Unfavoured Species

A vulnerable forest tribe that lost out to wildlife conservation

A makeshift watchtower stands in a field from where farmers keep watch on animal raids in Mukki, in Madhya Pradesh's Kanha Tiger Reserve. Deepanwita Gita Niyogi
06 December, 2023

Inside Madhya Pradesh’s Kanha Tiger Reserve, one can still find the Kheermata grove, sacred to the Baiga Adivasi community. But one may not find the Baigas who once worshiped there. When I visited in August, Kanha range—one of six administrative units in the reserve—showed no sign of human settlement. “After people left with their belongings, the houses were razed,” Jodha Baiga, who takes care of barasingha fawns kept in the reserve’s enclosures, told me. The Baigas—who are a Scheduled Tribe, sub-classified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group owing to their declining population and low literacy levels—were pushed out of the area around two decades ago, along with other tribal communities. They were displaced around fifteen kilometres away. “At that time, no monetary benefit was offered for displacement. Displaced families received houses and two hectares of land for paddy cultivation. The beneficiaries resettled in Manegaon,” Baiga said.

Displacement began as early as the late 1960s to protect the barasingha, a hard-ground swamp deer, whose population had dipped to 66 around that time. “As there were only a handful of barasinghas left in Kanha in 1969, I had to do something to protect the species. I offered forest dwellers a deal they couldn’t refuse,” MK Ranjitsinh, a former collector of Mandla, told me. “I told them as their cattle was preyed upon by tigers it was better to move out of the core area. The government took care of their transportation. Saunf village was relocated that very year and paved the way for others.”

Today, over a thousand barasinghas roam the reserve. At Sondar, a forest guard named Ram Bharose Masram informed me that the village by the same name was displaced in 1978. “While some people went to adjoining Chhattisgarh, before its bifurcation from Madhya Pradesh, others settled down in the buffer area of the tiger reserve,” Masram said. Other villages were also relocated to make way for the barasingha. With the expansion of luxury tourism, the displaced Gond and Baiga communities living in Kanha’s buffer zone face constant pressure to move.

In 1973, the Indian government launched Project Tiger. Forest dwellers were further displaced to bolster conservation of the animal, which was included in the IUCN Red List of threatened species. When Kanha became a tiger reserve that year, all villages lying in the core area were shifted, except Mukki—a village divided into several hamlets. “At that time, small houses were constructed for us. Slowly, we had to rebuild our lives. Having lost everything, many of us went back by ten years. Poverty never left us,” Premsingh Uikey, a resident of Mukki who works as a safari guide in the core area, told me. He recalled his father saying that, being poor and mostly illiterate, they were not well informed and many settled wherever they could after displacement. “That’s why today we demand facilities from the forest department. People don’t want to leave once again.” Narsingh Maravi, a resident of Mukki, added, “Many people did not want to relocate. There was opposition but the order was to displace us. Nobody could prevent it.”