‘Don’t call it Bhagwanpur! Call it Botezari!’

Over the last 63 years, barely a quarter of the millions of displaced adivasis were ever rehabilitated by the State. Most were thrown off their land without anywhere to go. And barring displacement caused by massive development projects, many others were displaced by the Forest Department in the name of conservation.

Displacement by development is one issue, dispossession of the forests was another.

This article appears in The New Indian Express on the 4th of September, 2010.

Four years ago, the villagers of Botezari, in Chandrapur District of Maharashta, were shifted forty kilometres away, out of Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. Thereafter, Botezari was renamed Bhagwanpur after the Conservator of Forests Shree Bhagwan who would receive a letter of commendation for his work in relocating Botezari.

Yet today, four years after rehabilitation, the villagers of Botezari have their own ‘words of commendation’.

‘Earlier we had no access to a road, now we have access to a road but no means to a livelihood and no need for a road!’ Said Shripath Gurubua Shrirame of the village of Botezari/Bhagwanpur.

‘Earlier we had no electricity, now we have electricity but we can’t pay our bills.’

‘Earlier we used to cultivate rice, we used to collect tamarind, tendu patta, mahua fruits, and make bamboo baskets, but now we have nothing.’

A majority of the men of Bhagwanpur have no access to a livelihood. Their children receive their meals from state-run schools but for the adults, everyday starts with a quest for wage labour or any kind of work for sustenance. And there are many days when they go to sleep hungry.

‘Today I have eaten, tomorrow I might not.’ Says Suryaban Kanake, who worked in the nearby fields of Chiroli yesterday, but hasn’t managed to get any work today.

Interestingly, for some of the villagers of Botezari there is more land now than before. Yet for a majority of them, the land is un-cultivatable, and there is no irrigation facility to speak of. Adding to that, initially, the land was not even in their name but in the name of the Forest Department, therefore they were not eligible to get pattas (titles). Thankfully, today the land has been de-notified and is now Revenue Land and the villagers are eligible for pattas.

‘It’s filled with stones and roots, we can’t cultivate anything on that land,’ Said Bhaorao Warlo Kanake, who had eight acres before, and now around 20 acres for his whole family.

‘We had asked for a tractor but they asked us for money which we didn’t have.’

‘They had promised us seeds and fertilizers for five years but then they took money from us.’ Said Gangaram Mahagu Yireme.

The houses too, at first sight look idyllic. But a majority of them have cracked and the roof is collapsing in at least one of the homes. And the villagers claim the foundations of the houses are less than a foot and a half deep, and the houses themselves are much hotter than their adobe homes of mud in Tadoba.

The villagers also don’t have a Gram Sabha of their own. A building exists for the Gram Sabha but they don’t have one. When they had asked for their own Gram Sabha, they were told that there are too few of them to have one. Yet when they were in Tadoba, they had a Gram Sabha. Now the village of ‘Bhagwanpur’ has 148 families of Botezari but also 48 of Kholsa, who were also shifted out of Tadoba with the villagers of Botezari, yet four years later, they still don’t have a Gram Sabha.

The elections are less than a few days away, and half the villagers have chosen to boycott it.

Meanwhile, Chief Conservator Shree Bhagwaan in these four years, was transferred to Thane, and has now been transferred back to Nagpur. On being informed of the current situation of the villagers of Botezari/Bhagwanpur, he claimed that he shall personally re-visit the area to assess the situation.

‘Unfortunately, villagers expectations and departmental responsibilities need to be rationalized.’ He said in a telephonic interview.

‘In the beginning, I used to visit the village everyday and talk to the people, and I don’t know what’s happened in all this time.’

‘You can’t expect every conservator to be a Shree Bhagwaan.’

The Displacement Process

Suryaban Kanake at his home in ‘Bhagwanpur’.

The Madia Gond adivasis of Botezari lived in Tadoba forest reserve for as long as they could remember, and eventually, they got their packing orders in the name of wildlife conservation, and were rehabilitated forty kilometres away near the village of Toliwahi, Mul Panchayat, Chandrapur district, Maharashtra. Along with them were half the village of Kolsa and OBCs.

The process of displacement and rehabilitation was a long process, involving promises, the acceptance of demands, and the complicity of an NGO and their ‘awareness camps’, the village sarpanch and other prominent members of the village.

One of them, was Shanker Patil Gadem a villager from Botezari, who worked as a guide with the Forest Department.

‘We had our problems there in the forest, and the department made a lot of promises.’ He said.

