One year after their relocation to outside the Sariska tiger reserve, residents of Devri and Umri still wait for compensation and a little hope
By Azam Khan and Krishna K Saha
Sariska Tiger Reserve has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in the recent past. The complete loss of tigers from the reserve, the reintroduction program that followed, and the program of village relocation that is in progress have all been very controversial.
“People are more worried about spotting the tiger than what we are going through here,” says an elderly resident of Mojpur Roondh village, of Alwar district in Rajasthan.
Three years ago Sultan Gujjar, 60, moved bag and baggage
from Umri to Mojpur Roondh, hoping for a better future. And now,
he curses and regrets his decision.
The move was part of the Forest Departmentʼs plan to relocate villages out of Sariska Tiger Reserve in an effort to protect the remaining tigers in Sariska. More than 350 people from 82 families in Umri, a village in the core area of Sariska tiger reserve, were moved to a new location a few years ago.
According to government officials, there are 11 more villages in the tiger reserve that have to be relocated to ensure the habitat is protected. However, in the process of relocation, there have been numerous altercations between the villagers and the government officials over promised compensation and land ownership. These issues still remain unresolved.
Forest officials are busy painting a rosy picture insisting that more people are ready to move. The recently relocated residents of Devri and Umri were quite happy with the resettlement but now a year later, they claim they are getting less than what they were promised.
In his interview, Raghuveer Singh Shekhawat, the Field Director of Sariska, said that there were problems in the beginning but people are gradually moving out. “Initially at least, some families wanted more time. A little bit of persuasion from a visiting Forest Minister Bina Kak and the fact that the mustard crops they have planted in their newly allocated land are ripening, made them go — rather happily, I would say,” he added.
Almost three years after the first village Umri was relocated from the Sariska Tiger Reserve, a second village, Devri, was moved in February 2012. The population of about 250 Gujjars (84 families) and twice that number of cattle have moved to Mojpur Roondh. According to the Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Rajasthan, this has made available nearly 50 sq km of land for wildlife of the reserve.
Much has been said, argued and debated about whether relocation of villagers out of Sariska Tiger Reserve is necessary at all. There are also several issues related to the mode of compensation and its distribution.
Though forest officials insisted many a time during interviews that people are moving out voluntarily and are being compensated well, the people whose lives have been affected paint a completely different picture. “We were promised education for our kids, medical care for our people, and most importantly, ownership of our land,” explains Gujjar, sitting in the courtyard of his new home. “But the promises made to us, have not been met.”
The relocated villagers from Umri are livestock herders, and now
are faced with the challenge of learning a new skill set – farming.
Facing a vast green patch of agricultural land in front of his home,
Gujjar says the land is “useless” to him. “My ancestors were
livestock herders. And we are being forced to learn agriculture,
which is like an insult to all those years of honing our skills,” he
Before moving to Mojpur Roondh, villagers were promised
land, livestock, and cash worth 1 million rupees. However, the
villagers said they are still waiting for compensation. “Compensation money is being given to us in installments,”
says Ratan Lal Gujjar, another villager. “Also, we havenʼt yet got
full ownership of the land we are living in.”
Showing what he called a ʻletter of rightsʼ (or Adhikaar Pattra) given to relocated villagers by the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Ratan Lal alleges that it is the only letter they have. And also, he is not fully aware of its legal value. However, there is one family that refuses to see the relocation in a negative light. Khushi Ram, 28, moved from Umri to Mojpur around six months ago. With his wife and one-year-old child in tow, he sees the move as a sign of “progress.”
“We have got more land than we had in our village. I like the fact that there is a hospital nearby. In our village we used to walk for hours to get access to one,” Ram added.
As for learning agriculture, Ram said he is fine with it, as it
will add “one more skill” to his name.
A few kilometers away from Ramʼs home, is the area where the
residents of Devri village in Sariska are being relocated.
Construction of homes is underway and small group of villagers
sits and watches near a tea stall. While relocating has been difficult for most villagers, the residents of Devri are not pleased that they got less land than those of ʻlower caste.ʼ
Moreover, they do not even have the ʻletter of rightsʼ that the residents of Umri have received.
Ramesh Kumar Meena, an elderly farmer, was quick to reject any argument for relocation. “We were fooled. Can you see any home or land worth looking at in this area, forget living in?” he asks pointing towards the nearby mountains and vast agricultural land. He adds that people of Umri are happy with the compensation package because they had nothing of their own to begin with.
Ramesh explains that out of the 28 villages within the limits
of Sariska Tiger Reserve, 3 villages namely Rajorgarh, Devri and
Indhok had their own land. The Meena caste, Ramesh claims,
owned 2.5 hectare of land each. But after relocating, they have
received only 1.5 hectare of land as compensation. “We lost even what we had in the bargain…” retorts Ramesh.
Is coexistence possible?
The decision to relocate the villages out of Sariska came about
after several reported instances of conflict between the villagers
and tigers. The recent poisoning of a tiger within the reserve,
allegedly carried out by villagers in revenge for the attacks on
livestock, created quite a stir.
Smirking, Ramesh denies any such “allegation” and said that they had no problems living with a tiger around. “What these forest officers refuse to understand is that we have been living with wild animals for decades. And there is no conflict per se that they (forest officials) are trying to create at present,” he adds.
Those who seem to know the issues on ground, have informed others back home to not relocate, Ramesh adds.
"Whatʼs the use? We lost our herds, our ancestral homes and everything that belonged to us. When we conveyed our grievances to the Forest Department, one official, said 'sorry, we probably made a mistakeʼ…”