Home is where the fear is
Tanay Sukumar • from Khanapur in Belagavi

A wildlife sanctuary now surrounds their homes and fields. Will they stay in the village where they have stayed all their lives? Or will the animals that threaten their livelihood, force them to move out?

The ambulance finally came at 10pm and Sanjeevani, after a three-hour wait, was put inside it. Before she could reach the hospital, the ambulance jerked over the uneven, stony path through forests in the darkness of the night. These were not roads, but clearances, formed decades ago through the dense trees.

On this only rough stretch that could take her to the nearest hospital at this hour, the ambulance was still in the forests when the 22-year-old delivered her newborn.

This is the only path from Gavali to Khanapur town, through the Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary. Ambulances sometimes refuse to come to the village at night, especially during rains.

Sanjeevani was lucky to have got an ambulance to come to the village. In the day time, a group of residents in the Gavali village would have placed the patient on a makeshift bed and carried them through this “road” to the place where the ambulance waits for them. The pick-up point is 18 kilometres away. Villagers call it "walkable" distance, despite the weight of the patient on the shoulders.

Gavali is one of a dozen villages and hamlets located in what is now the Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary in north-western Karnataka. Less than 200 people are regular residents, away from the busy world of roads, electricity or doctors. Villagers are often faced with wild animals that eat away crops and even attack humans. Flesh and eyes mauled by bears, and a woman killed by a man-eater tiger, are as much part of local folklore, as they are commonplace.

Life amid fear is difficult, but when the government extends to the villagers a compensation offer if they relocate to other places, not everyone is willing.

Until they agree, residents in all these villages know that stories like Sanjeevani’s are forever waiting to happen. But the hope for better facilities is not enough to unite all villagers to agree for rehabilitation, as most either live in denial or think the government will end up giving them a raw deal.

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For protection of plants and animals, the forest department says there are rules to prevent basic amenities for people in the forest-villages. The 19,043-hectare Bhimgad area of the Western Ghats was declared a wildlife sanctuary in December 2011. Located 35 kilometres southwest of Belagavi city, the area has rich floral and faunal diversity and is mainly known for Wroughton's free-tailed bats, an endangered species. The ruins of the historical Bhimgad Fort are located within the region.

The Bhimgad Sanctuary boundary starts here. Developmental activities beyond this point are often prohibited by the forest department, though there are villages.

The decision to protect the area as a sanctuary was the result of a two-decade-old demand from environmentalists and wildlife enthusiasts. But, four years on, people in these dozen inhabited villages that lie inside the sanctuary, are realizing that their problems may never be solved any more. This includes the tiny habitations of Talewadi, Krishnapur, Mendil, Degaon, Gavali, Pastoli, Kongala, Hemmadaga, among others.

The largest village, Gavali, is spread over 5,309 hectares. About 3,000 people live in these villages inside the sanctuary according to the 2011 census.

S. A. Inamdar of the local forest department said that the task of the forest department here is to protect the wildlife and forests. “The Western Ghats of Khanapur are a highly protected area, and Bhimgad is one part of it. It was declared a sanctuary to protect the area from rampant felling of trees, mining and poaching,” he said.

Katrina Fernandez is a wildlife researcher, and is also a local. When she was growing up in this region, she used to cycle in the jungle without any fear. Today, with the area being declared a sanctuary, there are more animals in the area, and she is worried. For the villagers, it is a tough choice whether to stay or not, but both the authorities and the villagers claim to have a point.

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Doresh Y. A., a schoolteacher in Gavali, first came to the village in August 2007. It was the rainy season, and the forest path that led from Nerase, 18 kilometres away, to Gavali, was blocked. There was no vehicle that could take him to his new workplace, and he walked with luggage on his shoulders.

“I didn’t know there could be villages like this,” he said. “No roads, no vehicles, no electricity. I reached Khanapur town at 11:30am, and then got a jeep to Nerase. From there I walked and walked in the rain, and I reached Gavali at 7:30pm, after crossing all the villages.” Doresh goes back to his family in Bengaluru for three months every year, one of which is when the school takes a one-month break due to the perils of rain.

“Even if your matchbox gets over, you have to go to Khanapur, about 30 kilometres away,” said Govind Patil, a school headmaster from Degaon village. “All of us in the villages of Krishnapur, Talewadi and Degaon are far away from basic needs. Only the nature supports us. This is the teesra jagat (third world).”

Inside the sanctuary are tigers, leopards, the Indian gaur, wild dogs, bears, sambars, barking deer and antelopes. Wild animals pose a constant danger to the lives of villagers. Animals mostly come out at night, and in some villages, they even enter homes. And when a human being is attacked by an animal, there are no doctors in any of these villages.

Patil said, “If you’re lucky, you will have health problems in day time. Otherwise you’re gone.”

