“Voluntary rehabilitation is a win-win exercise for human-wildlife coexistence”: How Vinod Shivakumar is Leading Voluntary Relocation Efforts in Maharashtra’s Melghat Tiger Reserve

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Growing human expansion has seen an increase in human-wildlife interactions, many of which have negative consequences for both parties. Voluntary relocation of communities living in protected areas has emerged as an effective tool to mitigate these conflicts.

WCS-India supports voluntary relocation efforts across the states of Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, and Telangana, aiding residents of protected areas to relocate seamlessly under a Government of India resettlement program.

Currently, we are supporting a voluntary relocation program underway in Melghat Tiger Reserve, in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra spearheaded by Vinod Shivakumar, DCF, Gugamal Wildlife Division, Chikaldhara. WCS-India has signed an MoU with the Melghat TR Conservation Foundation and social mobilizers have been recruited in the voluntary relocation efforts as part of this understanding.

A 2014 batch IFS officer, this is Shivakumar’s first tenure posting. He was awarded the Hari Singh Fellowship, going on to pursue a PG Diploma in Advanced Wildlife Management from Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun . He was given the posting of DCF, Gugamal in April 2017, and took charge in July 2017 after completing his PG Diploma.

Vinod Shivakumar shares his experiences at the IFS Workshop, 2019

We spoke to him on his journey so far, his outlook on voluntary relocation, the challenges he has faced in carrying out these efforts, and the benefits to wildlife from the endeavor.

How did you get into the Forest Service?

After I graduated from IIT Kharagpur with an M. Tech in Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering in 2007, I worked for Evalueserve, Gurgaon, a multinational KPO, as a patent analyst for Indian and international biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. During my stay at Gurgaon, we had a very keen group of trekkers who made monthly treks in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Trekking in the Himalayas had a profound effect on me, and eventually I decided to quit my job and pursue an ecotourism related career. I even did the Basic Mountaineering course from ABVIMAS, Manali to pursue my interest in climbing and trekking. After dabbling a bit with private trekking, I realized that with my qualifications it would be better to pursue professional forest management, which is why I started my preparation for the Indian Forest Service.

Photo courtesy: Vinod Shivakumar

What is your approach to voluntary relocation efforts? What do you think one needs to keep in mind when leading this process?

This being my first posting, my voluntary relocation efforts have been heavily influenced by the experience and advice of our hon. Field Director, Melghat TR, Mr. MS Reddy, who has enormous experience of village rehabilitation from his DCF tenure.

I view voluntary rehabilitation as a win-win exercise for the issue of human-wildlife coexistence. Rehabilitation is genuine tribal development work. To that end, transparency is crucial in rehabilitation, and the families involved must be taken into confidence by building mutual trust before starting the process. This trust must be retained during the relocation process itself, as well as after complete relocation, during the hand-holding process, when the families start settling into their new village.

The most important aspect of rehabilitation as a whole is inter-departmental coordination. When all sections of the district administration and all line departments work in a concerted manner, many problems are solved at the initial stages, and long-term efforts are accomplished without delays. This synergy is also appreciated by the relocating families, who then get involved actively to solve their problems.

What are some of the frequent challenges faced in the voluntary relocation of a community? How do you overcome these?

Rehabilitation from protected areas is a voluntary process. Many key decisions are made directly by the beneficiaries. Each individual has his own problems and plans, and tries to maximize his benefits from the rehabilitation process. Also, there are family and community dynamics within each village, which greatly influences an individual’s preferences and priorities. This leads to complex issues that can be sorted out only by a transparent mechanism of mutual understanding and consultation between the beneficiaries, officers and field functionaries of various departments.

Voluntary relocation efforts in Melghat. Photo courtesy: Vinod Shivakumar

As mentioned earlier, transparency is key to overcoming the challenges of voluntary rehabilitation. All tiers of officers and staff, from the DCF to the forest guard must be up to date with accurate information regarding government regulations and rules of evaluation. The guards must be proactive in assisting the beneficiaries in proper documentation and office procedures. They must also supervise the logistics for smooth movement of the beneficiaries. Regular meetings by officers, both in the village as well as the rehabilitation site, helps in planning ahead for future works.

