The Unheard Voices Of The Forest

by | Jun 4, 2020

The road to Girirajpura

A 30-minute train ride from the railway station of Sawai Madhopur and a 30-minute easy walk from the station of Amli on a straight path, one will find the making of a village amongst fields. A path or perhaps something resembling a road with no shade in sight defined by the abutting fields and homes with a silhouette of the Aravalli ranges as the background is a long and hot walk. The road guides one in the direction to take and the surroundings suggest the novelty of the district of Amli. One would come across a cluster of houses and ever so often, would find unfinished homes, abandoned amidst bricks and stones that had been forgotten.

One such cluster of houses was the village of Girirajpura, the current home of 28 families. Women and men spend their days in the field and tend to their buffaloes, cows and goats. Women walk kilometres to obtain firewood and water. Children are often found to be helping their parents with chores and responsibilities including taking care of a young one and running back to the game that they were playing. Old folks are found sitting on Khatiyas under the shade of trees waiting to have a conversation with passers-by and neighbours or just taking in the view that is Amli.

Girirajpura is a village of Gujjars, an OBC caste in Rajasthan who primarily practice and depend on animal husbandry and secondarily on farming, for their livelihood. The village is everything like any other village and at the same time, unique in its way. It has became the home of these 28 families only in the year of 2012.

Sawai Madhopur is home to Ranthambhore National Park, one of the 9 national reserves that were established under Project Tiger, initiated in the year 1973. The project created protected areas called ‘Core Zones’, also known as Critically Tiger Habitats (CTH), within the protected area where all human activity was banned for both forestry and local people. This was the beginning of a drastic displacement of people and with time, it became the norm in the name of conservation. It’s been estimated that about 21 million people have been displaced in India since 1950. For big development projects. In the discussion of protecting natural habitat of animals, two ideas have always been put into practice. The methodology that has mostly been used and advocated in India since the initiation of Project Tiger (1973) has been the preservationist method, which ensures that lands and natural resources are not accessed or used by humans in any form.

The preservationist method is based on strict principles that believe that the land should only be accessed by humans for beauty and sightseeing in contrast to the conservationist method that believes that the environment and resources should be used by humans and managed in a responsible manner.

Ranthambhore National Park is one of the many examples of a preservationist approach. When tiger project was initiated, 96 villages with a population of 225,000 lived on the fringes. Another 150,000 livestock and 16 villages were within the park. Between 1975 and 1979, just in four years, 12 villages were relocated, majorly occupied by people from Gujjar caste. For their livelihoods, they had relied on the resources from the forest. After a long interval, 2 villages (Padra and Mordungri) out of the 4 remaining ones were relocated in the year 2011 and 2012, to what is now called Girirajpura. Those villages that live on the fringes and depend on the forest for resources are denied access to the park.

Communities of herders relocated and stripped of their livelihood

The narrative of the forest department and the eco-tourism does sound appealing all on its own. As tigers are mostly solitary creatures, each tiger requires a large area of habitat. Therefore, the increase in the tiger population requires the expansion of the park and relocation of villages in the forest areas for the safety of both people and tigers.

Many officials state that the relocation has been a success story for both Tigers and rural communities. The former becomes safe from the chances of illegal hunting and are given a larger territory to move around while the latter are relocated with adequate compensation as well as new opportunities. This narrative always sounds like a win-win situation but does not paint a picture of reality.


Does the preservationist method, in fact, help wildlife?

The idea of untouched wilderness has influenced the policies and practices of conservation in India as in the case of many other countries. This comes from the belief that restricting access to the parks will ensure safe zones for animals and reduction in biotic disturbances.


Kuno Sanctuary – did we make it worse?

In the case of relocation of villages from the Kuno sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, even though the studies have shown that the prey density has improved and a lion population might be sustained, with the villagers and local communities gone, there is almost no protection from poaching for large carnivores. The Sahariya community who lived in the sanctuary occasionally hunted but only for their own sustenance and they never hunted larger carnivores. But with Sahariya community gone, the tiger population declined from 7 in the early years to 1-2. The community were the eyes of the forest and ensured to keep the balance in place. Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan shows a similar case of a decline in tiger population.

Know more: Effects of creating “protected areas” on communities and the wildlife.


Outlook of the community

Relocation or restrictions ensure that the communities from the park and those living on the fringes are denied any form of access to the forest for their daily requirements and livelihoods. Tribal communities have lived in the forests for generations and have coexisted with its fauna and flora. Their knowledge and respect for the forest are unmatched as they are co-dependent. The community members of Mordungri had a similar outlook on their home in the forest. They showed no concern about the loss of livestock due to tiger attacks as they saw it as a part of life in an ecosystem that provided for them as well. β€œWe had so many animals, it did not make such a big difference to us.” One of the villagers stated. The Mordungri community gave an example of protecting peacocks who are now declining in number because of the hunters and trimming of trees.

The Forest cannot exist without us and we cannot exist without the forest.

