- NL Sena
The state government kicked out over 100 Sahariya families from Madhav National Park 20 years ago. And then broke almost every promise made to them.
“Buying vegetables is a luxury for us. I do my best to ensure my children have a normal meal at least once a week. Rest of the days we eat roti with chutney or salt,” says Phoolvati, 34, a widowed mother of three in Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh.
Phoolvati grew up in Balarpur, a Sahariya Adivasi hamlet inside the Madhav National Park. In 2000, the entire settlement of over 100 families was shifted to Budi Barod panchayat in Shivpuri. Reason? The state government wanted to create an “inviolate zone” for wild animals. It also planned to introduce tigers in the park, but none was ever brought.
The government had promised to compensate the displaced families with land and money, and ensure basic civic amenities in their new settlement, called Naya Balarpur. Twenty years later, save for the allotment of land to some of the families, the promises remain unfulfilled.
Robbed of their traditional sources of sustenance, the men in Naya Balarpur went to work in Shivpuri’s stone quarries. At least 30 of them didn’t survive the mines, falling to such afflictions as silicosis and TB, and leaving behind what’s come to be known as the “village of widows”. Phoolvati’s husband was among them.
“My husband died of silicosis six years ago and our life has become more difficult since,” says Phoolvati. “We didn’t have money for his treatment.”
Her family now lives on Rs 600 she receives as widow pension and subsidised foodgrains from the Public Distribution System. She does odd jobs when she can find any. Still, it is only rarely she makes enough to buy vegetables for her children.
“All this happened because of the displacement,” Phoolvati says. “When we were in the forest, we had everything in abundance. My husband would not have died working in stone quarries.”
Phoolvati often reminisces about her life in the forest, about how content they were. “I spent my childhood in Balarpur. It was so nice there. But my children have to live in poverty here,” she says, referring to her two boys aged 12 and 10 and one girl who’s seven. “We are surviving on my widow pension and subsidised foodgrains from the ration shop. I also work as a labourer but we get work for only about 10 days a month. We are paid Rs 150-200 per day, which isn’t enough for a family of four to survive on.”
Most of the 102 families in Balarpur were Sahariyas, who have been notified as a by the Indian government. In their traditional home, they cultivated small patches of land, reared livestock and collected forest produce. That was all they needed to have “flourishing lives”, the displaced villagers said.
Then, on a chilly afternoon in November 1999, a group of forest guards arrived in Balarpur and told the villagers they could not live on land their ancestors had settled generations ago. “Start packing, you are moving to a new settlement,” the villagers recall the guards ordering them.
Jamuna had just returned to her hut from collecting resin when the guards came. She recalls panicking at the thought of having to abandon her home. “I still remember that day,” says Jamuna, now around 62. “It was unbelievable but the guards and the administration were serious. I became nervous as I had no clue what would happen to us. My husband was also worried. Not just us, everybody in the village panicked.”
The guards, however, didn’t return for about six months. When they did, in the summer of 2000, they brought along policemen, who drove the villagers from their homes to the new settlement.
“They did not take our consent and just passed the order,” says Jamuna. “Our people had been living in Balarpur for more than a hundred years. Then, one fine day we were told to leave.”
The government had promised a “rehabilitation scheme” for the displaced families. Apart from the provision of “basic amenities” in their settlement, each family would get five acres of agricultural land with proper irrigation facilities and monetary compensation.
Naya Balarpur lacks basic amenities. There’s no piped water and half the village is without sanitation facilities. The government did start allotting land but stopped the process midway. Apparently, the state’s officials discovered the land they were distributing was not revenue land but forestland, which could not be given away for cultivation.
In the end, 61 families got some land whereas the rest 39 were told to “adjust with the others” until the authorities could work out a solution. They didn’t even receive the money to build their huts at once, but in installments over a period of time.
To add insult to injury, the land given to the 61 families is mostly barren, and without irrigation facilities. Since their land is not fit for farming, the displaced Adivasis are compelled to work as labourers or stone miners.
In 2017, taking note of a newspaper report, the Madhya Pradesh Human Rights Commission ordered the government to compensate the displaced Adivasis and give land to the 39 families who had still not received it.
“All these 39 families should be given three lakh rupees per family. If the amount is not paid within a month from the date of this recommendation, the government of Madhya Pradesh will be giving 9 percent interest from 1 January 2018,” the commission ordered, adding that the delay in resettling and compensating the families was a gross violation of their human rights which “cannot be allowed any further without any cost”.
The commission also directed that female heads of the households whose men had died from working in the quarries be given an “additional compensation” of Rs 2 lakh each. And these families must be given guaranteed employment until they get the land they are entitled to.
The then BJP government of Shivraj Singh Chauhan ignored the order, however. And the administration of the Congress’s Kamal Nath has not acted on it either.
“These displaced families have been waiting for their entitled pieces of land and proper rehabilitation for two decades. They have lost their families, livelihood, culture, identity. We are talking about Digital India, yet here we have people who don’t get even two square meals a day,” says Abhay Jain, a human rights lawyer based in Shivpuri. “Can we ever compensate them for the loss of their identity and culture as well as the space where their ancestors had lived and thrived?”
