Murder in the sanctuary

  • 30/05/1993

Murder in the sanctuary AFTER a successful swoop on a dusty April afternoon on some poachers in the Keladevi forests near Ranthambore Tiger Reserve (RTR), a posse of nine forest guards in a Jeep found their way blocked by a log. They got out to clear the road and were ambushed by armed members of the poacher gang. In the shooting that followed, forest guards Ramgopal Puri and Kalyan Singh were killed and two guards were injured seriously. All the poachers escaped.

The violent attack on the RTR forest guards is believed to have been carried out by Mogyas, a hunter-gatherer tribe, frequently charged with poaching. But in another context, the attack raises questions about India's wildlife conservation plan. "This strategy, with 'guns and guards' as its cornerstone, has clearly run aground," comments RTR forest guard Indra Pal Singh. "The guns are inadequate and the guards are being eliminated."

The attack can be considered symptomatic of the flaws in a conservation strategy that has angered residents in the vicinity of national parks throughout the country, because it takes away their traditional forest rights. The strategy reduces them to "outsiders," to whom forest guards are only obstacles blocking access to the forests they once called home.

The traditional system of dividing the forest into kankras (grazing grounds) allows sharing both its resources and the responsibility of protecting them. Their environmentally sound practice toward young trees involved not cutting them down, but lopping branches and regulating grazing.

However, enforcing the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 meant the forest people lost their rights and were alienated further by a 1991 amendment that barred them from even entering the parks, says Supreme Court lawyer Rajeev Dhawan. The conservation strategy of "fence and protect" also displaced people and says environmentalist Ashish Kothari of the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), "Given the government's poor track record, the whole idea of displacing the 30,000 people living in the national parks of India is absurd."

The local people, however, still make forays into the forests, but now they have lost interest in protecting them and this not only jeopardises the government's conservation strategy, but also makes it easy for out-of-state poachers to lure the villagers into trade in illegal substances.

A case in point are the Mogyas, a nomadic tribe that roams between RTR and the Chambal river valley in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. The Mogyas have a symbiotic relationship with Ranthambore villagers, protecting their livestock and crops and supplying them with meat in return for shelter and grain. But once RTR was set up and the villagers evicted, the Mogyas found themselves without work.

This was only a transitory stage for the tribals, because, as wildlife expert Valmik Thapar notes, "Their hunting skills presented poaching opportunities for the kingpins of illegal wildlife trade, based in Delhi and Calcutta." The Mogyas were lured into poaching and are now so mired in it (See box), that they are the scapegoat -- if not villain -- of every animal killing in the sanctuary. For instance, after the Keladevi incident, the Mogyas vanished from around RTR and local villagers explained the tribals had fled to the Chambal ravines. Whether or not this official "witch-hunt" was justified by the authorities, there is no denying the Mogyas are intimately involved with poaching.

Sawai Madhopur superintendent of police Mohan Singh Bhatti, whose jurisdiction includes RTR, drives home the point by citing his records. On June 19, 1992, a police posse raided a Mogya camp, arrested one person and recovered two sets of deer horns. A week later, Gopal Mogya was arrested, ostensibly because a tiger skin was recovered from him.

Ranthambore National Park came into being in 1955, when the area was declared the Sawai Madhopur Wildlife Sanctuary. In 1980, the state government issued a notification establishing the Ranthambore National Park, consisting of a core area and a buffer zone and occupying an area of 392.50 sq km. Two contiguous forests -- the Sawai Mansingh sanctuary and Kualji Game Reserve -- together form another 111 sq km and are under the management of Project Tiger, Ranthambore.

In the limelight
The park became the focus of attention when poachers were alleged to have killed about 20 tigers in Ranthambore since 1991. The Rajasthan government reacted by appointing R S Kumat, principal secretary in the revenue department, on July 18, 1992, to investigate the allegations, determine exactly how many tigers were killed, who was responsible for their deaths and to check on the accuracy of the tiger census conducted in 1992.

