Kathari village inside the buffer zone of the Panna forest reserve
Panna National Park is spread over Panna and Chattarpur districts of Madhya Pradesh, within an area of 542 km. The community living in the forest of Panna are mostly from Raj Gond and Saur Gond.
The ancestors of Raj (meaning rule) Gond used to rule the Panna region. These tribal community live inside the Panna Tiger Reserve area; mostly in the buffer zone. The community have lived in the jungle for generations now – but with the declaration of their villages in the ambit of Tiger Reserve, they have been asked to vacate their habitat. According to the Wild Life Protection Act of 1972, no one is allowed to live inside the core or even in the buffer zone of the national park. Panna is also one of the least ‘developed’ regions of India with one of the highest Infant Mortality Rates (85 against the national rate of 34 per 1000 live births) in India.
Kathari, Bilhata, Marha, Muthwa, Khamri, Koni, Majholi, Kudan – are the eight Villages which are still inside the reserve. The distance from these villages to the city is around 25 to 45 km. the only way you can reach to any of these villages is through your personal vehicle, swimming rather precarious roads. If you want to go the villages inside the forest you have to go through the dense forest and you will encounter forest guard posts and stop throughout. They will ask your purpose of going inside the forest and make you do the entry. So, no one is allowed to just go inside the forest, aimlessly. Most of the times villagers just walk through the jungle to commute. Every Tuesday is bazaar (market) day in Amanganj which is a town where people from all the nearby villages come and get vegetables, food supplies or other things for the whole week. One daggi (a small vehicle with lot of space in the back) from each village comes every Tuesday to the market place.
The forest is part of a resident’s everyday life. Their livelihood completely depends on the forest. Agriculture is the main source of income in the community. During the season time that peaks as summer peaks – they also collect mahua and chironji from the forest. It is very hot during the summer season and as it is also a drought prone area, ground water level in the region is very low. This makes it very hard for the farmers to practice anything outside rainfed agriculture. They migrate to the bigger cities in search of work.
Panna is extreme hot during summers and the same amount of extreme cold during winters. The area is surrounded with mountains and forest, which really influence the microclimate here.
The women in the house are responsible for the firewood collection for cooking food. These women collects dry log from the forest to use in their house and to sell in the market. A woman’s life here will mean going to the forest one day for collection and to the market in Amangunj the next to sell it. They walk to the market, carrying the heavy log on their head. For each log they get 150 to 200 Rupees. Amanganj is around 25 km so they walk 50 km every alternate day. The women often carry vessel full of water and travel 5 km. Drinking water source is either a well or small natural springs, not always neccessarily in ones own village.
There is no electricity in the villages. It is really dark during the night and the only source of light is solar energy panels which makes it really tough during the rainy season when sunlight is not available for days. Although the community living in the areas are used to everything and they have adapted to the life in the forest. There is one primary school in almost every village, but no electricity. The forest not just comes as a blessing but it also brings a lot of its own set of problems to deal with. The wild animals ruin the crops all the time and predators like leopard and tiger attack and kill their cattle. Nobody comes out of the house or traverses through the forest after the sunset because the danger of wild animal is always there. The forest department want them to vacate their homes and habitat and leave the forest (the initial displaced families that agreed readily got money as well as land; but the ones left back now are the ones who did not agree. If they pick to go now, the compensation is only in money, 10,00,000 INR per adult and no land) but the people are not ready to do so.
For the last eight months, I was in rural areas of Telangana and now, I’m at Panna, Madhya Pradesh working on maternal and child health with Koshika. Among other things, we are working on immunisation of pregnant women and children. According to government immunisation programme, every Tuesday is VHND (Village Health and Nutrition Day) where the ANM (Auxiliary Nurse Midwife) who is a village level female health worker is responsible for the immunisation of the pregnant women and children. Our team go along with the ANM and coordinate with her to make sure that everyone is getting vaccinated as appropriate. One of these villages is called Muthwa. I recently got a chance to spend a night there. According to government records, there is no village named Muthwa, and hence, there’s no Aanganwadi centre or a school.
People living in Muthwa are actually from a different village called Maraha. A few years ago, they migrated from the latter and started settling down in the former. This was because of water scarcity in Maraha. However, the new settlement is not recognized by the government. People’s names are still registered in the aanganwadi of Maraha.
It was hard for me to understand why official records consider both the villages as one specially when Muthwa’s population is greater than that of Maraha now. The distance between the two villages is around 4 km. People don’t have access to Aanganwadi centre. All the children are enrolled in the school at Maraha but they don’t go because they will have to walk through the forest. As a part of our work, we are planning to start our own set up like an Aanganwadi centre in Maraha so that children and pregnant mothers get pre-school education and nutritious food. I hope that it gets recognized by the officials.
I always thought how would it be to live in a rural area, eat what other people eat, do what they do, sleep where they sleep. It was a romantic idea when I joined India Fellow.
Living in a block area is very different from being in a block level guest house of a non-profit. Obviously the experience is very unique and amazing but I will not really sugercoat my experience only by telling all the good things. I always thought life in a village would be so simple and easy – like you wake up, go to field, work hard, come back, eat and get a good night’s sleep. No traffic, no pollution – just in the lap of nature. My experience of staying in this village was somewhere between “Oh! This is amazing” and “I want to get out of here”…
So when I packed my stuff to spend a night, I knew it is going to be cold. I got whatever I could to get protected from the cold. We stayed at a small kachcha room with no doors. As we sat inside the room, it was dark and it was getting colder. The folks arranged for fire inside the room and we all sat together huddled around it. It is one thing to look at the tribals from a distance and co-relate data from secondary research to build the narrative. Completely another to spend that night by their side. I realized that basically we both were cold and hungry and wanted to be safe. I decided to just finish my dinner and go to bed. I was just lying on my bed and heard some weird voices from outside. I started breathing again when my other team member told me they are the villagers who are protecting their farms making weird and scary noises to scare the pigs and deer away.
I remember getting up at 2am because I needed to go to the washroom and when I stepped out of my warm blanket and the cold air hit me, all the excitement to live in the village evaporated. I only hoped for the night to get over and return to the familiarity of my office. It made me feel embarrassed at being in this journey of self discovery for 10 months and such an important self realisation happening only now. An experience like this truly help us see our own self image and narratives and i think this journey is about constantly checking them and re-calibrating.