Asked why the state had not fulfilled the promises made to these displaced Adivasis, Anugrah P, collector of Shivpuri, said, “These 39 families are not eligible for allotment of land. Some of them were not adults, some were not tribals and some were not of that village. We have conducted two surveys and we will be conducting a third survey on February 21.”
Why has the human rights body’s order not been implemented? “You should talk to the state about it,” the collector replied.
The collector’s claims are contradicted by a letter issued by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests back in 2000 mentioning that 102 families of “Balarpur tribal village” – two families hadn’t shifted to the new settlement, but moved elsewhere – should be allotted two hectares of land each.
When Newslaundry asked Deepali Rastogi, Principal Secretary for Tribal Affairs, Madhya Pradesh, about the Shivpuri collector’s claims, she said, “At the government level, the departments related to forest issues have sanctioned the money, land and everything. Who is the beneficiary, who should get the money and who shouldn’t is a matter for the district administration. I can’t comment on that.”
Omkar Markam, minister for Tribal Affairs, said, “I was not aware of this issue. Now that it has come to my notice, I will conduct an independent investigation and make sure they are helped in every manner possible. I assure you that they will be provided with what was promised to them.”
“We would cultivate maize, sorghum and vegetables for ourselves. And we would collect tendu leaves, resin, mahua leaves from the forest and sell the produce in the Shivpuri market for Rs 5,000-6,000 a month. That was good money in those days. We also had cattle,” says Jamuna. “So, we had money, food, shelter, land. We had everything we needed. No one had to go out to work as a labourer. My family had a good life.”
Until, that is, they were forced out. “When we were moved here we weren’t given what had been promised to us. We did not have anything, so our men started working in stone quarries, which took their lives. I lost my husband and then my son.”
In March 2018, Jamuna’s older daughter, Saroj, too died in a hospital in Gwalior, where she lived with her husband. Jamuna doesn’t know what killed her daughter, who left behind an infant son. “Now the responsibility of my daughter’s son is also on me. And all I have is my pension and what I make working as a labourer. It’s difficult to work at this age, but there is no choice.”
Boonda Bai, 55, has a similar story. Her family cultivated a small patch of land in Balarpur and collected forest produce. “We had food, milk, water, money in our village. We had everything we needed. Since they shifted us here, we have only known poverty and our men have been dying,” she rues. “My husband died around 11 years ago. Four years later, my son died. They both worked in the quarries and died of some respiratory diseases. I am the only survivor in my family. I do not get the widow pension nor do I have a ration card. The villagers give me food. In our village, we ate ghee. Now we have to survive on roti and salt.”
Kasturi, 60, says she has been living a “hellish existence” for the past 20 years. “My husband and two sons died after we shifted here. My sons used to work in the stone quarries as we did not have any other source of income,” she says. “At this age, I don’t have the strength to do hard labour. I don’t know what will happen to me. One of my daughters-in-law stays with me, the other has left this settlement.”
Radha, 40, Kasturi’s daughter-in-law, says, “My husband died six years ago. I have two daughters and two sons. I took a loan of Rs 30,000 to marry off my daughters. Now, I work for free in the fields of farmers who gave me the loan. I also work in other fields and get Rs 150-200 for nine hours of work. My sons are 10 and seven. I don’t know how I’m going to raise them.”
She adds, “There’s no employment here. To even work as a labourer, you must go to other villages. But even there you might not always find work.”
Anandi’s was one of the families that were allotted land. “We got five acres but that land is of no use. It is barren land without any irrigation facilities,” she says. “Ours was a thriving community in the forest. Now, we don’t even have proper food. They displaced us but at least they should have allotted us what they had promised.”
She adds, “The land given to us has red soil and there is no source of water. The lakes are far away and they are dried up. Even if they were not dried up, we couldn’t have brought water to our farms as it costs a lot of money to buy pipes and motors.”
Jamuna Bai, who is in her early 60s, is worried that her son might die. “My husband died after we were brought here,” she says. “Our men didn’t have employment, so they started working in stone quarries and died of diseases they developed there. My son, who is 30, also works in the quarries, and he has developed the disease. I don’t know how long he will live.”
Over the past 20 years, says Ramniwas Bheel, 42, the displaced villagers have “given countless applications to collectors” asking that the promises made to them be fulfilled. “We even went to Bhopal and submitted an application to the Chief Minister’s Office. We have also met some ministers. When we go there, personal assistants of ministers call up the collector and the collector tells them to direct us to his office. Then we go to the collector’s office, only to return empty handed every time.”
Chaualal Pal, who is in his early 80s, lived most of his life in the forest. It was a good life, he says. “Then, we were thrown out of our forest and settled here without any facilities. I have struggled for 20 years to get the land promised to us. They didn’t even build enough toilets in our village. I’m in the last leg of my life. How long do I have to wait? Please help us.”