When good intentions of the government are stymied by minor procedural issues
Reticent Chandramathi is a gram panchayat member in Kerwase, Karkala taluk where her family is now settled. Coconut and arecanut trees surround the house and fetch the family a good revenue. More importantly, all her six sons have been educated after the move from Malejodi settlement in Belthangadi range of the Kudremukh National Park.
Kudremukh Landscape © Kiran Yadav
"For any emergency we had to walk 6-8 kms from where we lived in the middle of the forest. Often, when my husband was out on work, I would be alone in the house with no help around," she reminisces. Her husband Raju agrees. The family moved out in 2011 and was paid Rs 16 lakhs by Wildlife Conservation Society India as part of private funded land purchase.
Three of the boys in the family go to work as labour while one has just completed his BBM degree from a college in Karkala.
Kerwase gram panchayat member, Chandramathi in her new house © Manish Machaiah
The diminutive Shekar, a Malekudiya, an ancient tribe of the Western Ghats, also had a similar reason for moving out of Kanyal settlement of Karkala range in the forests where his ancestors have lived. Education for his daughter. The girl Shwetha is now going to a college nearby to study for BBM.
For sturdy Babu, the erstwhile Malekudiya tribal chief in Kuriyadi settlement of Belthangadi range, the move out in 2014 was perfectly timed, as he got good land at a good rate and with a good source of water. The Rs 70 lakh compensation for his six-acre holdings helped him buy land and house for Rs 35 lakh. Happily, three of his daughters got married since and one is soon going to. He beams as he announces that, sickle in hand, just back from his plantation.
A shamiana has been set up in front of the sprawling house for the event. Four more daughters are in line for matrimony, while three of his sons are pursuing labour work, having fared poorly at school. One son works as a storekeeper for the gram panchayat.
Unlike others who moved out, and have some or the other complaint -- 'get our children jobs', 'water is scarce', 'here we cannot encroach on the land around', 'all our siblings are now distributed and far away', so on -- Babu is one happy man with no complaints.
Babu offering a tender coconut in front of his new house © Manish Machaiah
But things are not so easy for everyone. Often the search for good land that is not costly becomes a problem as also the availability of water. When everything is fine, there is the problem with documents. Where the documents are intact and there are no family disputes over ownership, there is the long time the process of valuation takes place. For that, here’s a flashback.
Kudremukh National Park in Karnataka covers over 600 sq km of rainforests with natural grassland and shola forests spread over three districts--Dakshin Kannada, Udupi and Chikmagalur. This part of the Western Ghats also gives birth to the three rivers Thunga, Bhadra, and Netravathi. It is home to the endangered lion-tailed macaque, besides tigers, leopards, gaurs, and elephants.
The park had a little over 800 families living in various remote and isolated parts of the forest.
Sholas of Kudremukh © Manish Machaiah
It was WCS that first gave the impetus to relocation in 2003 in the Bhagavathi settlement inside Kudremukh National Park, through which eight families were successfully relocated. With around 400 cattle heads supplying milk to the mining township, there was clear competition with wildlife for fodder and grass. The buy-out by WCS freed up huge tracts of the landscape and prevented fragmentation of habitat.
In 2005, the state government passed an order for voluntary relocation from Kudremukh and took upon itself the task of entirely funding the resettlement.
During declaration of Kudremukh as a National Park, the revenue areas inside the park continued as revenue land. People living there hence have legal rights to the land they have settled on.
Package running into crores
Unlike in other places where those seeking to move out are paid a flat Rs 10 lakh for every beneficiary in the family as per MoEF norms, here the payment is based on land and crop value. Manu George from Kuthlur settlement in Belthangadi range got Rs 2.85 crores for his 13 acres of land.
Since 2005, almost 230 families who applied to the government for voluntary relocation have been resettled outside the park at a total cost of Rs 68 crores so far.
The WCS India Program has meanwhile pitched in by privately buying the land from 62 families or 262 people so far, at a cost of Rs 4.25 crores, thus freeing up a little over 111 acres in Kudremukh park. The people have handed over their rights to these lands to the forest department. The organization is involved in private funded land consolidation program in Protected Areas of Western Ghats and works to complement the effort of the Government to consolidate wildlife habitat.
"The relocation is going on well, though a little bit of speeding up would help. But unfortunately, the land and crop evaluation is taking unduly long time, and that is because it requires coordination by so many departments involved," says Deputy Conservator of Forests, Ganesh Bhat.
The land and crop evaluation calls for the PWD, horticulture department, agriculture, revenue department, etc to fix a commonly suitable time and visit the properties.
WCS Assistant Director, Conservation Operations, P M Muthanna too agrees. “The work of valuing the land and crop of applicants is an additional work without any additional budget allocation and support. Officers from the various departments are overburdened with existing workloads and this will be their last priority. The ambition and good intention of the Government to provide relocation to willing families is defeated due to such minor issues.”
Ideally, it would have been good to complete it in five years but this may take longer, says the DCF. More than 300 applications have been received by the department. That would still leave an equal number or more still residing within the park, he notes.
The long wait
Many are waiting for the land value to go up, while many have issues with missing ownership titles or family disputes. For instance, the case of Girija from Hendelu settlement in Karkala range of the park was fraught with family disputes and missing documents, says WCS India Program staff Ramchandra Bhat. Sons and daughters who had already moved out after taking their share came back claiming for a share of the compensation amount Rs 35 lakh. Bitter disputes, a suicide later, Girija was able to move out to the new place with her unmarried daughter. She acknowledges all the hand-holding by Bhat that helped them. (WCS India Program staff help families willing to relocate procure Aadhar card and ownership titles besides helping with other procedures.)
Girija with her daughter in the new place © Manish Machaiah
Sometimes hand-holding by WCS India Program staff takes on an entirely new dimension too, as in the case of one couple whose marriage was on the point of breaking up, and it fell upon field staff Dharanappa to help patch up things!
Recounting complicated cases, Bhat points to the case of Sharada of the Mapalu settlement. Having been settled on the land by a previous owner for whom she worked, she had no documents to the land. It required some talking and cajoling the present owner to part with a small amount of his compensation amount. The last of the eight families in this settlement are well on their way out, with one winning Rs 2.8 crores as compensation.
There can be no adequate emphasizing the importance of voluntary relocation of people from inside Protected Areas. Not only does it free the wild spaces for the animals to move unhindered, and help control unsustainable harvesting of forest produce (as one Malekudiya in Kudremukh observed, some of the medicinal herbs have been commercially exploited to the point that they are no more available) but for the people living in isolated regions of the forest, it comes as a welcome move.
In Kudremukh too, besides the crop loss to wild pigs, etc inside the forest, the access to health and education facilities as also the availability of electricity, played a big role in many families seeking relocation. In her new home, at Bidregoddu, Latha, wife of Sudhakar Shetty is seated in front of her television set, with the volume turned on high, watching a Kannada soap she now follows keenly. Life has changed.
Written by Jayalakshmi K