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A view of the secondary school and the anganwadi at Navegaon. Photo: Kunal Shankar

Villagers at Navegaon have built spacious homes keeping future needs in mind. Some have converted them into homestays, like this one. Photo: Kunal Shankar

Balaji Raoji Koichade next to the solar-powered borewell dug by the Forest Department in April this year for Jamni village’s drinking water needs. Photo: Kunal Shankar

Azhar Sheikh (left), Navegaon’s Rehabilitation Committee president, and Mukhtiar Sheikh, a Forest Department official, next to the stone marker at the site where Ramdegi village was situated inside the TATR’s core area. Photo: Kunal Shankar

The Jamni village reservoir within the forest, now frequented by ungulates and other wild animals. Photo: Kunal Shankar

There is a meadow now where Ramdegi village in TATR's core area once stood.

The successful resettlement of tribal communities from a village in the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve offers important lessons for other States.

A simple stone marker facing a sprawling grassland in the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) in Maharashtra reads: “This meadow has come up after voluntary relocation of Ramdegi (Navegaon) village in the year 2012-13. All 240 families in Ramdegi village willingly opted to relocate.” It was a watershed moment in forest conservation in India. Five years on, Ramdegi’s relocation has become a model for other States to emulate.

The tiger reserve at Tadoba was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1955. It was the third such “protected area” created in the country. In 1993, it was turned into a “critical tiger habitat”, but it took two more decades to convince the six Raj Gond communities living within the TATR’s 625-kilometre core area to agree to relocate.

Attempts to relocate communities from protected areas have been ongoing for decades now, but without much success until five years ago, after which there has been a marked change. The main reason for this has been the drastic overhaul of the relocation process since 2008 with the creation of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).

Until 2008, the monetary compensation for relocation was Rs.1 lakh for a forest-dwelling family and land for land at an agreed upon alternative site, usually located in the buffer area of the tiger reserve. The amount included the cost of a house as well as each family’s share of expenses to create common civic infrastructure. No monies were given for the lands forgone, and each home, even in the case of joint families, was considered one beneficiary unit.

In 2008, following the creation of the NTCA, the Forest Department under the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest was flush with funds. This led to a tenfold increase in monetary compensation for those willing to relocate without seeking land at the new site. The second option was five acres of land (two hectares) at the relocation site and monetary compensation of Rs.10 lakh, one-fourth of which would be given as cash in hand to build a home while the rest would be used to create common civic infrastructure.

In 2015, the Maharashtra government added an extra benefit, which has now become universal at all NTCA relocation sites. The government paid four times the land value for the lands forgone for those not opting for farms at the relocated site.

Every male member above 18 was initially considered to be a family unit. This was amended in 2013 to include unmarried women over 18 only in Maharashtra, thanks to the persistent efforts of the then Forest Secretary of the State, Praveen Pardesi. Apart from enhancing compensation, the NTCA also provides benefits such as subsidy on gas cylinders, so that villagers do not have to collect firewood from the forest, and solar fencing of farmlands at the relocated site.

On June 30, 2013, the village of Navegaon, which means new village in Marathi, was born, with 111 homes and 550 acres of farmland in the buffer area of the TATR.

Navegaon’s panchayat office has modern furniture and comfortable seating. Electricity and gas connections have not been a problem. They are paid for through a panchayat-elected body at every relocated village called the eco-development committee (EDC).

The EDC’s purpose is to create awareness about the environment and to suggest forest-friendly development by enabling creative, participatory solutions.

At Navegaon, the EDC, which receives funds from the NTCA through the State’s Forest Department, foots 75 per cent of the gas and solar fencing costs, while the rest is borne by the beneficiaries. The EDC also receives State government-related benefits such as a Rs.25-lakh grant for every relocated community to be spent on civic amenities.

There is another elected body called the rehabilitation committee, consisting entirely of villagers, which relays the demands of the community to the bureaucracy. It is created at the time of relocation to double up as a self-administrative body at the village level and to execute the rehabilitation process. It is dissolved once the process is over. .

Speaking to Frontline at Navegaon’s gram panchayat office, Azhar Sheikh, who was the president of the village’s rehabilitation committee, proudly said: “Looking at our shift, residents of Jamni gained confidence to move out.” Jamni is one of the other five villages within the TATR’s core area, which relocated a year after Ramdegi. Sheikh is in his mid 40s. He comes from a well-regarded family from Navegaon’s neghbouring village, Khadsangi, a much larger, established and diverse community that falls outside the buffer area. Khadsangi has had a much longer association with the other branches of governance such as irrigation, revenue and agriculture, whereas Navegaon’s residents had mostly interfaced only with the Forest Department.

Navegaon’s residents elected Sheikh to head the rehabilitation committee over anyone from among themselves as they wanted someone who could navigate the bureaucratic process with confidence, and they trusted Sheik and his family.

Sheikh said four “model homes” were first built to showcase a two-bedroom, living and kitchen unit that could be built with Rs.2 lakh. But villagers were free to improvise or add according to their needs. For example, in a family of a couple with three adult children, there could be two members opting for land and the other two opting for a lump sum. The two who opted for land received Rs.5 lakh to build a home. The other two received another Rs.10 lakh each, allowing families to put aside more for a larger property. Several families in Navegaon have built spacious homes giving thought to their future needs. Some have even converted them into homestays for visiting tourists.

