Bhadra Relocation: The People’s Heroes

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IFS officers saw and heard the success story of Bhadra when they went visiting the relocation sites and the tiger reserve.

The hushed silence for an hour or more as the forest department jeep trundled on the patchy roads of Muthodi  Range inside Bhadra Tiger reserve was almost reverential. The bamboo dominant moist deciduous forests with its teak and native flora is known to be home to elephants, tigers, leopards, dholes, sloth bear, gaur, cheetal, sambar, muntjac, civets, leopard cats, jungle cats, etc and boasts of over 200 species of birds.

Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary © Pradeep V Hegde

The team of IFS participants on a training program were travelling with the organisers, WCS-India members, and some of the forest department staff. This was the forest where 13 villages of more than 400 families lived till the beginning of this century.

What began as one village of around 36 families in the year 1916 had soon multiplied. Aspirations also built up alongside, especially for the progeny. The damming of the river Bhadra isolated many villages and made life tough. An hour by vehicle today took more than a day on foot back then for the villagers. One of the villages Hebbe where the IFS team was served lunch by the anti-poaching camp had been one of the most interior villages and also the first to relocate. Tiger and leopard sightings as also of elephants are reported regularly by the watchers at the camp today.

The villagers used to cross the river here by boat and then walk 15 km to the nearest town.

It took a forest officer who empathised with the people to help them and convince them that a life outside could be better. Together with the district administration and local activist groups, he pulled off the feat in a record time.

Gathering at MC Halli

No wonder then the emotional get-together witnessed after 18 years at MC Halli in Chikmagalur district. The people wholeheartedly welcomed Gopalakrishne Gowda IAS (R) the erstwhile Deputy Commissioner who had been responsible for expedition of the process. Accompanying him were the other two main movers of the project — DCF Yatish Kumar and D V Girish, then Honarary Wildlife Warden for Chikkamagalur District.

Perhaps no film star or politician has seen the kind of adulation bestowed on Gowda and “his batmen” by the people. All the big names in the locality were there, many of them now gram panchayat members, and the smiles were proof of their gratitude. Walking down the road to the community hall with their three heroes, all talking nine to a dozen, the people had gathered in a large number despite another social event in the locality.

Visit to MC Halli © Pradeep V Hegde

That speaks for the success of the relocation programme, one of the most successful ones undertaken in the country, where people living in the forest voluntarily relinquished their land and holdings inside for more than an equivalent sum outside the protected area. This was initiated back in October 2001 with a major part completed in six months.

“If either the DCF or the DC had allocated the task to their subordinates, the relocation would not have happened, at least not as soon or as smoothly as it did,” said M C Prakash, one of the resettled people at the gathering. “It was good they undertook the job themselves.”

Like him, others too were full of praise for the human touch of the people involved in the process. Small details were taken care of to ensure dignity and ease during the displacement. When moving out, the people were allowed to harvest their crops, for instance. Caretakers are what such processes need,  as it involves upheaval of people from the place of their roots, observed some of the beneficiaries assembled in the hall.

Interacting with villagers in MC Halli © Pradeep V Hegde

At the end of it all, what was made possible was a life stress-free compared to that in the forest. Besides the tension for parents about their children walking to the nearby school, health issues were the other worry with no facilities inside. (Check here for the trials of life in the forest.)  The months between Nov-Jan used to be most stressful, given crop losses to elephants. “A big amount used to be spent on torches alone to keep vigil,” noted Girish. The other sore point of life in the forest, often not mentioned, were the elusive alliances for eligible youth. Immediately following relocation, around 50 families got their offspring married within a few months!

Prakash hails from Maadla, one of the villages which had gone to court opposing the relocation. It took the goodwill and beneficiary works undertaken by the forest department under Field Director Yatish Kumar to turn the people around.

Delivering on promises

“We used to be told about relocation whenever we spoke of our problems, isolated as we were inside the forest. But nothing was done for years. In 2000 when they again took up the subject we were not inclined to believe. But the DCF (Field Director) ensured that roads were built and drinking water provision made. Slowly we began believing the department,” said Moideen from Hipla village.

That sums up one of the key factors for the Bhadra success — action that followed close behind the promises. By helping to cut short on the red tape, the DC enabled a speedy process that was further aided by the duo Yatish and Girish. Yatish, in fact, went personally to New Delhi tracking the rehabilitation money from the MoEF. From bringing the DC to the forest department office to sign and move the files, to facilitating banks that went to people’s doorsteps to open accounts for every family, the project was totally one of teamwork and a “mission mode”.

Moideen (Centre) with Gopalkrishne Gowda and Yatish Kumar © Pradeep V Hegde

 

Providing transport to the new site, as also temporary shelter and food, arranging for experts to give people advice on agriculture and related livelihood practices, procuring initial land tilling cost, addressing complaints on the land allotted and helping where possible, etc were some of the exercises that went beyond the mere call of duty. “We were taken to the site to show us that the promised land was good. Later when some locals who opposed the relocation occupied the newly constructed houses, we were given timely help and protection by these three people,” said Moideen.

The package was such that the people got a good deal, far better than any other in the country. Even a cowshed procured Rs 3 lakh due to the teak wood used!

One of the often cited reasons for the success of the project was the fact that the officials involved did not involve subordinates and undertook the tasks themselves. This might often seem like stepping beyond their mandates, but as the Field Director noted at the MC Halli gathering, “these are displaced people and their case should be viewed as a special case” unlike any other project.

Role of NGOs

The people at MC Halli had only positive things to say about the relocation process, but pointed that relocation processes go beyond physical movement of people and that the settling often took time.  This is a time when there is need for hand-holding the people who are new to managing finances or tackling administration rules. Ensuring that the same officer continues in office and is not replaced by a new one was one of the requests placed by the gathering. In the case of Bhadra, much of the unsettling was smoothened by the presence of Girish and companions from the NGOs.

In fact, this role of the NGO as a vital link in the process was acknowledged and appreciated by many of the participants at the IFS officers’ training. Often the NGOs are all tainted in the same brush, as one officer noted, and the Bhadra story served to show the commitment of NGOs to the cause.

Forests of Bhadra © Pradeep V Hegde

 The follow-up by the NGOs was something recognised by most participants as a crucial factor. Some of the officers undertaking relocation projects in their areas were encouraged by this and many other aspects of Bhadra relocation. In the words of one of the young officers, “I have been finding it difficult to initiate relocation in some of the protected areas… the Bhadra story has provided many useful insights that will surely help.”

Finally, the relocation also allowed for the regeneration of the forest as was seen by the visiting officers. In the words of Moideen, “We got relief from animals and the animals got relief from us.”

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