Waiting to die: the Saharia adivasis of New Balaarpur

Indian development has brought forced resettlement programmes in its wake. At a time when free speech is met by prompt punitive action, will the new Indian government take any action when these citizens ask for justice?

Tarini Manchanda
14 July 2014

Madhav National Park. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

In one day in 1916, Lord Hardinge, the then Governor-general of British India, went for a game drive in what is today known as Madhav National Park in northern Madhya Pradesh. He is reported to have killed eight tigers. A lodge designed in the Scottish style was constructed for the one night that Lord Hardinge would spend in the Park, but the lodge had no visitors that night. After shooting the tigers, Lord Hardinge completed his hunt ahead of schedule, and left with his bounty before nightfall.

At the time, people lived in that forest—people who depended on the water, land, and other natural resources of the area for their livelihood. These people were the Saharia adivasis, a central Indian tribal community living for centuries in the border region between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

We met members of the Saharia tribe living in a village called New Balaarpur, located in Madhya Pradesh’s Shivpuri District. We chanced upon them as they ate local ice cream on a hot day in May. They congregated around the documentary team, perhaps wondering if this time their situation would be given a hearing, and perhaps even some resolution. They spoke of extremely difficult living conditions, and in contrast, of a recent past that was much more prosperous.

Waiting to die

New Balaarpur has groundwater but not the resources to make wells and access the water. Food is rare because the land is too dry to till, and the lack of access to the groundwater supply also means they have no cattle. The circle of people forming around us was mostly made up of older men and middle aged women. They told us that many of their younger men and women had died, while the others were “waiting to die.” “Khaana peena nahin milta, toh haspatal mein bharti ho jatey hain, explains Jamna Bai: the situation is so dire, that they must be admitted to hospitals for a lack of enough food.

I had many questions. Why were people dying? Is hunger the only reason? How did this situation befall the community? Are other tribal villages in Madhya Pradesh also facing this situation? I looked around Balaarpur to see signs of traditional construction and links to the past, but instead I saw uniform homes lined in parallel rows: four walls of concrete form a perfect square, a narrow staircase to the roof, small grilled windows. Identical homes are the first sign that this is no ordinary ancestral settlement. It is a resettlement village.

One can accuse the media of salting open wounds, seeking tragic stories, and venturing into a past that displaced families may be trying to forget. But a closer examination reveals that New Balaarpur’s residents have not been allowed to move away from their past and into a better future.

New Balaarpur was not always like this. It was once a prosperous settlement inside Madhav National Park. The residents of New Balaarpur lived in the forest and had access to forest produce and plentiful water resources, until they were displaced to make way for a tiger reserve. “Earlier we had mangoes, tendu leaves and mahua, but now we have only wheat rotis”, lamented one resident.

About 12 years ago, 100 families from inside the national park were displaced to New Balaarpur, which is far away from schools, healthcare, and other vital public services. Of the 100 displaced families, 39 received no rehabilitation, while 61 families were rehabilitated in unlivable places such as New Balaarpur, lacking even basic amenities like electricity and water. 

Discarding lives

The blistering sun beat down on our faces as the stories of injustice poured out. I took a break from the gathering and decided to follow a lady up to her roof. On her head, she was balancing a basket filled with grain, which she began to spread out under the sun. These were the few kilos of wheat that she got in return for contract labour at a construction site close by. She told me that it would feed the family for about a week. Such labour is coveted, it is hard to come by, there is no job security, and there is no pay aside from the meagre grain that workers bring home to eat.

How does a family in New Balaarpur find a way out for their children? Should they accept premature death, malnutrition, TB, thirst, and the constant dishonesty of their government as a way of life? Should they accept this as fate, along with the rest of the 506,000 internally displaced people in India?

A post-mortem of the resettlement programmes brought by development in India remains uninvestigated. Each dam, power plant, and industry displaces people and villages. Each time a village is forcibly displaced and residents lose their homes, a nation effectively discards the lives of thousands of people.

New Balaarpur is not the only village that pays the unaddressed cost of India’s development; it is one of the many villages that face unjust displacement without adequate rehabilitation or relief. When people are resettled in India, resettlement sites foster myriad problems. Oustees from the Sardar Sarovar dam project reveal that they are allocated land that is entirely unproductive and lacking in basic amenities. Sometimes titles for the replacement land already belong to someone else; at other times the government allots the same plot of land to more than one family. Recently, activists from the Save the Narmada movement have unearthed massive corruption in rehabilitation packages, with money reaching middle men instead of the people affected by the dam. And all this takes place under the watchful eye of government authorities.

Waiting for the tigers

We left New Balaarpur overwhelmed by the stories of people “waiting for death”, and unsettled by the deep-rooted injustice. Madhav National Park, where old Balaarpur was settled, now welcomes the public with a large board featuring a tiger.

We drove around the park, stopping at a look-out point ornamented with colonial statues of black slaves holding light fixtures. We could see the lake and forest that once housed a village that did not threaten tigers—a village now displaced for a national park to preserve tigers. Our local guide explained that while Balaarpur’s residents had moved out of the village, sacrificing their homes for the nations’ wildlife, their cows had refused to move with them. We reached the lake inside Madhav National Park and saw these cows that had managed to resist displacement. Here, the world’s most domesticated animal is now living in the “wild”. Madhav National Park’s cows don’t have to share their milk with humans, or for that matter, their flesh with tigers, since the wild cats were hunted to extinction 30 years before the national conservation efforts began. Tigers in the National Park died out around 1970, after intense game hunting. There are currently no tigers in the park.

Almost 12 years after Balaarpur’s residents were forced to flee, a Right To Information report filed by a local NGO reveals that 39 families have not even received the dysfunctional rehabilitation that is typical in such cases, because their rehabilitation files are caught in debates between the Forest and Revenue Deparments. At one time a different site from New Balaarpur was allocated to the people displaced from the National Park by the Revenue department, but the Forest Department claimed the plot before people could settle there.

As India’s new government surges forward with economic growth, tribal villages and tigers are faced with several challenges. “Save the Tiger” campaigns have not been able to bring tigers to Madhav National Park, but they have managed to take adivasis out of their ancestral home. The Saharia adivasis of New Balaarpur must fight their own government for rehabilitation, and access to food and water. What will this new government do?

With special thanks to Manoj Singh (Manav Adhikar Forum, Shivpuri) and Ram Het Adivasi (Seheriya Jan Gatbandhan, Shivpuri).

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