Sariska has refused to learn its lessons from the 2005 wipeout and is blowing its second chance. As Delhi and Jaipur watch, the reserve is losing its stripes Jay Mazoomdaar Independent Journalist
THE NOISE is deafening, breathing not easy and the sight blurred. Earthmovers are gnawing away at the rocky earth and tractors lugging heaps of construction material through the foliage. Jeeps are ferrying overseers and supplies for hundreds of labourers camping inside the tiger reserve.
Off and on, dynamite sticks go off in silent blasts, spiking the air with a heady gunpowder stench. Welcome to Sariska. Its heart is ripped open, literally. Coming up simultaneously are 22 giant anicuts, ostensibly to quench the thirst of animals during summers.
NABARD is funding the project worth Rs 11.5 crore and the Sariska management has sought an additional Rs 3 crore for building another six. Never mind that the new structures are coming up a stone’s throw away from old, still-functioning water systems.Outside the reserve entrance, angry villagers block the road and refuse to let this reporter through.
“Sit down and listen to our demands. We can’t sell our land. We don’t have roads, electricity, ration card, nothing. This is our forest these corrupt foresters are destroying,” snarl a handful of protesters. The rest of the crowd has taken their agitation to district headquarter Alwar.
Further down the road, a few forest guards man the reserve gate. One of them believes in plain speaking: “Why go inside? The forest is a construction zone. Forget tiger sighting, we are thankful that the big cats have not yet walked away. And people keep discussing why the tigers are not breeding!” The magnitude of disturbance unfolds soon. Hundreds of headloads of firewood is moving freely. There is, in fact, a ranger in charge of collecting “protection money” from these village women. Cattle are omnipresent.
There is an acute shortage of grass for wild herbivores — the prime tiger prey — as weeds such as cassia tora, adhatoda and lantana have proliferated into even the core forests through cattle dung.
Nobody, it seems, is even interested in managing the mess. Till a recent recruitment and appointment drive, staff strength was critically low. Even today, nine senior (assistant commissioner of forest to assistant foresters) and 12 guard posts are vacant.
A divisional forest officer (DFO) is the one who holds the field control in a tiger reserve. Since tigers were reintroduced in 2008, Sariska has seen six DFOs. For five months in 2010, there was nobody in charge.
Seven years ago, after Sariska had lost all its tigers, the tragedy was dubbed as an opportunity for reforms. The prime minister set up a tiger task force. The state government also appointed its own panel. The remedies offered were simple: minimise disturbance, maximise protection and mobilise local support. Simultaneously, there was a call for professionalism and more transparency.
The panels also laid down a set of conditions for securing Sariska before reintroducing tigers. These included relocation of villages, closing down the state highway running through the reserve, restricting pilgrims from roaming free inside the forest, a ban on mining, etc.
In a hurry to create history, Sariska flew in tigers in 2008 without meeting any of these conditions, pledging that the results would soon be there for everyone to see.Four years and six tigers later, the ghastly results are there for everyone to see. Consider:
The first tiger flown in to Sariska was killed in 2010 when it had preyed on a buffalo and the carcass was poisoned with pesticide. Then DFO D Pravin and ACF Mukesh Saini were suspended. Little else changed on the ground.
Rampant grazing and firewood collection brought down the prey density so alarmingly that Wildlife Institute of India (WII) had to nudge the governments at Delhi and Jaipur last year. But with cattle still the most easily available prey and enough villagers still inside the reserve, the possibility of carcass poisoning merely depends on how frequently a cattle owner has lost his animals to tigers and when his patience runs out.
The quality of scientific management is also suspect. In 2010, before the tiger was poisoned, nobody had been tracking it for two days. It went unnoticed even after its radio collar started sending the static signal. It did not help that collars, too, were suspects. Thrice since 2009, collars had to be refitted on tigers because of malfunctioning. But the management probably had had enough.
So for nearly a year now, tigress ST2, the first female to be reintroduced, is moving without a signal and being monitored only through its pugmarks, when available.
