It’s 6 am and Saraswati Rohidas Mirashi, a 35-year old lively woman, wakes up to start her daily grind. A mother of two young children, Saraswati prefers for her kids to stay at their relative’s house, 20 km away from the village. She insisted on this difficult separation, despite the emotional toll of having to spend a life away from her own children, but she believes this is necessary to ensure a better future for them. She was born in a small village called Daria and married into a settlement called Padshet of Asulli village, all of them nestled deep inside the Kali Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. A humble settlement of about four families builds up its population to around 17 people who reside in the heart of this wildlife reserve, many miles away from the comforts of the basic amenities like education, healthcare and markets.
Padshet, where access to basic amenities is difficult. ©Prakriti Srivastava
Saraswati has lived here for many years with no hospitals or schools near her house, no markets for her to sell her agricultural produce, let alone get a fair price for it, and things rapidly get worse during the monsoons when the incessant rains make the commute to see her children nearly impossible.
Padshet is in the Kumbarawada Range of Kali Tiger Reserve (KTR) in North Karnataka, which is home to tigers, leopards, dholes, gaur, chital, sambar and sloth bears, as well as elephants which are limited to a specific part of KTR. Encounters with big cats are rare, but in villages deep within wildlife habitat, conflict with gaur, chital and other wildlife is frequent. “Herds of gaur often pass through”, Saraswati says, pointing to her fields, “and of course wild pigs and langurs”. Unsaid, but starkly clear, is the hard-hitting loss Saraswati and others face due to crop raids from wildlife.
Envisioning a different life for her children, Saraswati has sent them to live with relatives outside the forest. There, they have easier access to medical care, and to schools and the education she couldn’t secure for herself – even if it meant living away from them. Her son is studying in the 8th standard while her elder daughter is pursuing a Diploma in Computer Science in Govt. Polytechnic, Joida.
Saraswati, tending to the bee keeping boxes, provided by WCS India Program. ©Prakriti Srivastava
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) India Program works to help people like Saraswati through Jayanand Darekar, Community Organiser with WCS India Program. He says, “It is getting increasingly difficult for people living in forest interiors to cope with the difficulties that come with living in such isolation”. He has assisted more than 100 families in availing the benefits of the Government sponsored relocation program while also reaching out to 150 families with support to their agricultural activities. To help Saraswati, Jayanand has facilitated providing of seeds, saplings, agricultural implements, bee keeping boxes and other forms of livelihood support. With this assistance, Saraswati’s family can now grow vegetables, areca nut, banana and coconut, and can undertake bee keeping. Using guano from nearby caves as fertilizer, her entire produce is fully organic. She still has little access to markets, the nearest of which is 10 km away, but she is glad that at least she now has a regular source of income.
Jayanand (centre) with produce from Saraswati’s fields. ©Prakriti Srivastava
“I want my children to have a better quality of life, and to be able to go to schools, colleges, have nearby doctors, and live in a larger community of people” Saraswati says. When asked whether she is happy to be at Padshet, she was quick to respond that she misses her children immensely. She adds that she would prefer to not face the daily difficulties of living so deep inside a Protected Area and would be happy to move closer to where her children live.
Compiled and Written by Vaishali Rawat