The kitty party

  • 14/05/1997

THE lions are going on a safari to see humans being evicted. At stake is the culture and lifestyle of a community of tribals, primarily forest-gatherers, rich in the knowledge of traditional herbs and medicine. For, Madhya Pradesh (MP), the seams of its kitty already bursting with tigers, is about to acquire new members for its tourism department's roll of honour: a pride of lions.

Over 200 lions from Gir forest in Gujarat will displace over 7,000 tribals, settled around the Pulpur Kuno, sanctuary in Morena district of MP. Relocation may be a good idea for the lions. Spreading out the population gives them a kind of protection against local epidemics. Which prompts us to ask the question: Why is it necessary to relocate the villagers?

It is not surprising that the villagers concerned are not happy at the idea of having to live with the lions. Officials have, therefore, decided that when the lions come marching in, the villagers must troop out. While this sounds unfair because the villagers were there before the lions, but as far as the officials are concerned, they will pay the tribals to leave.

The tribals around the Pulpur Kuno sanctuary depend upon the local environment for their basic needs like fodder for their cattle, fuel for cooking, material for building a house, or herbs for primary healthcare. Local environments, are also the womb where a host of traditional sources of livelihood and handicrafts like basket weaving, rope manufacturing fishing develop.

According to official plans, all this is going to change. The 350-sq km Kuno sanctuary will be combined with the adjoining forest to form a 700-sq km national park, pushing out around 7,500 Shahariya tribals living in the area and putting an end to livestock grazing. The relocation site, a village called Agra on the fringe of the sanctuary, has scanty forest growth. Officials will hence encourage the Shahariyas to practice agriculture. Meanwhile, to increase the food base for the lions, the forest will be stocked with herbivores ranging from spotted dear, bluebull, sambar and blackbuck. But here lies the weak link in the chain: if forest officials have not done their homework, then the lives and livestock of the 20,000 villagers of three villages, including Karahal are at risk, as they fall in the proposed buffer zone around the sanctuary.

The Shahariya tribals in the region make a living by collecting and selling medicinal plants and herbs. Wholly dependent on the forest and responsible for maintaining it, the tribals will now be cut off from the woods and must now buy even wood from the town for meeting their most basic needs like making a bed.

The government will, of course, work out a compensation package for those who are to be dispossessed. Unfortunately, such packages neglect to take into account the loss in terms of traditional sources of employment and the economic costs of being deprived of access to a particular environment that is a source of daily articles of consumption.

The government of MP has set up a committee comprising the forest minister, the women's welfare minister and the tribal welfare minister to oversee the relocation of the tribals and the lions. According to forest minister Shiv Netam, the project would be undertaken in three phases. About Rs 64 crore has been sanctioned for the first phase, to be completed by the year 2000, and about 60 per cent of the funds will be used to rehabilitate the tribals.

But the officialdom would do well to study and document the Shahariya way of life and their wealth of knowledge in plant species and traditional medicine. It would perhaps be the only tribute they can pay to a tribe whose way of life will vanish if it is relocated from the forest to the farm.

What is happening is not new. In an earlier attempt to protect Gir lions, thousands of Maldharis who were living traditionally in the Gir forest were shifted from the area and may even have been reduced to penury. Will this injustice be repeated in Kuno? The Kuno project began when Kamal Nath was the Union minister of state for environment. He probably felt it would give a tremendous boost to tourism in his home state.

This brings us to the final question: Who is going to pay the environmental cost, or should we say the highest cost, for relocating the lions? The prosperous state of Gujarat, which has got rid of its excess lions; the rich government of MP anticipating revenue from tourism resulting from the inflow of wildlife enthusiasts into the area; the government at the Centre; or the Shahariyas from Morena: Who is going to be bearded by the bon in his own den?

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