In his report last year, Kumat made a number of general statements about poaching: "The final results about the poaching of tigers will be clear, only after the police investigation is over. One cannot flatly deny there is no evidence of poaching...but the number of tigers killed cannot be confirmed without detailed investigations." Kumat also stressed the need for an effective intelligence system to curb poaching and to study how poachers operate.

Insisting the park is understaffed, Kumat notes, "There is only one guard at each checkpost and they cannot handle intruders, tourists and pilgrims simultaneously." Nor are park officials equipped to tackle violence-prone village mobs trying to enter the park, he adds.

Forest guards, who have been at the receiving end of the villagers' wrath since 1980 (See box), agree fully with Kumat. Says Ranthambore buffer zone divisional forest officer Dinesh Chandra, "My ill-equipped men are the first -- and often, only -- line of defence against well-armed poachers. Hardly a week passes without a violent assault on a guard." After the Keladevi killings, the forest guards were on strike for a week, demanding a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the incident.

The guards also complain the local police are less than helpful in bringing offenders to book. Bharatlal, a forest guard, says he was gheraoed by about 100 villagers from Padra for nabbing two Gujjars who were grazing their cattle within the park. "The police refused to register my complaint," says Bharatlal, "on the ground the villagers had already lodged an assault report against me!"

This is not to say the forest guards do no wrong. A Sawai Madhopur forest official, discussing the ban on forest products, says, "In these tense times, enforcement of rules is becoming increasingly difficult." Another guard disclosed several of his colleagues make hay from the villagers' need to gather fodder and fuelwood. "They collect bribes of Rs 2-5 per headload of wood," he says. "This enraged several villagers, who attacked and injured some guards who had forcibly tried to extract money from them."

But villagers complain if they do not pay, they are beaten up. "The rules of Project Tiger are invoked if we don't pay, but all rules are forgotten if we grease their palms," says Ramshakal Meena of Uliana village, which is on the park periphery. The attitude of the villagers toward the forest department varies from suspicion to outright belligerence. And, the villagers are determined to exploit the forest though not much is said about without caring enough to protect it. Says Ghansiram Meena of Uliana, "We will go into the jungle regardless of who tries to stop us."

The alienation of the villagers is almost institutional and best witnessed in Uliana, where the villagers seem to make haranguing forest guards a sport . "When they pester us, we gang up on the guards," says Ghansiram.

Even well-intentioned bids to reduce this alienation have backfired. The forest department, for example, attempted to solve Uliana's perpetual water problem as a means to dissuade them from using the park's water sources. It engaged the villagers to build check dams and canals, but the villagers claim they were promised wages amounting to Rs 80,000, but they were never paid. Water is still not available in the area, except during the rainy season. Far from bridging the forest department-villager divide, the project only deepened it.

Another flaw in the conservation strategy is its resettlement policy, which resulted in 12 of 16 villages in the park core area being shifted to the periphery. The process only created more friction between the authorities and the villagers. Chandra maintains resettlement should have been implemented only after proper land development had been carried out. The promises made to the displaced people, he says, were not fulfilled.

Residents of Gopalpura, a resettled village south of the park, say they were forced out of the forest by officials and they were allotted unproductive land in the late 1970s. But they have not yet received title deeds, without which bank loans are difficult to obtain. Summing up their woes, Jagdish Sharma says, "This park has ruined our lives. If our sacrifice had saved the forests it would have been all right. But along with us, the forest, too, has been uprooted."

After the Gopalpura experience, the residents of Mordungri village, which is inside the national park, have agreed they will not shift. They have additional reasons to stay put because Mordungri is near a road and has irrigated farmlands. Says Prabhuji of Mordungri, "We are not going to fall into the trap of resettlement."

