Where once there were over 180 families in Pili, a small tribal village in the core zone of Melghat Tiger Reserve, now there remain only five. The rest moved out in the last six months as part of relocation under Melghat Tiger Reserve to another land 80 km away. For those left behind, including eight children and a lactating mother, major government facilities came to an end when bulk of the village moved out. This includes free meals that stopped since the anganwadi shut and a primary school that remains locked even as schools have reopened across Maharashtra. Only a mound of demolished huts surrounds the five huts that still stand in Pili.
Nutrition holds significance in these tribal parts since Chikaldhara, where Pili falls, noted 31 per cent underweight children in a December 2020 survey of 11,616 children by the government. With no idea of how long before their claims get settled and they are relocated, these five families have demanded at least basic government services.
Spanning 1,500 sq km, Melghat was amongst India’s first nine tiger reserves notified in 1973-74. By 2006, it was declared a critical tiger habitat to save the wildlife. Beginning 2000, government started relocating villages falling in the core area of reserve forest in a bid to minimise man-animal conflict. Till now, 25 villages have been entirely or partially relocated and eight remain pending. In 2006, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was passed, recognising rights of generations of tribals living in these forests, and mandating relocation of any village only after voluntary consent, with community forest rights and individual forest rights settled before tribals are moved.
In six villages like Pili, where some families are left behind for various reasons ranging from refusal to go to pending FRA claims, social life has been uprooted.
Bhogelal Bedekar (39) has five children at home, all scared to venture out into the ‘ghost village’. Villagers not only took wood and all belongings, they demolished entire huts before leaving. In torn clothes, the children play and roam in their mud-and-brick hut all day. There is no school, no anganwadi to go to.
Bedekar spends his day toiling on his farm. The soybean produce was damaged this year, he says. He is tired of living socially isolated and is ready to relocate, but his claim of farm land under FRA remains pending. He says by cutting services, government is “forcing him into eviction”. “If the government wants to move me somewhere else, it should transfer Rs 10 lakh as promised and the claims under FRA. Several villagers who agreed to relocate are waiting for the entire compensation. I won’t leave without it,” he says.
Opposite his hut live Nandkishor and Lila Javarkar, whose case is unique. Under relocation, government pays Rs 10 lakh to those aged above 18 years. If girls above 18 are married, they are not entitled for compensation. The land Lila lives on was owned by her deceased parents. Nandkishore is a live-in son-in-law who is not entitled for compensation, neither is Lila as she is married. They have refused to relocate in absence of compensation. Their two children, aged two and four years, are currently out of all government nutrition schemes.
Farther down the labyrinth of caked debris, a tribal family has a newborn, delivered last month in their hut. They refuse to be identified but admit that the maternity benefit or anganwadi meals under Amrut Aahar Yojana has not reached the mother or newborn. They will relocate in a few days, they say.
Purnima Upadhyay, from NGO Khoj, says, “The entire process is voluntary relocation. Even if one family is left, the government is mandated to provide basic facilities to them. In absence of an anganwadi, children under six years are deprived of the free food scheme.”
Avinash Kumar, deputy conservator of forest in Amravati, said he is aware of these families. “Bedekar’s claim is pending with the district level committee. It will be processed,” he says, adding, “We have discussed making an exception in Lila’s case and giving her compensation. It is under process.”
Kumar says the anganwadi worker submitted a form to relocate to the new village and left. “We have issued no instruction to shut the anganwadi or the school,” he says.
Mittali Sethi, assistant collector and project officer in Dharni, said an anganwadi worker travels 5 km from Chikaldhara to Pastalai village to provide ration to one family, and a similar facility can start in Pili. “When there are just five families, we can’t have just one anganwadi worker for them. We can link them with the nearby village and food can be supplied. But such efforts require government resources and finances. We are tackling with these issues as best as we can. But these are problems that come up when an entire village moved, and only few families are left behind,” she says.
Pili is not the only village caught in midst of the ambitious Melghat Tiger Reserve project. The relocation has been an ongoing process since 20 years but it has been dragged back into the spotlight, with some villagers complaining that they are being forced to evict by forest officials who are restricting their movement into forest, while others have raised concerns of pending FRA claims.
Amravati District Collector Shailesh Naval tells The Indian Express that even if a few villages are left behind, basic services will be extended. “We are not forcing any villager to relocate unless it is voluntary. Relocation has been stalled in a few villages where FRA claims are pending,” he says.
Forest officials have claimed that in a few villages, half of the population is willing to relocate and the other half is not. In such cases, the process becomes challenging.
In Simadoh village, half the population has refused to relocate. Shivdas Bisandare, a tribal from village Simadoh, says the Forest department has been exerting pressure on villagers in Malur to relocate by not allowing them to enter the forest. “Hume chahiye jal, jameen and jungle (We need water, forest and land). The relocated sites are outside the forest and close to urban areas. That completely changes our lifestyle,” Bisandare says.
Nilakshani Pade, relocated from Pili four months ago, says the new settlement has four common toilets but no proper drainage, there is no electricity and they use solar lights, and an anganwadi or school is yet to start. Kumar, from the Forest department, said the closest village with a school is 1.5 kms away. “When government pays Rs 10 lakh, their liability is over. But even so, the government is arranging for electricity, water supply and toilets in new villages. We have put up a proposal to identify relocated Pili as a new village. Once that happens, they will be entitled to several facilities,” he says.
An article published in Journal of Critical Reviews in 2019 by two law professors of Symbiosis International University studied relocation of two Melghat villages, Vairat and Churni, and observed “not a single adivasi knew about the claims which they needed to file under Forest Rights Act, 2006, before relocation as it was their right to forest resources, community reserves and traditional knowledge”.