The Barnawapara Sanctuary is located in the Mahasamund District of Chhattisgarh State. As stories around displacement of tribal villagers living in the area and protests in the area were consistently being carried in the local newspapers, compounded with stories around the atrocities and arrest of Rajkumar, an Adivasi residing in the area, a fact finding team of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) went to the area on February 6th, 2018. The team members comprised of Rinchin, Nikita and Pushpa.
Objectives of the fact-finding
The impetus behind conducting the fact-finding was to investigate into the entire matter and to highlight the following issues in particular:-
• To understand the displacements being carried out in Barnawapara Sanctuary in its entirety
• To investigate into the beatings and arrest of Rajkumar, a tribal villager in Rampur Village, Barnawapara
• To unravel the caste-class-power politics in the matter of Sanjay Raotia, a forest ranger belonging to the Mahar community who the villagers have been demanding strict action against for beating, sexual assaulting and intimidating them. The forest officials declared this to be a casteist demand.
Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary
The Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary covers an area 245 sq. Kilometre in the Mahasamund District of Chhattisgarh. After the passing of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, the Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary was established in 1976. The altitude of this region ranges from 265 to 400 m. The wildlife species in the Barnawapara Sanctuary is varied. 24 villages are situated in this area.
The process of displacement
Displacement was initiated in the year 2011 in the area of Barnawapara, Mahasamund. However, the first demands for displacement were made way back in 1972. Six villages came within the fold of displacement in the name of preserving the Barnawapara sanctuary and the wildlife conservation as per the provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and Wildlife (Conservation) Act. The villagers were deemed revenue land and villagers were asked to relocate to rehabilitation sites peacefully in return for attractive rehabilitation packages—of six hectares in return for one hectare of the land acquired. They were also assured that no one would be displaced coercively. 3 out of the six villages decided to accept the resettlement. Most of the villagers are socio-economically marginalised. They are economically poor and most are adivasis belonging to the Kond community and members of the scheduled castes. All are dependant primarily on the forest and forest produce for their lives and lifelihood.
An overview of the rehabilitation site of Shrirampur:-
The forest department has resettled those displaced from Rampur village in a resettlement site, 45 kilometres from Rampur and hailed it as Shrirampur. Villagers were also resettled in Nayapara and Latedadar post displacement. All these villages are situated in Kasdol which has made it difficult for villagers to access social welfare schemes which entitled them to benefits in Mahasamund District.
The resettlement site of Shrirampur has a population of 435 people, 212 of them being tribals. On entering the site, a sprawling temple greets; it is the largest structure in the village. The land looks barren with a solar water pump in the centre, an Anganwadi Centre and houses identical to one another, all painted green in colour set in rows like forest department quarters. Farming in Shrirampur.
The villagers told the fact finding team that they were enticed with an offer of 6 hectares of land in return for 1 hectare of land. Land of around 5- 5.5 hectares was given to each adult son. It is pertinent to note here that adult daughters were given no entitlements. However, the land is unfit for agriculture as it is not irrigable, cultivable nor fertile. The land is not flat and is barren.
There is no water for irrigation. A single solar pump provides water for all purposes in the village. In their village, the villagers used to harvest both rabi and kharif crops but in the resettlement sites, they can barely manage to harvest one crop because so much effort goes in one crop.
The villagers are angry that they had to leave their flat irrigable, cultivable and extremely fertile land for this land where the work has multiplied six times and the output is the same relatively.
Residence in Shrirampur:
The forest department has given to each family 12.5 decimal land for the construction of houses, but the land under the houses has started to shrink. The houses have not been made for the villagers despite there being an Atal Awaas Yojana which provides for this entitlement on the grounds that there was already a concrete house made for these people in their primary villages from where they have been displaced. The villagers on this pretext are under the impression that they still hold rights over their land in Rampur and wish to return.
Basic necessities like water, livelihood cards, etc are not available to the villagers. There is a primary school for the children with a scarcity of teaching staff. There is a handpump in the school with water unfit for drinking and cooking purposes. The entire village sustains itself through a borewell which the villagers themselves constructed after a solar power tap got destroyed in a storm. The villagers had submitted several applications for the repair of the solar tap but the tap still remains broken and useless for the villagers apprehending the long summer where water will become scarce and crucial.
The villagers are not being able to exercise their customary forest rights and access forest produce because the forest department officials do not permit them to take any forest produce or goods such as firewood, tendu leaves, mahua, etc on the grounds that it is forest owned.
The villagers had all come to Shrirampur hoping that their lives would flourish. Now they regret their decision and they wonder what they will do with this much of land. Most of their family members have been forced to migrate to other places to fend for their livelihood and to gain sustenance. Many villagers wish to go back to Rampur and join the 12-13 families who are still residing there. Along with articulating their anger and resentment to the fact finding team, they have also communicated to the forest department and the Chhattisgarh Government that unless they get the primary facilities and the community forest rights in the resettled villages, they will return back to their old villages and resume their lives there.
The families that decided to stay behind in Rampur Village were met by the fact-finding team. The team found that the villagers residing are being brutally oppressed. They are being threatened by the forest department officials for the last 3 years to vacate their houses unless they want to be put behind bars.
Denial of community forest rights and social welfare entitlements: The villagers are not allowed to bathe in the pond in the village. They are furthermore, disallowed access to tendu patta, mahua , and other forest produce which they ought to be allowed to use. If they try to acquire forest produce in a clandestine manner, it is snatched away from them and they are beaten in turn. The compensation of Rs. 2000/- as has been declared in return for not picking tendu patta has also been denied to the villagers. Old-age pensions, disability pension, widow, pensions are not being received by any villager. There is no Anganwadi Centre or a Primary Health Centre in the village.