Other claimants
The villagers are not the only people laying claim to the forest. The 31,000 residents of Sawai Madhopur town, just outside the park, are also heavily dependent on the forest. A study by the Indian Institute of Forest Management in Bhopal, shows 20 per cent of the town's residents depend on the park for firewood, consuming 54 tonnes of it each day. In addition, there is a thriving clandestine timber trade in the town.

While the forest department issues 150 permits every two weeks to the town's unemployed to collect one headload of dry wood a day from the forest, the actual amount taken out is anyone's guess. A forest department official says the equivalent of 600 trees is legally removed in firewood every fortnight, but the department has no estimates on how much is being pilfered.

Manwar, a licensed wood-cutter, says the major consumers of firewood are the sweetshops, small restaurants and a bidi factory, whose owner, P P Khatri, says he needs 300 kg every day to dry bidis. Khatri is confident he will continue to get the wood he needs because "if the forest department dares to close the factory, the 100 workers will take care of them." The department, however, has sued Khatri for illegal possession of fuelwood and the case is pending in district court.

The lack of wood has also crippled a traditional handicraft of wooden toys in Sawai Madhopur. Of 50 khairati (toy maker) families, only three are still engaged in the trade and the others have switched to wage labour. As for the three families, they work only for about a week in a month. Says Nanhe Khan, a toymaker, "There is a ban on extracting wood such as salar, khair or khirni that we need for our toys. We make toys only if somebody gives us the wood. The forest department's high-handedness has almost killed the craft that once received Raja Mansingh's personal patronage."

The most recent group of antagonists to the conservation policy is tour operators, who are from mostly middle-class families in Sawai Madhopur. After Kumat recommended a ban on private vehicles entering the park and shifting hotels 10 km away from the park, the authorities acted quickly. With private vehicles banned, tourists are taken around the park in two department vehicles. But hotel relocation was found unrealistic because there are already several private hotels on the park periphery. Says hotel manager Nagendra Singh, "Banning private vehicles has put at risk the enormous investment made by numerous hoteliers. Shortly after the ban was announced, there were skirmishes between park authorities and vehicle operators at the park entrance. About 45 private vehicles used to enter the park daily, but now these stand idle."

Sawai Madhopur residents also blame RTR for retarding industrialisation in their district, pointing out that proposals for a fertiliser factory and a distillery in the area were dropped at the insistence of environmentalists. The accumulated strains and pressures on RTR have prompted a bureaucratic response in the shape of an eco-development scheme that was put into effect in 1990. The scheme is aimed especially at managing ecologically valuable areas that have people living nearby.

Eco-development requires involvement of local people in managing the area to be protected. Besides consulting them on developing sustainable, alternative resources, they must be persuaded they truly have a stake in local development activities. "As a result of eco-development, local people will no longer be directly dependent on the park, but will use it as only a fall-back in times of drought," says Shekhar Singh of IIPA, who is to conduct a study of eco-development implementation in Ranthambore for the ministry of environment and forests.

But the scheme has started off on the wrong foot. The forest department set up 2,000 ha of fodder plantations around RTR, but an assessment by the Centre for Environmental Education (CEE) shows that in most cases, the people's rights to the plantations and fodder distribution systems were not specified. "It was a people's resource, but the people did not control it," says Sachin Sachdeva of CEE. "As a result, villagers raided neighbouring fodder plots, raising tensions."

NGOs working on eco-development projects around the park concede they have no comprehensive plan and they often work in a vacuum. Says Valmik Thapar of the Ranthambore Foundation, which is involved in rural development, "Eco-development for RTR is at the moment a collection of abstract ideas. Each of them is good on its own, but together, they lack a perspective."

The fundamental flaw of not defining people's rights could undermine the bureaucracy's hopes of a "permanent," nationwide solution to conservation problems. Chotanlal, a Padra village elder, disparages the ability of eco-development to eliminate poaching, saying, "The population of this area is too great to be sustained by a few patches of fodder and trees. We will still invade the forest for our needs and, if need be, we will continue killing animals."

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