Looking pretty in a pink lugra, an ornate piece of clothing covering the head and traditionally worn with a skirt and blouse by Rajasthani women, Rajbala Gujjar’s smile lit up the humble surroundings of her mud house in Haripura, a village inside the Sariska Tiger Reserve of Alwar district, in Rajasthan.
On a hot day, Rajbala, who looks somewhat similar to yesterday's actor Bindiya Goswami, confessed to her fear of encountering tigers inside the forest while washing a few utensils outside the kitchen and chattering to the reporter as the sun blazed down mercilessly.
After a successful reintroduction programme dating back to 2008, Sariska has at present 29 tigers. This is indeed a success story in a place where indiscriminate poaching once wiped out the big cats in 2004 till they bounced back.
Sitting close by and consuming a strong milk tea, Rajbala’s mother-in-law, Sarsa Gujjar, dressed in a black blouse with yellow lugra, makes daily trips to the forest and does not feel apprehensive like the younger woman.
A pastoral community, the Gujjars of Haripura have always depended on goats and buffaloes for livelihood. Devoid of land, they earn money by selling milk, said Kailash Chand Gujjar, Rajbala’s husband.
Haripura, just about a 10-minute drive from the main gate of the Sariska Tiger Reserve, was one of the few villages to be relocated in 2015-17. Some families shifted in 2021.
Most of its residents have resettled in a place called Tijara, 55 km from Alwar, where they have received farmlands and plots for houses.
But a few families still reside in this old village dotted with decrepit mud houses and forever dependent on solar power which doesn’t last throughout the day. Thankfully, there is mobile network.
In Search of Better Life Elsewhere
As India touched the over 3,000-mark in tiger population this year, the contentious issue of relocation and resettlement across many tiger reserves of the country needs to be looked into through the lenses of displacement and conservation.
Wildlife historian and conservationist Raza Kazmi agrees that displacement for conservation is a vexatious issue, and one, that needs solutions which are beneficial for communities as well as wildlife. Given the diversity of India, Kazmi feels that there can be "no single blanket model".
It is not that people are unwilling to stay outside tiger reserves.
Rajesh Gujjar, a guest on a visit to Haripura from Duharmala village, 15 km from the Sariska Tiger Reserve, is a farmer. He pointed out that there is no benefit in living a deprived life without school and health centre.
“Sariska has a government school. Or else there is a school at Thanagaji, which is 10 km away, or in Alwar, an hour away. Many people want to leave for better prospects. In Tijara, those who settled down received six bighas of land for farming, Rs 2.5 lakh for construction of houses and even borewells for irrigation, with one catering to five households.”Rajesh Gujjar
Far away from Haripura, in a village named Panidhal in the Sariska Tiger Reserve’s Talvriksh range, a family has been left behind. Describing how it feels to live inside a protected area, elderly Ramdan Gujjar from Loj, a village near Panidhal, said he has a few camels to subsist on.
The rest of the population has gone away in search of better life elsewhere. In case of any emergency, either people ride a bike or a camel.
Haripura beat guard Shambhu Dayal Sharma informed that in the survey conducted in 2011, many names were not included as at that time their age limit of 21 was not fulfilled. Due to this, 15 families had been left behind in the village. Apart from Tijara, some people have shifted to Behror on the Delhi-Jaipur highway 90 km away – and some even to Kanpura village.
Smoking a hookah on a charpoy, Ramdan said no one had possessed any farmland here ever.
In a house built in the 1980s and situated on an elevation in Panidhal, Bimla Gujjar is making rotis for lunch inside a dimly lit room.
“There is a borewell for water. When darkness comes, we have dinner by candlelight and go to sleep as there is nothing much to do.”
Laughing aloud, she informed that she had seen tigers a few times.
“Take me to Delhi with you. There aren’t tigers there. Many women feel afraid of tigers.”Bimla Gujjar
Cut Off From the World
A short drive from Panidhal took the reporter to Loj village where a family lives on its own cut off from the world. As one approached the house made of stone, a few dogs came out barking, waking an elderly man asleep on a stringed bed.
Panchuram Gujjar did not leave with the others as his daughter Somabai, a widow, did not get land as part of the compensation package. The family has nine members.
“Day and night all of us live in fear of tigers as there is no one left behind for protection. As people left, the movement of animals increased. The nearest village and forest chowki are far. A tiger once killed my buffalo tied outside. Sometimes, I feel afraid to sleep here at night on the charpoy and sleep eludes me,” Panchuram said. However, it is but a few days now as his family will eventually move to Tijara.
The village which wears a deserted look has electricity and a primary school. Two teachers still turn up to teach the children of the house. But the place bears a wild abandoned look and the places of worship lie deserted. As people moved on, they left their gods behind lonely and by their own.
Panchuram’s wife Batto admitted that tigers come near the house – and as a result the children are forever stuck inside.
“There were 50 households here who all went away almost together. Now, they own lands for cultivating wheat. My family cannot afford gas cylinder and for cooking firewood is needed. So, I am compelled to make trips to the forest in the morning and afternoon,” Batto said.
She said those who went away would eventually change with time in the new place. Their houses are concrete and not made of mud and stone like this one. The old houses have been razed to the ground. The nearest village Nagarsar is also raring to go.
“The houses in Tijara are much smaller in size and not spacious like this house. But here it is a life of apprehension. When the tiger came for the buffalo, we got to know by the sound. Sometimes the children feel like skipping school due to fear. They play by themselves and cannot go far,” Somabai said.
While going for lunch at the nearest forest check post, Mohan Singh Chauhan, a resident of Nathusar which has 250 households, was seen grazing his two buffaloes. He informed that people in his village have filled up forms for relocation.
In Beenak village, which is outside the critical tiger habitat, two lively young girls came out carrying goats and greeted the reporter. The village has a school nearby.
“We like it and that is why we live here. There is not much danger here from tigers,” one of them said, waving goodbye.
(Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a New Delhi-based freelance journalist.)