As for the rehabilitation beneficiaries, they must be kept informed to maximize their benefits out of rehabilitation. Their grievances must be addressed immediately whenever possible. All issues must be put up before the district level rehabilitation committee, which can exercise its powers to resolve critical issues and fast track works being performed by various departments.

How do these challenges differ with smaller and bigger villages? 

The first issue is a matter of scale. There exists no model of rehabilitation which can be scaled to fit varying village sizes. One way to overcome this limitation is to focus on the outcome, so the outputs can be vectored depending upon the needs. So, if the outcome is about providing water supply to a large village vs. a small village, the output, i.e. how many borewells are required, length of pipeline, capacity of the water tank, etc. can be worked out accordingly, and a technically sound plan may be put up before the district level rehabilitation committee for approval.

Budget constraints are also different, depending upon the size of the village being rehabilitated. Again, the district level committee has the power to solve this issue by approving works and deploying various line departments.

The second issue is community dynamics. Every village however small, has two or more groups that have a different set of priorities. The concerns of each such group must be addressed separately and adequately. This is possible if the field functionaries, i.e. the forest guards are able to gauge the community dynamics and report accurately to the range and division level officers. A plan with suitable interventions may be then tailored to the needs of each community or group.

A small team of well-qualified and well-trained individuals can execute rehabilitation plans efficiently, if they remain focused to a specific group or community and their specific needs within the village. This team must be ready to deal with multiple groups within a village, irrespective of whether the village is large or small. Keeping this team motivated and output oriented is the most important task. The contractual social mobilizers recruited as part of an MoU between the Melghat TR Conservation Foundation and WCS-India have come in handy in this aspect.

When it comes to voluntary relocation efforts in Melghat, are there any issues unique to the area?

The most important difference is that there are no non-governmental players who support the rehabilitation process in Melghat. This blank has been addressed to some extent through the MoU between Melghat TR Conservation Foundation and WCS-India. However, the need of the hour is for grassroots conservation groups to organize themselves and rally their support for rehabilitation efforts.

Alternatively, many NGOs are active in Melghat for issues such as forest rights. This results in a dissonance wherein locals are encouraged to claim access to forest resources within protected areas, which are the last bastion of wildlife, and where there is maximum scope for human-wildlife conflicts arising due to competition for the same resources.

Another factor is that the Korku tribes, dominant in over 150 villages of Melghat forests, maintain very good connections, through family relations as well as through cultural interactions during festivals such as Holi and Jiroti. There is a lot of information exchanged through these connections. It is a double-edged sword as good news as well as false rumors spread very fast among the people. The people value word-of-mouth and hence it is important that positive stories of voluntary rehabilitation are acknowledged and spread by the people themselves.

Malur village, one of the largest villages to be relocated, with about 300 families. Photo courtesy: Killivalavan Rayar

Do you have any anecdotes or stories you would like to share from the voluntary relocation work so far?

I want to reiterate here that rehabilitation is a form of direct tribal development. Villages that have never had access to electricity or piped water supply, due to the remoteness of location and scarcity of resources are now being provided such facilities on priority basis.

The first village we took up for rehabilitation was unfortunately embroiled in a case of poaching. A sambar had ventured into a stream for water, near one of the agricultural fields, and the village dogs chased it down. Eventually, some miscreants joined the chase and the animal was hunted in cold blood. The poor animal was pregnant when she was poached, and it represents a genuine loss of biodiversity. This unfortunate incident could have been avoided if only the natural habitat of the animal had not been overlapping with agricultural fields with domesticated dogs and humans with no alternative sources of protein than bushmeat. After rehabilitation, the village garbage yard revealed many horns, antlers, peacock feathers and other trophies obtained from previous unreported hunting incidents.

The children in this village had to travel upto 25 km to access middle school and high school. The men had to travel hundreds of kilometers to nearby districts for employment during the lean season. The women had to venture several kilometers into the jungle to collect firewood. Just a few months prior to the rehabilitation, one such woman had been mauled by a bear, when she inadvertently walked out into the forest in the night. Today, the men find well paying jobs in agricultural fields just a few yards from their site of rehabilitation. The women need not worry about firewood because of the ease of access to nearby markets with kerosene and LPG. The children have to walk for no more than five minutes to reach the classroom of their school.