The forest department officials were threatening the villagers to vacate the land within 15 days and pasted a notice on their walls demanding they do the same. The communal hall of the villagers has been occupied by the forest department and their deity abode was broken by the forest officials. On account of this, an adivasi man by the name of Rajkumar entered a feud with a forest ranger called Sanjay Raotia who belongs to the Mahar Community. In the argument, Rajkumar ended up abusing the Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh. This was videographed by the rangers to be used as and when the time was ripe.
The story of Rajkumar:
On 14th January, 2018, at around 3-4 pm, Sanjay Raotia alongwith some more men came to the house of Rajkumar to beat him up. Rajkumar was ploughing the yard behind his house when these men entered and started kicking, punching and abusing him. When his wife and children ran to rescue him, they were beaten up brutally as well. He was wounded badly in his back and his head which hurt until this day. An unconscious Rajkumar was then taken to the hospital. Enroute an FIR was registered against him and he was shown to be arrested by the police. He was again intimidated to sign documents which he cannot read, for he is illiterate. The entire family is very afraid.
His wife, Amrika, spoke to the fact finding team about how she was beaten up when she went to rescue Rajkumar from those beating him. She also told the fact finding team that her clothes were torn by Sanjay Raotia, who thereafter abused her, threatened her that as of now only Rajkumar is being arrested, the next time everyone will be arrested. When Rajkumar’s old parents tried to save Rajkumar, they were beaten up as well. So were his 10-12 year old children and his speech and hearing challenged sister. When Amrika called the Sarpanch of the village to help them, then Sanjay Raotia along with a clerk beat up the Sarpanch. The Sarpanch and Amrika after this incident went to Baya Police Station to get an FIR registered. Initially, the police authorities refused to register an FIR but eventually had to on account of public pressure.
After getting the FIR registered when Amrika came back to her house at around 5am , she saw that her house had been broken into, the lock of her cupboard had been broken, and Rs. 5000/- alongwith 8 grams of gold and 2 nosepins were stolen. This was the entire savings of the family which was just taken away from them.
The fact-finding team also spoke to other villagers:
Fakir Bisal is a resident of Rampur Village and is a Saura adivasi. He told the fact finding team that he wants to continue residing in the Village because his younger brother died two days before his eighteenth birthday leaving a wife who has no entitlement under the rehabilitation policy as her husband had not attained maturity at his death. He hence, cannot leave this village leaving his brother’s wife and her family alone without any source of livelihood. He has been regularly harassed by the forest department officials who do not allow him to pick tendu patta and mahua and beat him up and threaten him regularly to vacate his house and land. He has recently been asked to leave within 15 days time else he will be beaten up until he leaves. He said that he could grow only one crop this year and that too could not be done properly because they cannot use any forest facilities such as water. It has become increasingly difficult to feed his family and he had sent two of his children to Uttar Pradesh for work.
She is a differently-abled woman unable to walk who resides with her husband and four children opposite to Rajkumar’s house. Two of her children have gone to Uttar Pradesh in order to add to the earnings of the family. Merely farming has not been able to sustain her family. The forest department has broken her house and has been at the receiving end of abuses from the forest rangers. They have also hurled sexist abuses against her and asked her to vacate immediately. She used to get the disability pension and tendu patta benefit but that has all stopped and she worries how her family will sustain itself. She wants to continue residing in the village.
The indefinite protest:
The villagers were angered by the unlawful arrest of Rajkumar and the increasing pressure on the villagers to vacate by the forest department and they sat on an indefinite sit-in protest on January 25th 2018. The fact-finding team went to the protest site to meet with the protestors. The protestors told the fact-finding team that they do not wish to relocate, this village has been built by their fathers-and grandfathers, with their blood and sweat, they made the roads of these villages. The land is theirs, the forest is theirs and they will not let the forest department take the forest and land away from them.
The villagers had gone to meet with the Chief Minister but the Chief Minister did not meet them. The MLA of the village has assured the villagers that a peaceful solution will be devised but no such conflict-resolution process seems to be in the works. The villagers feel disillusioned by the entire democratic structures in place. The Sarpanches from the other villages have also threatened to give up their posts in order to support the struggle. The struggle has gotten a lot of support and people everyday in large numbers are coming to meet with the protestors and offer solidarity and support especially since this is not an isolated incident and the villages surrounding the forest reserve are also slowly getting vacated.
The protestors have demanded strong action against Sanjay Raotia. The articulation that it is a casteist demand has been refuted strongly by the protesting villagers who insist that Sanjay Raotia is a landed wealthy person who has misused his power as a forest ranger to oppress the poor villagers. They further contend that caste has been used a means to divert the attention from the violence on the extremely oppressed villagers belonging to 22 villages.
The protest was called off on February 28th, 2018 after the SDM, Kasdol Block, Mr. Anjor Singh Paitra visited the protest site and after speaking with the protestors and the Sarpanches of the various villages verbally accepted the memorandum submitted by protestors. In lieu of the assurances given by the SDM, the protest was called off in a meeting attended by approximately one thousand people from across Chhattisgarh including political activists and luminaries. In the meeting, a strong resolution was taken that the adivasis will rise in protest in case their demands are not met and when the oppression resurfaces. The most heartening part of the meeting was the participation of the villagers who had accepted resettlement. They spoke to the villagers about how they were lied to and deceived by the state and forest government. They advised all the villagers to not accept the resettlement and to carry on the fight and vowed to support their struggle.
In the aftermath of the protest, the toll for Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary has been lifted for the villagers. Gram Sabhas were reconvened in several villages and nine villages have applied for their community forest rights. The FIR against Sanjay Raotia was amended in accordance to the demands of the villagers. Sanjay Raotia has also been transferred out of the area.To Preserve and Protect—Prot