Shanker Patil Gadem would then reiterate every problem faced by the village from lack of work to the unsuitability of the land, to the lack of decent irrigation facilities, to the lack of a Gram Panchayat. A few minutes later, the villagers would argue with Shanker Gadem, scream at him about his complicity in the displacement and his ‘siding’ with the Forest Department, four years ago. He admitted he made a mistake, and that what was done, was done.

‘In your report, don’t call it Bhagwanpur, call it Botezari!’ He would tell this reporter.

When asked about life in the village, forty to fifty years ago in Botezari, Shanker would say, ‘Forty-fifty years ago in Tadoba, we were poor but we were content.’

‘Yet now, nobody wants to go back.’ He says.

Yet in 2009, seventeen villagers, initially went back to Tadoba to rebuild their lives after they saw the condition of the land the government had given to them. Meanwhile, Botezari had been bulldozed and wiped out of the forest. And the seventeen would eventually be arrested by the police on the behest of the Forest Department and sent to jail. One of them was a minor and there was no case booked against him and he was released soon after.

At the same time, eight of the women were also set to be released but they refused to leave their men, stating that ‘without them, we can’t work in those fields.’

‘And in jail, we at least get two meals a day, at home, we don’t get anything.’

Today, all of them have been released but they still need to make their court dates. Like the rest of the villagers, they spend their time in perpetual wait for the promises to be fulfilled in Bhagwanpur, for Botezari doesn’t exist anymore.

‘Earlier everyone used to come five or six times to get us to move out of the village, but now nobody comes.’ Says Bhaorao Kanake.

When asked about the NGO Shodh, that on paper, is, ‘A novel initiative for the eradication of rural poverty’, the villagers respond, ‘Shodh only tricked everyone.’

World Bank-affiliated Shodh, in their brief proposal mention that they, ‘Help the Bhagwanpur community to settle physically and mentally at the new place, and expose them to alternate income earning opportunities.’

‘She (Rucha Ghate), she does her own independent business.’ Says a villager, dismissively.

‘She wants us to work with some ‘murgis’. Hum ko samaj mein hi nahi aata yeh sab ‘murgi’ key saath kya karna hai!’ (We have no idea what we’re supposed to do with these chickens.)

The NGO Shodh is, in fact just a stone throws away from the village of Botezari/Bhagwanpur. And on closer inspection, one realizes that these ‘murgis’ are actually none other than Australian Emus. There are around 60-70 baby emus feeding within a fenced compound in the middle of the NGO grounds.

‘Their meat is sold to five star hotels,’ Said one young man at the Shodh compound, adding that their eggs cost Rs.2500 each, and their meat is Rs.800 per kg. Another young man from Botezari who works with Shodh says that they sell each egg for ‘Rs.2700 to hotels in Goa.’

‘They can lay eggs for forty years.’ He continued.

Rucha Ghate of Shodh, meanwhile understands the villager’s mistrust of her.  ‘One can understand why the people don’t trust us anymore, we were the intermediaries between the people and the government and the government made huge promises which they didn’t keep.’

About the Emu farm, Rucha Ghate says, ‘This is a demonstration site. And all the light activities are chosen by the members of the youth club of Botezari. Earlier we had a poultry farm in the area but the chickens didn’t survive the heat. Emus can survive the heat.’

‘Unfortunately, the older generation of Botezari only look at the past and what was, and I only work with the youth in the Emu farm.’

‘She used to come and sit with us and ask us about all of our problems, so we started to trust her.’ Said, Bhaorao Warlo Kanake, around 38 years old.

‘Like I’m doing now?’ I asked.

‘Yes, like you’re doing!’ He laughs.

The Emu farm at the NGO Shodh adjacent to Bhagwanpur.

Yet another person who has worked with the villagers of Botezari was activist Kusum Karnik. She had filed a complaint to the State Human Rights Commission and the National Human Rights Commission, and for that, and for fighting for the rights of the villagers of Botezari, some individuals allegedly call her a ‘Naxalite.’ Shanker Gadem himself, used to ‘inform’ the authorities whenever she used to come to the village.

Kusum Karnik, seventy-five years old, and around 4’9 high, really makes one extremely dangerous ‘Naxalite’, and according to her, ‘The SHRC said that the government had done everything and provided everyone, and the NHRC said that it was not in their jurisdiction.’

Meanwhile, there are still five villages – Kolsa, Rantalodhi, Palasgaon, Navegaon and Jamni, inside Tadoba Andhara Tiger Reserve that are being routinely ‘requested’ by the Forest Department to relocate.

‘We all have relations in those villages,’ say the villagers of Botezari, ‘and they know what happened to us.’

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