Few officers want to stick around at Sariska lest they are held accountable if anything goes wrong. Those who do, accept its culture of corruption. In 2010, a number of chowkies were constructed in the western pockets — Banna and Pathakhora, for example — of Sariska. Today, few forest staff dare enter those buildings. Infamous as “standing graveyards”, these two-year-old structures were built so shoddily that they could collapse any moment.
During the last financial year, Rs 40 lakh was spent, on paper, on repairing a 22 km road from the Sariska gate to Pandupol. Drive down the road and you can tell that the actual work happened only along a 3 km-stretch, between milestones 4 and 7.
After the 2005 wipeout, Sariska chalked out a plan to shift 28 villages from the tiger reserve. Only a small village, Bagani, with 21 families, was relocated before tigers were reintroduced in 2008. Since then, another 400 families have been shifted from Umri, Rothkala, Kiraska, Dabli and Kankwari villages.
But villagers and even a section of the forest staff allege that many passed the eligibility test for the Rs 10 lakh compensation by “unfair means”, antagonising others who have since turned hostile to the idea of relocation. The number of eligible families in Kiraska, for example, shot up by 60 percent within four years.
While money changed hands in most cases, there are also allegations of sexual favours, even fathers forcing their daughters to visit the DFO hut, to make it to the compensation list.
The DFO hut in question, a single-storey structure close to Kalighati inside Sariska, was built in 2008 for housing researchers from the WII. In 2009, the building was renovated for “guests of the management” even though a 2008 National Tiger Conservation Authority guideline barred tourists from staying overnight inside a tiger reserve. Recently, the building has been rechristened as CF (conservator of forest) hut and nobody in Sariska can explain what purpose it serves inside the forest when the CF has his official accommodation only 10 km away.
To top it all, the high-handed approach of the present management has completely forfeited public support. Villagers proudly recall how the present CF RS Shekhawat was roughed up a few times by the locals. “They (forest staff ) are looting the forest and still have the audacity to show us the rules. They impose restrictions on us so that nobody gets to know the secrets of their jungle raj,” fumes Nanakram Gurjar of Haripura village.
The agitation was called off on its sixth day after the Alwar administration, including the forest brass, assured the villagers of patchwork on the state highway and a survey to resolve the confusion over the forest boundary.
Bina Kak was torn between a “politician’s commitment to the people” and “the forest minister’s responsibility to protect the tiger”.
She explained: “The villagers don’t understand the legalities (Section 20 of the WLPA denies right to sell one’s land within a sanctuary) and the binding nature of Supreme Court directives (on closure of the road). We must engage them in dialogue. Yes, the situation could be handled in a better way before it snowballed. But I was informed late.”
THE REINTRODUCED tigers, meanwhile, are not breeding. It is a major embarrassment for the state forest department because Panna, the other zero-tiger reserve that was repopulated after Sariaka, has already produced multiple litters. So a number of bizarre theories are doing the rounds.
Many, including former Sariska DFO Sunayan Sharma, have blamed, of all things, the radio collars. Others rue the eviction of a holy man from the core area who cursed the forest staff that the “new tigers would never bear fruit”.
But a survey of the reserve, torn apart by blasts, excavation, heavy vehicle movements, labour camps, cattle and tree fellers, leaves little to the imagination. Mining is thriving all along the peripheral hills from Sili Baori to Majoad, including hotspots such as Jaitpur Brahmin, Riksha, Gopalpur and Mundiyabas. But the state forest administration proudly claims that there is no mining “inside Sariska”.
Meanwhile, land price has gone up by more than ten times around Thana Gazi and Tehla, along the approach roads to Sariska’s two entries, since the tigers are back.
Villagers claim that many “outsiders” have invested through “powerful insiders” who acquired land in time and are making high profit. The list apparently includes the who’s who of the forest establishment. But that is another story.
‘We can’t sell our land. We don’t have roads, ration cards or power. Corrupt foresters are destroying our forests,’ says a villager
Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.