The field level staff, such as forest guards, are in touch with the rehabilitation beneficiaries on a frequent basis. The forest department continues to extend many of its outreach programs, such as alternative livelihoods development even after complete relocation of a village, through the village eco-development committee. Moreover, many programs of the Project Officer, under the Tribal Sub Plan are applicable to the sites of rehabilitation. This was made possible by an executive order in the state of Maharashtra.

How do you see voluntary relocation as ultimately benefiting wildlife? Do the communities know of these successes? 

The benefits of rehabilitation to wildlife are a matter of direct consequence of the absence of disturbance from a habitat otherwise ideal to support wildlife. The wildlife was always present in these areas due to the dense jungle, the topography and vegetation, which are objective indicators on the basis of which these areas were declared as protected areas in the first place.

Sambar sightings at the Vairat grasslands. Photo courtesy: Killivalavan Rayar

Coincidentally, Indian gaur, wild boar, sambar, peacock, and a plethora of birds have populated the area vacated by these families. The streams are crystal clear and with abundant fish, and there are seasonal migratory birds at every water body.

The most immediately visible observation has been the drastic drop in forest fires in forest areas after the rehabilitation.

Unfortunately, there is no rehabilitation package for the wildlife in areas vacated after relocation. However, the district level committee has the power to allocate a portion of district funds for habitat restoration and management from rehabilitated sites.

The rehabilitated beneficiaries acknowledge the improvement of wildlife in the previous village sites through their personal experience and estimation, and this is attested to by our field officers who make objective measurements such as PIP pug mark analysis, camera trap set-up etc. to study the occupancy and disbursal pattern of wildlife in areas vacated after rehabilitation.

Finally, what do you find most rewarding/interesting in your current role as DCF?

The most important aspect is that one can be the voice of the people who wish to be rehabilitated from protected areas. Otherwise, forest officers are thought of as being focused only on the welfare of wildlife.

Photo courtesy: Vinod Shivakumar

The district rehabilitation committee provides a viable platform wherein forest officers are able to raise the concerns of the rehabilitation beneficiaries, who have been denied many modern amenities due to the remoteness of their location, and who may now avail of all the benefits of rehabilitation through all available schemes of the government through various departments.

Improvement of wildlife values in vacated sites is just a residual effect and it provides the final confirmation of successful rehabilitation. Again, the district rehabilitation committee is monumental in making available funds and agencies for undertaking habitat restoration works. And forest officers must assert themselves in this aspect so that the natural benefits of rehabilitation may be enjoyed by the animals that have been historically hunted and abused in these sensitive zones adjoining villages within protected areas.

One Response

  1. Purnima Upadhyay says:

    Yes let me also put to the readers the success of rehabilitation in Melghat… 5 families in village Pastalai have not got land for land for last two years and more. Just last week their cattle arrested, a forest officer forcibly enter people’s house for no reason or paper or notice and fight with the local women who are mostly home in the day as men go out looking for odd jobs, providing jobs under NREGA would mean challenges in relocation, wrote the concerned ranger ..the village Mangia and Rora none of the remaining families want to move…dhakna and adhav …majority doesnt want to move….so when you say that this division would be like Akot division, you know the relocation is not by choice…lets not create a farce officer, those who have moved in the past Kelpani Dhargad.., Gullarghat.please go and visit them…why would they struggle and fight to get back to their original places… the entire process of CTH is a blatant violation of WLPA itself, leave alone FRA…..when you push and make it so difficult for people to survive, its automatically becomes voluntary…..,,certain officials in Melghat mastery relocation….except for Bori, where a completely transparent process was followed, all villagers have made an effort to return back to the villages…facing the entire machinery of the State and the courts thereafter…answer to your own conscience in a quiet time…..I wish you had better mentors who understood that none of the extremes work either for people or for forests and wildlife, finding the golden mid way is a challenge but worth striving for….

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