Like Sanjeevani, there is a similar case or two every month, according to Dr. Narayana, a gynaecologist at Khanapur government hospital. Talking about interior villages in the sanctuary, he said: “We don’t have proper access to those areas. A patient who is in labour at night is a difficult case obviously. Especially during rains, when they have to carry the patient to a point where a vehicle can go and wait for them.”

None of the Bhimgad villages has a doctor, a primary health centre or a maternity ward facility, according to the 2011 census.

If the ambulance goes all the way to the villages, it would get stuck, because the paths are blocked during rains. In acute cases such as heart attacks, patients are sometimes dead by the time they reach the hospital. The number of people dying on the way goes up during rainy season.

Acknowledging these problems in 2012, the then deputy conservator of forests, Girish Hosur, had suggested it was better to relocate the residents of these dozen villages in a phased manner by giving fair compensation packages. The proposal has yet to be seen in action.

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Hosur’s proposal was based on the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, according to which families residing within sanctuaries can voluntarily resettle outside in return for a rehabilitation package. The compensation amount is decided by the revenue department.

However, residents in most villages are vehemently opposed to the idea of leaving their place. When the topic of compensation came up, Maaloo Patil, the oldest man in Degaon village, denied all problems. “The only thing that we need is a road to Khanapur, and electricity. We are happy here,” said the former panchayat member.

Degaon, a six-square-kilometre hamlet of 28 families, has no electricity despite government claims of 100 per cent solar electrification in such villages. The villagers are not ready to move out, because they have lived here all their lives. Emotional attachment turns out to be the biggest reason for their wish to stay here, whatever the compensation package is.

Until now, the local forest officer has confirmed getting an acceptance from only two villages. Talewadi village has accepted the rehabilitation package only because “they face even bigger problems”, said Patil. Few others like Gavali are still discussing the rehabilitation terms. Residents of Gavali say they will consider moving out only if each family gets four acres of land, Rs.25 lakh and a government job.

In addition to the villagers feeling an emotional attachment to their villages, there is another factor at play. In the 1970s, the construction of Hidkal dam had displaced villagers from the Hukkeri, another taluka in Belagavi district. Khanapur MLA Arvind Patil claims that victims of displacement during the Hidkal dam construction have still not got complete compensation as was promised, even four decades later.

Wildlife scientist Ajay Desai believes that corruption, lack of professionalism, and a lack of a humanitarian approach towards villagers has messed up such compensation schemes in the past, and so the distrust is natural.

The third fear is the possibility of villagers being put into Kannada-speaking areas, after rehabilitation. After all, some of the Hidkal victims were Kannadigas who were resettled in Marathi-speaking areas. The Khanapur taluka, though in the state of Kannada-speaking Karnataka, has over 70 per cent Marathi speaking population. A six-decade-old unresolved border dispute over the Belagavi district still divides people over language. Moving to a Kannada-speaking region is not an idea most are ready to welcome.

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The distrust in the government is not unfounded. Babu Parmaj, 61, lives in Ashok Nagar, the colony of Hidkal dam victims who were moved from their original settlement in 1974. Though Parmaj’s family got the compensation that was promised, many displaced villagers are now losing their fight. A 643-day-long protest in front of Belagavi deputy commissioner’s office from March 2008 to January 2010 had no impact on the government, he said.

“We lived in the Kannadiga-dominated Hukkeri taluka, which is in the plateaus. They brought us here in the Western Ghats, which is rainy and it is a forest area. There were so many wild animals too. Many old people died in their first few months, because they could not adjust to the climate.”

Villagers say they had been promised four acres of agricultural land and a plot of size 40 feet by 60 feet. There are some families which have still not got even two acres.

Dawalsab Nadaf’s family was among the many displaced villagers who filed cases and petitions to seek compensation as promised. He got two acres of land, but about the petitions, he just said: “Everyone is corrupt. It’s useless to fight these cases.”

The fear of being rehabilitated into a linguistically different region without a fair compensation package stems from Hidkal, and seeps into Bhimgad.

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The uneven, stony path that leads to Degaon from the entry point of Bhimgad is similar to the one on which Sanjeevani was carried after her labour pains. Even as villagers refuse to move out, their problems do not end at man-animal conflict, poor healthcare and road connectivity. Degaon has a primary school, from first to fifth grade. After completing fifth grade, the future of the children is a story cut short by wild animals, long distances, and dangerous forests.

When these students from the Kongala government school pass class 5, they will either have to go to boarding school in Khanapur town, or find their way through the forests to the nearest middle school.

There is a school till seventh grade in Hemmadaga, six kilometres away, but parents do not prefer to send kids there because of the fear of wild animals. If they did, there would be no option but to walk that distance to finish two more years of school. Another school in Talewadi closed down few years ago because no teacher was ready to work there, said Patil. The last choice is to send teenagers to government hostels in Khanapur so that they can complete schooling.

MLA Arvind Patil gave the example of Gawase village. “In Gawase village, which is very interior and remote, people say that their students are getting education only till fourth grade. After this they come to Jamboti, 15 km away. They do not have any facility to travel to Jamboti. A road was sanctioned but the forest department is not allowing us to build it.”

