They are mockingly referred to as ‘Daslakhiya’, a name usually given to someone who has Rs 10 lakh in his possession. The tragedy, however, is that the Baiga tribe remain largely penniless after they accepted monetary compensation in exchange of their lands.
Nestled amidst the thick jungles of Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh lies Jholar village. Baigas are a sparsely distributed tribal community and a particularly vulnerable tribal group. Most claim they were forcefully evicted by officials from the nearby tiger reserve and moved to inadequate settlements in the name of forest and tiger conservation.
“I have been reduced to begging. I was evicted from the Kanha National Park and now I am trapped in a barren land; struggling under dire conditions,” laments a member of the tribe. His tragic account is echoed by many others moved out of Jholar, which the villagers claim was a resource abundant village in the buffer zone of Kanha. Having been ‘relocated’ to distant villages, hundreds of people belonging to the primitive Baiga tribe are now facing a desperate future, wandering around the area to eke out a living.
Known for their distinctive tattoos and for their close-knit relationship with environment, the compensation money was an alien concept for those who had lived all their lives in the forest. “We were content with our lives when we used to stay in Jholar. We used to do farm and trade. Today, we are surviving on minimal food by doing labour. We have no facilities and resources here,” says a tribal woman relocated to Charchendi hamlet.
Development-induced displacement and resettlement are two sides of the same coin, aimed at dismantling their community by stripping of their self-sufficiency, explains ‘Daslakhiya’, a documentary that explains what eviction does to ancient tribes like the Baiga. It also questions the very idea of ‘conservation’ when it is depriving the tribals of their culture, rights and basic necessities of life, pushing them into the lives of poverty on the fringes of the society.
“The impact of displacement has been catastrophic; there has not been a single proper settlement yet. They became homeless, some are still wandering and some have been forced to build houses on government properties, says Meena Qureshi, who runs an NGO called Nari Utthan Sewa Mahila Mandal in Baihar taluk.
Allegations of rampant corruption against forest department
The entire scheme of compensation has been riddled with complexities and reeks of rampant corruption, the Baiga say, alleging they haven’t been given the promised share. Hemlal Dhurwey, vice-president of the Adivasi Vikas Parishad (Balaghat), claims the eviction has been organised in a phased and gradual manner to stop tribals from mobilising.
According to him, officials tricked them into signing necessary papers and used fear as a measure to evict them from their ancestral home. “The deputy ranger forced them to sign consent letters; these innocent, illiterate tribals went on to give their signature on the letters and hence they were displaced gradually on the basis of the written consent,” says Dhurwey.
“They were lured with a compensation of Rs 10 lakh per head to those above 18 years of age. They thought that 10 lakh would be a huge sum of money for their land,” he says, adding that the compensation was scant with officials mired in corruption and demanding almost the entire amount to give a portion of land in return.
Recalling her ordeal, a woman narrated how forest officials threatened to raze her house before they evicted her from Jholar. “If you don’t leave we will bring bulldozers, we will demolish your homes; we will bring even elephants for that. Can our huts withstand any of these,” she asks while pointing towards the mud brick house which stands in a dilapidated condition. Having been forced to take the compensation money, she now remains apprehensive whether she would eventually end up buying infertile land.
“The forest department took away tribals’ lease agreements and tweaked it. Now, they cannot even claim ownership and say they are the custodians of this land,” says Meena, who has worked extensively towards the betterment of the Baiga tribal community.
Another stumbling block, Dhurwey says, is the involvement of mediators who are entrusted with the task of helping the displaced tribals get productive land in return. Greedy middlemen, however, struck deals with landowners and hiked the prices of land to get as much money in their accounts. Highlighting the corruption, he says a plot worth Rs 1 lakh was sold for Rs 5 lakh with the mediators taking away the remaining profits. In addition, they are charged extra by authorities even during registration.
Gross violation of PESA, Forest Rights Act?
As per the Forest Rights Act, 2006, tribals have the right of ownership, access to collect, use, and dispose of minor forest produce which has been traditionally collected within or outside village boundaries. The tribals have been endowed with a similar set of rights under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996.
But the Baigas not only endure restrictions from the forest officials, but are also subjected to severe abuse and harassment. “As per the PESA act, tribals can acquire dead wood from the forest, but forest rangers don’t even let them do that. Tribals are not even allowed to enter the forest with an axe in the buffer zone area. This is against the rights enshrined under the act,” Dhurwey says.
Bardhan Singh said he was surrounded when he went to collect wood. “I was on the tree. I fell five foot from above when they struck me. They took Rs 200 from me. Later, they gave me Rs 50 for treatment. The pain is still there.”
Pointing out other violations, Dhurwey adds: “Fifth schedule comes into effect in an area where tribal population is above 75 per cent. Every organisation should have a tribal head. But the sub-divisional magistrate and district officers are not from the tribal community.”
On the outskirts of the forest, there are more villages where tribals face the threat of eviction. Having seen the fallout of the eviction over a period of time, they remain adamant about not relenting. “Officials said we have to evacuate, but we won’t. We have seen that those who were evicted with compensation have suffered miserably,” said another baiga man while equating the compensation amount of Rs 10 lakh to “ten lashes”.
Drawing a grim picture about the Baigas, Meena believes the current situation won’t change in a day. “It requires a mass movement, awareness of the tribal issues, a change of perspective within every caste, curbing the level of corruption, and implementation of strict policies even while giving compensation,” she adds.
“Resettlement breaks the tribe. By doing this, they are depriving the tribals of their basic rights. The government should make available the basic facilities they had before rather than taking their land and leaving them no choice. Then only, resettlement will work in true sense, otherwise it is just a strategy to make them homeless wanderers,” says a school teacher from the community.