Bengaluru: On January 22, a group of about 500 people attacked forest and police officers in the Melghat Tiger Reserve in Amravati district, Maharashtra.
“Five forest officers suffered serious injuries like fractures and axe cuts” T. Beula Ezhilmathi, the deputy conservator of forests (wildlife) in Akot Division at the reserve told The Wire. “The situation was contained when police forces used tear gas to disperse the crowds.”
In addition to the five persons, numerous officers suffered injuries from axes, sickles, chilli powder and pelted stones. They also damaged four vehicles belonging to the forest department and set fire to some some pastures in the area.
The group that attacked comprised of tribal persons who had been relocated out of the Melghat Tiger Reserve about five years ago.
“The relocation was compensated as per a policy put in place by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, which stated that every eligible family would be entitled to Rs 10 lakh,” according to Kishore Rithe, founder of the Satpuda Foundation, which has worked with about 115 villages situated in the buffer areas of many tiger reserves.
“Additionally, the Maharashtra state government agreed to compensate those people who owned land by giving an amount equal to the value of their land.”
The tribal communities then demanded civic amenities as well. But when the government provided them, it subtracted their compensation by an amount equal to the facilities provided at the rehabilitated location.
The communities said this was unacceptable and demanded the government restore the deductions – together with five acres of land.
Rithe said the tribal people had been misled into thinking they were entitled to “additional compensation” by “a member of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes”.
“Without studying the compensation package that was allotted to the communities, a lady” from the commission “casually asked them how much land they had been provided.”
To this, the locals stated that they had not been given any land. “And she in turn told them that relocated persons in Madhya Pradesh had been provided five acres of land.”
Compensation packages are divided into multiple categories, and experts agree each one ought to be considered based on its own merits.
Jose Louise, a member of the Wildlife Trust of India, hinted at a “larger political angle” at play. “Local politicians don’t want to lose vote banks due to relocation projects,” he said.
On January 14, tribal people unhappy with not having been provided any land petitioned the district collector’s office and the forest department.
In the days that followed, when tribal leaders agitated and entered the core areas of the reserve, the officials appeased them by saying that their demands would be considered through legal channels.
But on January 22, the agitation turned into physical assault.
On that day, Ezhilmathi was among the forest officers tasked with negotiating with the tribals, while police forces were stationed at a distance.
“I told them that the compensation had been provided as per government policy and that the issue was not in the hands of the [forest] department” because the power to implement them rested with the state government.
“I also told them that legal processes would work better in such cases. But they were very aggressive… they did not want to wait anymore.”
As a precaution, two companies of the State Reserve Police Force, one platoon of riot-control police and about 30 police personnel had been stationed in the area. Some 200 forest officers were already at the location.
Additionally, 20 people who had been protesting nearby were also arrested on January 20.
“They were threatening us and to show them that we were also prepared, I stationed these forces and arrested a few members” she said.“I was expecting a physical attack but nothing as big as this.
“I think they believed that only agitation will work. They were not in a mood to listen to me and they started attacking.”
There were also a few miscreants in the group who joined in only to violently retaliate against the forest department, Rithe said.
On January 23, the police arrested three members and handed them over to the forest department for further inquiries.
“About five to seven people were leading the attack,” Ezhilmathi said. “One is in our custody. We’ll find the other people soon.”
Altercations between locals and forest department officials are nothing new. Parveen Kaswan, an Indian Forest Service officer working in West Bengal, said the government has installed policies to protect core forested areas from human habitation.
And in line with such policies, “the people living inside protected areas are relocated. But relocation processes take time and attacking the forest department is not the answer.”
He added that “our field staff face violent situations like this almost on a daily basis. They are injured, their vehicles are burnt…
“It takes us many years to procure patrolling vehicles. We feel as though it is only our duty to conserve and preserve forests and wildlife – and not the duty of everyone.”
Rishika Pardikar is a freelance journalist in Bengaluru.