At a time when the rehabilitation of villages out of tiger landscapes has become more difficult than ever,with the Forest Rights Act having made it subject to vilagers consent,here is one tiger territory that stands out in contrast.
Tucked in the Melghat hills,Wan has become the first tiger area to have successfully relocated three villages at one go. And the villagers have not only consented but are so happy that many other villages have petitioned the Forest Department to rehabilitate them too.
For the 350 families of Amona,Nagartas and Bharukheda,relocation earlier this year has brought Rs 10 lakh per adult,free land for a house,and better access to markets,education,health facilities,the court,the police and tahsil headquarters. They now use buses that rarely reached them earlier.
Amona,which has shifted 10 km to a new location in Kasod,is now 15 km from its new tahsil headquarters of Akot in Akola district; its previous headquarters of Chikhaldara in Amravati was over 100 km away. Shivpuri,just 2 km away,has a primary health centre as well as job opportunities. Mahadeo Tote says: I suffered a sloth bear attack a few months ago. It took me six hours to reach the hospital; now,anyone can reach a hospital in less than 30 minutes.
Akot itself has all educational facilities. Earlier,the villagers had to walk 3 km for water when their borewell went dry in the summer; now,they have water right in the village round the year.
Bharukheda and Nagartas,earlier 10 km apart,have been resettled at the same place. Bharukheda was 120 km from Chikhaldara and villagers travelled on foot or by bullock cart,then change buses thrice. Neither Bharukheda nor Nagartas had electricity; now all three villages have free connections and new ration cards,besides an assured government job to a member of each family.
We thought of a novel idea of offering them the vacated irrigation colony of the Wan project. They were so happy to see the pucca quarters that they shifted to the place without waiting for the formalities to be completed, says Srinivas Reddy,deputy conservator of forests,Akot.
We are closer to many essential facilities. We now also have electricity, says Sheikh Nizam Sheikh Munir,a ration shop owner in Bharukheda.
The shift has fetched villagers mobile phones,two-wheelers and even four-wheelers,apart from financial stability a Rs 5-lakh,six-year fixed deposit that fetches the beneficiary around Rs 4,500 per month; Rs 2 lakh in a savings account and Rs 3 lakh in a nine-month fixed deposit.
Some families with four adult members have received up to Rs 40 lakh. This they would probably never have been able to save… inside the forests, says Reddy.
The forest department offered only the plots; many villagers built their own houses. We didnt want to leave anything for them to complain about. Normally,there are lot of complaints about the quality of construction, Reddy says.
A few families,less than 50,legally owned farmland at the pervious locations. We compensated them, Reddy says. The landowners,however,say they have faced difficulty buying suitable land for farming since local farm-owners have jacked up prices. They feel we have a lot of money now, one says. Reddy says,That would be a temporary phenomenon. We hope the prices will come down in the near future.
The new residential properties offer a major consolation. The 2,000 sq feet each villager owns is worth Rs 3 lakh.
For the forest department,the advantages have been many. With the three villages gone from the prime tiger land,a large tract has been freed for freer movement of wildlife. It has also taken the grazing pressure off the area with more than 3,000 heads of cattle now out of it. The villagers ignited forest fires for better tendu harvest. We will now have drastically fewer fires to tackle, says principal secretary (forest) Pravin Pardeshi,who was divisional commissioner of Amravati till a few months ago,and who personally interacted with and convinced the villagers to go for rehabilitation.