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‘Village of widows’

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.”

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Most of the 102 families in Balarpur were Sahariyas, who have been notified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group 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 contacted, 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.”

What remains to be seen is when and how will the government compensate the Adivasi community for uprooting them without any feasible alternate source of sustenance.

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