“I do not want to do agriculture, but I have to feed myself and my family. I have given ITI exams; I wish I could get a government job, but there are no jobs. I cannot take coaching like rich people to get a job”. This is Ramesh; he belongs to the Shariya Adivasi community in Madhya Pradesh. A resident of a village called Khajuri Kalan, Sheopur district. Like other villagers, he also lives in a kaccha house. He lives with his grandmother, father, and younger siblings. He has a wife and two children, one of whom is suffering from stunted growth.
I met him during my research on agricultural practices of his village in May. Wherein the whole village is filled with merry. Because May and June are joyous months of celebration and weddings. Kharif crops have been harvested. And these months provide a small window for the Shariya Adivasis to get their young ones married. Unlike urban citizens, Shariya tribe members come to help the bride’s family, roll puris and cook sabzi by cohesively working together.
And, during such preparations, they talk about various topics that mostly revolve around agriculture – which crop to sow, whether it will rain on time or not, and so on. But, sometimes, for the elders, the conversation sways towards their past and eviction from Kuno National Park in 1999.
Khajuri Kalan is a Shariya Adivasis village and is one of the 24 displaced villages from Kuno National Park after concerns over threats to lion populations in India were hoisted by conservationists. But even after making way for the lion. Kuno is yet to witness lions. Interestingly, the Indian government is now in talks with the Namibian government to introduce cheetahs instead of lions in Kuno.
Thus, the major media houses have once again started to report about Kuno. The articles are debating whether to introduce lions or cheetahs and which species is more valuable and worthy of living inside Kuno. But they rarely mention the ousted, their hardships after displacement, and people like Ramesh.
“We live or die. No one cares; we are Shariya, that’s why. We have lost everything after displacement, our Jal, Jungle, Zameen”. A quote said by villagers in unison during one of the discussions. I still remember the intensity through which they cursed their own Kismet and forest department for dispossessing them from their old home and forests.
Notably, the forest department had enticed them out of the national park with the promise of generous and fair compensation. One lakh rupee and nine bighas of agricultural land were provided to male children, with the underlying premise of modernisation and development of their community.
But, the ‘fair’ compensation for which the department has patted its back time after time has failed miserably. “There is no water in our wells; the forest department said water would follow us at the resettlement site, but here even drinking water is scarce, and nine bighas of land are not enough to sustain the growing population.” This is Ramesh’s younger brother, talking to me in front of an incomplete and dry well dug by the forest department for providing irrigation. All the wells dug by the forest department are of no use.
“I used to do agriculture in the riverine area of Kuwari. When I lived inside Kuno. But the forest department threw us out and involuntarily resettled us here…the land here is of poor quality and is filled with rocks; nothing grows here. Thus, my sons and I are forced to migrate and work as wage labourers”. This is Ramesh’s father verbalizing his post-displacement difficulties.
Boundaries such as these are visible surrounding agricultural land of people. But the rocks are not bought from the market. They are readily available in the plots allocated to people by the forest department. The soil depth is so low that after digging less than one foot, one hits a hard layer of rocks. A fact that detrimentally impacts farmers’ agricultural practices, mainly of Shariya, because they do not possess inputs to deal with low-quality land filled with rocks.
“Per bigha, a farmer has to pay 300 rupees for ploughing, and land should be ploughed four times, then there is the cost of irrigation water, seeds, electricity, fertilisers, and so on. For nine bighas of land, it costs 30,000 thousand to cultivate. But our material conditions do not allow us to make such an investment. Therefore, we get into a land leasing arrangement with dominant caste members”. Ramesh told me this on the first day of my visit. And with time, the integral relation between land and caste emerged in front of me.
Significantly, five households of Khajuri Kalan have had their land encroached by locally dominant caste members. “I did go to court, but they (dominant caste members) have guns, connections with police, and money to fight the case. I do not possess the resources to fight a prolonged legal battle. I had to let go of my land”.
Meanwhile, men like Ramesh are caught up in a difficult situation. He is one of the few educated people in the village. His situation is exacerbated because of failed promises by the forest department, his caste identity, and systematic neglect from the government. Sadly, the debate on which species is worthy of living in Kuno does not account for forest-dwelling communities as legitimate stakeholders.