Jamni village in Maharashtra assented to being relocated through a gram sabha resolution - a big step in developing the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve as inviolate space. However, closer scrutiny reveals that the consent was obtained under duress. Aparna Pallavi investigates.

On 27 June 2008, village Jamni, located within the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) in the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra, gave its consent to being relocated through a gram sabha resolution. On the face of it, this is a positive development in the interest of conservation. TATR has been notified on 27 December 2007 as a Critical Tiger Habitat (CTH), and Jamni’s consent to relocate is a big step forward in developing TATR as an inviolate space for the endangered tiger to romp in.

The only thorny question is that of the manner in which this consent was obtained. Careful reading of the gram sabha resolution and talks with the residents of Jamni indicate that all is not fair in this area.

The text of the resolution, which contains the signatures of the collector, the panchayat samiti CEO and SDO Warora, shows up many irregularities in the way the gram sabha was conducted and the resolution obtained. The very first sentence of the resolution states that the gram sabha was called on the basis of telephonic instructions issued by BDO Chimur, G G Telkapalliwar, on 26 June, just one day before the gram sabha was actually held.

When asked about this detail, gram sewak of the Madnapur Panchayat under which Jamni comes, R B Jogi, admitted that legally, a gram sabha cannot be called on the basis of telephonic instructions, and a minimum of seven days notice is a must. “But we were under orders, and had no choice,” said he. Sarpanch Rekha Dumbre also pleaded helplessness in the face of bureaucratic diktat. “We had called the meeting at the insistence of the BDO, but we were asked to issue the notice on behalf of the gram sabha. This is not done. The BDO should have called the meet himself. But we had no choice,” she said.

When asked to comment on the irregularity, BDO Telkapalliwar denied that the gram sabha had been organised telephonically. “We had been talking to the villagers earlier, and had been encouraging them to hold a gram sabha,” he said. When it was pointed out that ‘encouraging people’ was not the same as issuing an official notice, he refused to comment further.

Warora SDO Kale, who was present at the gram sabha meeting and signed the resolution, washed his hands off saying that the subject was the responsibility of the BDO.

Villagers themselves allege that the gram sabha meet was, as it were, forced upon them. Says former deputy sarpanch Nanaji Uike, “When we heard of the meeting, the first thing we asked was, why now? This village had never seen a gram sabha meeting ever in its history. The sarpanch and the gram sewak, who were running the proceedings, were outsiders. Why were we not allowed to run our own gram sabha?”

Several other irregularities are also in evidence. The gram sabha meet was chaired by sarpanch Dumbre, whereas it should have been chaired either by a resident of Jamni or by the authority who had called the meeting. No agenda had been set for the meeting, whereas legally, the agenda of the meeting, mentioning subjects to be discussed during the meeting, should be published along with the notice of the gram sabha.

According to Sarang Dhabekar of the Chimur branch of Gurudev Sewa Mandal, an organisation that has been working on strengthening grassroots democracy in the districts of Chandrapur and Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, these irregularities constitute violations of Section 7 of the Gram Panchayat Act, which lays down procedures for calling and conducting gram sabha meetings. “In effect, this gram sabha resolution is illegal and invalid,” he informed.

Apart from technical irregularities, the resolution reveals deeper malpractices in the process of obtaining consent. The resolution states that the residents of Jamni have given ‘conditional consent’ to relocation. The residents of the village have demanded that they be relocated at a spot of their choice, with the landless being given five acres of land, at par with land holders, land that is ready for cultivation, financial support for five years of sustenance, one government job per family, transport costs involved in relocation, replication of irrigation facilities available in the village and separate land ownership pattas for every eligible person.

Bhauji Patruji Uike, the suspended police patil of Jamni village. Pic: Aparna Pallavi.

The villagers believe that as per the resolution, they cannot be forced to move unless these demands are met. Resident Raghunath Raishidam’s tone acquires belligerence as he says, “During the meeting, we told the officials very clearly that we will move only if the exact living conditions that exist in our village are recreated, not otherwise.”

But according to Dhabekar, this is just a smokescreen for a harsher truth. “Before the conditions are mentioned, the resolution says that the villagers are ready to be relocated ‘according to rules’. Once they agree to be relocated according to rules, the conditions set by them are automatically invalidated, as they will be given only what the rules allow.” There is also no guarantee, says he, that the village will not be forced to relocate under dissatisfactory circumstances.

Dhabekar’s statement carries weight because very recent precedents of such hoodwinking of villagers by officials as a ruse to manufacture consent to relocate exist at very close range. Village Botezari, which was relocated out of TATR in March 2007, was forced to do so before negotiations were complete, and an irrigation tank which was promised to them has not been provided till date. During an earlier visit to the area, when this correspondent had asked officials involved in the relocation why the tank had not been provided, they had responded saying that villagers would receive nothing beyond what the rules permit.

“It was with an eye to the hardships being faced by Botezari residents that we had framed conditions,” says Raishidam apologetically after receiving the above staggering information. “We had no other option. For 20 years the officials have been pressing us to leave. So we tried to protect our interests as we were best able.”

Villagers say that the entire gram sabha proceedings were carried out in a very coercive and intimidating manner. Village police patil Bhauji Patruji Uike says, “The officials were being very polite and nice about explaining the relocation package and taking down our demands. But when I asked why the proceedings were not being carried out by villagers, and demanded a written assurance that we will not be forced to move unless our conditions were met, they were very angry and forced me to shut up.” Bhauji was later suspended on charges of ‘causing hindrance in government work’ in his official capacity as police patil. His status as a resident of the village and his right to speak in that capacity were not taken into account.

Meanwhile, the promises given out in the gram sabha have already starting falling to bits. The villagers were not heard in the selection of site for relocation. The site in question is actually the nistaar (village commons) land of village Sonegaon Forest near Chimur. The Sonegaon Forest gram panchayat has raised the issue with the district collector and refused to part with the land. This fact too is distressingly similar to the case of Botezari, which was relocated on the nistaar land being used by some nearby villages. All the villages have suffered in consequence and the relocated population is facing intense hostility from surrounding villages. The same could be the case with Jamni if this plan is carried through.

While Jamni village is a despondent village as of today, the issue involves deeper questions than the fate of this little village. In the last few years, it has been recognised that conservation concerns cannot leave out the stakes of forest dwellers, as conflict over resources can be counterproductive to the cause of conservation. The 2005 report of the Tiger Task Force has stressed this point strongly. Recent legislations like the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, and the Wildlife (Protection) Act (amendment 2006) necessitate that people’s wholehearted consent be obtained before relocating them.

But the case of Jamni indicates that consent to relocate has been obtained under duress. If the relocation process is allowed to continue in its present form, it will only intensify the conflict over natural resources in TATR.