His argument is that people in his constituency do not want to harm forests. They want the forest department to just renovate the existing roads by asphalting. Paths, after all, have existed for as long as these villages have been inhabited.

The man-animal conflict is not limited to people being attacked by wild animals. Destruction of paddy crops by elephants is an annual feature in most inhabited parts of the Bhimgad Sanctuary. In eleven years from 2000-2001 to 2011-2012, a total of 4,595 cases of man-animal conflict were reported, according to the Belagavi forest division data. This includes damage to crops and deaths of human beings.

Katrina Fernandez’s family herself has a farm in Nerase, which is regularly disturbed by animals. Being a wildlife biologist, her dilemma is evident: “It comes to a point where you have to decide whether animals are more important or crops. For farmers living in the villages, that’s a difficult choice. Their whole income depends on all their produce.”

This regular damage to agriculture is where Vithoba Sawant, a Kongala schoolteacher, finds the biggest reason to move out into better places. Apart from Talewadi, Kongala is the other village which have requested the forest department for resettlement. “It’s no good living in this place. Even if we do agriculture, animals eat the crops, and no one gives proper compensation.”

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The state forest department’s annual report for 2014-15 shows an expense of Rs. 2320 lakh during 2013-14 specifically for voluntary resettlement of families from protected areas. S. A. Inamdar, who is deputy conservator of forests (forest mobile squad) for the Belagavi division, said: “We need forests to control ill-effects of carbon emissions, and we have to maintain the forests. Land is the highest valued asset. If you form a road, it is just an opening for more construction work.”

He said that building a wall to restrict animal movement for crop protection is not something that can be done in a sanctuary. If electric fences are built, it could kill animals. However, three-metre-wide trenches have been built in some places for the purpose.

He said: “If villagers are not willing to move out, no one can force them. They are the rightful owners of their land. The department is providing basic amenities like solar lamps. But we cannot provide everything. People and animals should live in equilibrium.”

A taluka panchayat official also said on condition of anonymity that since these villages are sparsely populated, providing hospitals and schools is not economically feasible.

S. J. Vandre, range forest officer for Bhimgad area, confirmed that Talewadi and Kongala are now officially ready for resettlement but the amount of compensation is still not final. He said: “We are readying the files for resettlement, and then we will have meetings with the villagers. We prefer if the villagers themselves give us in writing, else they may end up making accusations of harassment against us.”

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Dr. Narayana thinks the best thing would be to move the villagers to the periphery of the sanctuary. “No one would be happy to leave their home, but we should convince them. We have to educate them about problems of them being there, living in those conditions. We could have at least some proper roads so that ambulances could come to strategic points from where pick-up is easier.”

But like Inamdar, the gynaecologist cautioned that if roads are built inside the forest, “half the jungles will be gone before you know it”.

“We need to think from both sides. Just because they are there in the forest, we can’t leave them to die. We should come to a conclusion where forests are also saved and the villagers are also satisfied.”

Fernandez finds the solution easier. She said that like villagers in Gavali, they would ask for four acres of land even if they own only half an acre right now. She feels relocation is not a socially viable solution. She doubted if there is any genuine man-animal conflict which cannot be solved.

Panduram Gowde (L) and Rahul are class 5 students in the Gavali government school. They feel scared of the animals in the sanctuary, but did not seem interested in moving to safer places.

“There are solutions to work with what already exists. We can figure out which crops the villagers can grow which animals are not interested in. Provide better facilities for fencing. Improve the infrastructure available to them, so that their lives are not compromised and animals are not harmed either. That’s a more viable solution than moving people out.”

She thinks it is just an infrastructure problem, which can be addressed.

For scientist Ajay Desai, solving the problem is not entirely impossible, if only the authorities consider the welfare of the people. He agreed that for sparsely populated villages, facilities like a primary health care are not feasible. But roads and electricity can be provided, he feels.

He said: “Conservation is important, but you cannot ignore the people. The officer in charge needs to think whether he has a duty towards the tree or the society.”

Desai gave the example of underground electric cables to provide electricity, which may not have adverse impact on the forests. He said that if panchayats get funds, they can consider making roads as well.

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Until a solution is arrived at, life in these dozen tiny villages remains decades behind the cities, yet bound by an attachment that still keeps them here despite habitual fear. They do not know when the next patient will have to be carried by villagers to an ambulance waiting few “walkable” kilometres away. They are not sure if their crop produce will be eaten by elephants even before they can earn something out of it.

Ten-year-old Panduram Gowde still wants to stay in Gavali, even though his classmate Rahul is afraid of wild animals entering his home. As things stand now, it seems tough to send Panduram to school when he is too old for Gavali’s classrooms, and to help Rahul feel safe at home. Solutions to these problems are something that villagers seem reluctant to find, and the government is too indifferent to care about.