I called him a few times but he never came back for the roof.”

Narsaiah lives in the bamboo home that he has built right behind the unfinished house. The brick structure now serves as a sitting and storage area.

Such construction on forest land was made possible by the enactment of the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also called the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The Act sought conversion of cultivated forest land into revenue land. For the first time tribal people could obtain title deeds along with Recognition of Forest Rights certificates. This was done with greater vigour in undivided Andhra Pradesh as the United Progressive Alliance was in power in the State and in the Centre.

However, conversion of forest land into revenue land presented a duality in administration within protected areas, which until then remained in the exclusive jurisdiction of the Forest Department. The half-finished houses were a result of the haphazard state intervention and corruption that this duality engendered.

Stressed department

If fear of Maoists, as admitted by Forest Department officials, kept the state apparatus out of the forests, political interference made them turn a blind eye to the exploitation of the tribal people. Also, the Forest Department’s resources are stretched thin: as much as 60 per cent of the department’s job positions have been unfilled in the past four years.

The K. Chandrashekar Rao government has done away with department-level recruitments of beat, section and range officers and brought them under the Telangana State Public Service Commission’s examination-cum selection process in a bid to weed out nepotism and resultant corruption in the administration of forests, but the delays in selection and appointment of personnel have led to an overworked staff susceptible to political whims and transfers.

Positions below the rank of beat officers, such as base camp officials, strike force, anti-poaching squad, drivers and kitchen staff stationed at forest guest houses are all hired locally on an ad hoc basis. They are mostly men in their twenties who perform barefoot jobs of living within the forest, facing animal attacks and tracking illegal activities. But they are not paid well and are exploited badly. They begin with a monthly salary of Rs.6,500 for 24-hour days with four breaks in a month. Insubordination, complaints against corrupt superiors and any attempt to unionise is met with termination.

The population pressure on the KTR cannot be overstated. Most residents are unhappy over the restrictions placed on their activities following the creation of the tiger reserve. At Indanpalli, a village of about 600 families in the Jannaram division of the KTR located within the core area, Mallaiya, a shopkeeper, complains of business slowing down. He said angrily: “This is no tiger reserve. This is a monkey reserve.” 

Indanpalli is just one of the 28 villages within the core area that are much larger than the ones home to the Gond and Nayakapod communities slated for relocation. The communities here have, over the years, become diverse, but there is a preponderance of Lambadas, who are of Rajasthani origin and who have benefited from their Scheduled Tribe status in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Other tribal communities are now demanding that Lambadas be removed from affirmative action policies. This conflict also plays itself out across the tiger reserve in myriad ways, such as animosity and distrust towards Lambada officials of the Forest Department.

The British Raj created forest villages to ensure cheap supply of labour for resource extraction and administration, as did the Hyderabad Nizams until 1948. Alinagar, with 54 Raj Gond families and proposed for relocation, is one such village. It derives its name from a Nizam-era forest official named Dost Mohammed Ali Khan who settled three villages in the area, Dostnagar, Alinagar and Mohammedabad, according to officials.

Over time, these communities moved from being hunter-gatherers to settled subsistence farmers. Their population increased over the years, as did their contact with the outside world. Introduction to the formal economy began to erode their communitarian lifestyle in sync with nature. From subsistence farming, they moved to trade in forest produce such as bamboo mats and tendu leaves or worked as cheap manual labour in urban areas or ended up being exploited by illegal timber merchants. 

Madavi Mambu Bai, who does not know her age, is the eldest in the Alinagar community. She is blind. Sitting in her home, she says: “I came to this village after my marriage and I remember Jannaram having only 10 homes, one of which was that of the washermen community. The main community at Jannaram back then were Gonds. We worked to build the Kadem reservoir. I do not know the names of the officers who came to Alinagar who took us to the river, but we earned a daily wage. I have told my great-grandchildren and my seven children to leave the village now. My time here is over.”

According to the 2011 population census, Jannaram village had 716 families and nearly 3,000 people living there. The main tribal community there is Lambada.

Forest officials said the ACC cement factory located nearby had agreed to give up some of its land for afforestation, which is where Dongapalli and Alinagar would be relocated.

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