A resident of Girirajpura
A woman in Girirajpura walks kilometres everyday for wood and water

Was it a choice? Mordungri to Girirajpura, change of identity

According to the officials, the relocation of Mordungri to the district of Amli and the establishment of a new village called Girirajpura was a voluntary process by the villagers, with all the amenities being provided to the community. On the contrary, the villagers describe the experience full of pressure and imposition. In the case of Mordungri, officials offered them a package of 10 lakhs per family – defined as any son or unmarried daughter over 18 years to those who would relocate. 125 families accepted the offer but 28 refused to do so without the promise of land rehabilitation. The reaction of the forest department was to impound their cattle, charging rupees 500 to 1000 for their return. They also imposed fines for grazing and barricaded the entrance to the village. Determined, the community remained in the forest until the department agreed for a land rehabilitation package in 2011.

The relocation was economically and culturally damaging to the community. After 9 years, there are still many promises that haven’t been kept including the pattas-land ownership papers without which the community of herders turned farmers cannot apply for loans at low-interest rates.

In Girirajpura, the community has been forced to abandon animal husbandry due to lack of fodder. Now, for income, they completely depend on bi-annual agricultural harvests. This has reduced the revenues and made daily life expensive for the families of Girirajpura due to unpredictable weather, change in occupation, increased irrigation, fertilisers, loan interest etc. From conversations with the people, it was clear that the annual income for relocated families had fallen to 1/3rd of the income in Mordungri. Most families were drowning in debt.


Then who has benefitted?

With the launch of Project Tiger and the restrictions on entries to ensure the boom in tiger population, one would think it restricted entry for all. But, in fact, it applied only to the tribal and local communities with no agency to speak up. Tourists and outsider have been granted access because of the booming tourist industry at Ranthambhore National Park. Being one of the most famous tiger parks in the country, it has contributed significantly to the wildlife tourism revenue of Rajasthan. 60 big resorts with a capacity of about 3000 tourists encompass the park which has brought a rapid increase in tourism and therefore, an increase in access, even into areas from where the local communities were relocated. There is a complete disregard to the limitation of the number of vehicles that can enter and the guidelines to be followed once inside. Tigers are treated as a commodity to be sold to tourists or viewers for a picture and sighting.

Many forest conservation officials have voiced their concerns on the effect of unrestricted tourism on tigers, the growth of cubs and the tiger-human interactions. Another contradiction to their approach is the fact that most resorts are located on the fringes of the National Park, similar to the villages that are subjected to relocation or those denied access to the forest.

This opens the view that relocation and expansion practised under the preservationist approach is more for business than for conservation of the forest and its majestic animals.

Jeeps crowding up for sightings of the tiger which is not just distressful for the animal but also against the regulations of the park

Is there hope?

With numerous failures, the government of India has also recognized the requirement for stricter restrictions. The 2005 Tiger Task Force Report, amendments to WLPA in 2006 and, critically, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 represent a shift in policy from a preservationist approach. Amendments to WLPA (2006) replaced the forest department with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) for overseeing tiger reserves and considering relocation based on scientific evidence stating that co-existence between tigers and humans was impossible and that the community consented to be relocated. The FRA (Forest Rights Acts) states that the relocation is a last resort for the conservation of National Parks with it only being executed of the communities’ consent to it.

Even with great advances in laws and policies, there is little done to execute the same. Relocation and the preservationist approach still seem the popular choice of officials. Other methodologies that are rarely used are the inclusive approach where communities have a say in the conversation of conservation by voluntarily relocating or deciding to stay back and assist the Forest department as well as the NTCA in the conservation process. There are emerging stories of the conservationist and inclusive approach as seen in the case of the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple (BRT) Tiger Reserve in south-eastern Karnataka, one of the first communities who were given the right to stay. With slow progress in the dialogue on inclusive approach as seen in the case of community conserved areas of Arunachal Pradesh and empowering forest and tribal communities to have their own voice is hope in itself. The question is will we be too late to realise that conservation cannot work without coexistence. We often talk about nature and the importance of natural processes but we always seem to forget ourselves in the equation.

We have found a way to create a narrative where nature does not include us. It has become a world of Humans vs. Nature. It inclines with the idea that we are a separate and an aware entity from nature and therefore, we cannot coexist. Will we be able to find the balance in time?

The families of Girirajpura have lost a lot on the way from Mordungri to here. Their history, their traditional livelihoods, clean water and most importantly, their home. While building a new life in different circumstances and opening up for new opportunities, the one thing that they will never lose are their values and their love for the forest. By rethinking the effects of the conservation movement of the country, we might be able to redesign and reshape the future of conservation.


Note: Written with the help of reports and studies done by the organization – Gramin Shiksha Kendra, personal conversations with the community, reading multiple articles and research papers linked above.

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8 Comments

  1. Archana

    Proud of you. Keep up the good work

    Reply
    • Theertha Ravindran

      Thank you Archana πŸ™‚

      Reply
  2. Archana

    Proud of you. Keep up the good work

    Reply
    • Theertha Ravindran

      Thank you Archana πŸ™‚

      Reply
  3. Sani Sabale

    This is an important story Theertha. Very nicely written!

    Reply
    • Theertha Ravindran

      Thank you sunny <3

      Reply
  4. Sani Sabale

    This is an important story Theertha. Very nicely written!

    Reply
    • Theertha Ravindran

      Thank you sunny <3

      Reply

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