The relocation of the two villages though has been patchy. At Jamni, residents complain of lack of a water source for farming. There is a reservoir close by, but it is almost dry as the summer peaks. Maharashtra has been scrupulous lately about digging borewells. Villagers at Jamni have been told that four landowners could collectively own and operate one well. The Ground Water Department has improved monitoring after the Devendra Fadnavis government faced flak two years ago for not doing enough to mitigate one of the worst droughts seen in this region, which is close to Marathwada.

All homes have a water connection, but the pressure from the overhead tank is low. Residents collect water in large buckets for use over three days. The Forest Department dug a borewell for drinking water in April this year, which is operated by a solar-powered pump. Street lights are also solar-powered and battery-operated.

Children complained about a rarely functioning school and a primary health centre, while adults said that getting a public transport bus to stop at the village often required a phone call to the conductor or the driver.

Seventy-year-old Balaji Raoji Koichade is happy to be at the relocated Jamni village. He got only five acres as he has two married daughters, while his neighbour, Mayabai Dharmarao Pendam, got 10 acres as she has two sons. Koichade said it would take some time to get used to the new place, but added that the life of the forest was history now.

Senior Forest Department officials acknowledged that there had been teething troubles but promised to extend “handholding” for as long as it took for the villagers to settle in. Gajendra Narvane, Deputy Conservator of Forests of the buffer area of the TATR, who has been overseeing the relocation process, said: “We consider all the six villages within the core area as our own.” Narvane has won much praise from officials and villagers alike for attempting a truly participatory response from the government.

Officials seemed aware of the fact that for the communities that have been relocated, the government would continue to mean the Forest Department for a while, even though jurisdictionally they now come under the purview of several other departments. For instance, it is the Forest Department that foots the bill for the water connection, as the communities are not used to the idea of “paying for water, or electricity or gas”.

The villagers are happy to build their own houses as opposed to accepting uniform government-constructed buildings. At Palasgaon Singru, the third village currently being relocated, Sanjay Sukhdev Koichade, a resident, said: “If we allow the government to build our homes, they may give it to a contractor who may not build something to our liking.”

Palasgaon Singru is idyllic. It has 60 families and 138 acres of farmland, nestled in the forest amid vast open spaces. Villagers here still make bamboo baskets and mats. Koichade said they made 10 baskets a day and sold them at Rs.50 each but spent a day in the jungle to cut the bamboo for the baskets. The money they make fetches a week’s rations. Except for five families that still continue to own small patches of land, the rest have sold their land to non-forest dwellers, who cultivate them using the same community as agricultural workers.

Although it is illegal to own forest lands for non-tribals or anyone other than “traditional forest dwelling communities” as described in the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, known as the Forest Rights Act, several such transactions have taken place. Remoteness, shrinking markets for their produce, drought and damage to crops by animals have pushed tribal communities into poverty, forcing them to enter into illegal land transactions.

This has made them and the forests more prone to exploitation. Palasgaon Singru residents are happy to move out even though they know life as they know it will never be the same again.

At the site that will be the relocated Palasgaon Singru, work on building homes and creating infrastructure is on at a brisk pace. The village’s rehabilitation committee secretary, 43-year-old Bhaskar Khumre, is grateful that the new site is right by a national highway and the road leading to the village is “wider than he had imagined it to be”.

TATR’s Field Director Mukul Trivedi faces a different challenge now as Tadoba becomes noted for frequent tiger sightings. Trivedi said that “95 per cent” of his time now is spent dealing with tourism-related queries, with constant pressure from “VIPs and wannabe VIPs” preparing their entire itinerary except the jungle safari. At his field office at a quaint colonial-era building in Chandrapur, Mukul Trivedi said: “I am under severe pressure to let more and more tourists in.”

The NTCA had suggested a “carrying capacity” of 20 per cent of the core areas of tiger reserves for tourism-related purposes following a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Supreme Court. The PIL sought a ban on tourism, accusing the industry of being detrimental to conservation. Trivedi said in the 20 per cent area the number of vehicles that could be allowed each day was restricted to 125 six-seater open-roof Gypsies, or 750 people a day. Trivedi has a discretionary quota of six more vehicles, for which, he said, he received “100 calls each day”.

While speaking to Frontline, he received a call from a woman who had been referred to him by a Maharashtra Cabinet Minister. The woman asked a range of questions from whether the Forest Department would provide binoculars to whether their tour group could get off the jeep and walk about in the jungle.

An exasperated Trivedi said: “Why are we relocating? These villagers, tribal people, have been living there for years. Their population has increased just like the population outside. It is becoming destructive for the forest, that is true, but they are not to be blamed for that. You’re saying that they are a threat to the tigers, a threat to their habitat, and removing them. Why? So that you can bring busloads of people from outside who have money and cameras so they can move around in those areas? There is no point in relocating then. This [the forest] is also an enclosure. In a zoo the area of enclosure is smaller, this is larger. We are providing them [animals] with food, water and, in addition, bringing busloads of tourists.”

He added: “I told my previous Field Director that the carrying capacity should not be exceeded, and he ensured that, despite all pressures. He was from the State cadre and he had done wonderfully. He said no to everybody and stuck to the carrying capacity. Within a week he was transferred, and now he has been transferred again. So, if he is transferred twice in nine months, how do we conserve forests and attempt successful relocation of villagers?”

The main takeaway from the Tadoba relocation process for other projects such as irrigation, infrastructure creation and industry is that anything short of a long-drawn-out, participatory, transparent and just approach is bound to fail.