The Melghat forests are situated in Satpuda hills of central India in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. Apart from being host to a rich diversity of wildlife, the region is also home to a diversity of communities such as Korkus, Gonds, Gawlis, Balai, Halbi, Wanjari, Nihals, Burads and Rathiya. It was declared a Tiger Reserve in 1973/74, and later with the new regulations under the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA) 2006 amendment, an inviolate area, or critical tiger habitat (CTH), was notified in 2007.
The conflict started to arise since the project was notified. There were 181 villages living around and within the Tiger Reserve, out of which 39 were coming under Multiple Use Area since 1994. These 39 villages were threatened with relocation since the beginning and they were not anymore allowed to use the natural resources available in the forest area for their sustainability .
The first relocation plan started in 2000/2001 when Bori, Koha and Kund were relocated from the core area; later in 2003 started the relocation of other 3, Vairat, Churni and Dhargad, which got completed by 2012. Since the 2007 notification, relocation process is ongoing and a number of 16 villages corresponding to 2,952 families have been relocated from the CTH (Lok Sabha, 12/07/2019). The tension escalated since May 2007, when a government resolution demanded the relocation of 84 villages from the core area of the tiger reserve . After the implementation of the Forest Rights Act the villagers started to reclaim their rights under FRA, but in many cases, the rights have been rejected and villagers were forcibly relocated as considered encroachers . In 2015, the Forest department tried to remove settlements from the Melghat Tiger Reserve (MTR), which were considered encroachers. There were settlements over 300 hectares of land in the villages of Dhakna, Sawrya, Bhandum, Borikheda, Gadgabhandum, Dabhiya, Dolar and Gadgamalur. Villagers who could define their land status and give proof were given the land, but those who couldn't, were removed with the help of Special Protection Forces (SPF) called from Pench and Tadoba reserves .
According to Sanjay Ingle, the president of People's Rural Education Movements, 'people don't want the relocation but the government is forcing them to move out' . The tension was visible again in 2017 when a number of 600 families got relocated from the Rokhinkidi village in Akot Wildlife division of the MTR . A group of 1,200 tribals from 8 villages, which were relocated 5 years ago from MTR, re-entered in the core area and occupied the place for 36 hours, asking for better rehabilitation facilities and better compensation. It was alleged that in the new relocated place there were no health facilities, no education and no water supplies [5, 9]. Again on Jan. 23, it was reported that a group of tribal people affected by the MTR project has been protesting for better relocation facilities. In the protest, about 40 forest guards were injured .
All this has brought to high distress in the life of the locals whose livelihood has been highly affected with numerous incidence of malnutrition registered in the areas, where a number of at least 98 children died of malnutrition .
Besides all this being documented, the relocation process continues. In the WCS-India website, we read that a relocation project called ‘voluntary rehabilitation’ is being carried on with the support of the NGO in Melghat Tiger Reserve led by Vinod Shivakumar, DCF, Gugamal Wildlife Division, Chikaldara. The article adds that WCS-India has signed a MoU with the Melghat TR Conservation Foundation and social mobilizers have been recruited to carry on voluntary relocation activities . However, as point out in a March 2020 report , the so called ‘voluntary relocation’ continues to be illegal as they do not follow the due guidelines of recognition of rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2006; compensation being offered is incomplete and even after voluntary relocation package is rejected, the villagers continue to face pressure to be relocated.
While villagers continue to be evicted, the area continues to expand its limits, and land diversion also granted in and around the protected area [11,12]; this includes forest land diverted for solar panel projects for which more than 1760 trees would be cut causing high loss of biodiversity . In August 2018, a proposal from MTR asked to add 467 sq km of buffer area. This will be expanded both in forest and forest land which will include 118 villagers. It will then become the 4th largest TR in India .
In the meantime, local people mostly belonging to Korku indigenous communities are getting criminalized under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and charged to alledly destroying the wildlife as reported as Kavita Yier that recount the story of the brothers Raju and Gahu arrested by the police on September 1, 2020 .
In Melghat Tiger Reserve a minimal number of forest rights claimed under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 has been recognized but the process has been very low and with many illegalities. In 2014, a report published by Kalpavriksh documents that 12 community forest resource rights (CFRs) were recognized in the buffer areas. [Letter dated June 5, 2013 by SDLC, Dharni, received by Gram Sabha on November 15, 2013, as in Forest Rights Act in Protected Area, a Status Report, Kalpavriksh, August 2014]. However it does also document the many CFRs were still pending and many rejected. A recent report of March 2020 does document a similar process, however as per the information shared by Purnima Upadhyay from the organization KHOJ, 3 villages out of 9 have got their CFRs recently recognized in the core area. One of these is Madizadap which after a long struggle, finally got its CFRs recognized in September 2019 . Many more have been recognized in the buffer areas. Although the process is still slow some successful cases seem to emerge from this area, and several villages previously relocated are now asking for the recognition of their CFRs rights . This shows a major resistance by the local people and positive support from organizations such as KHOJ.
Moreover, a recent article published in June 2020 by Purnima Upadhya reports a positive story on the recognition of community rights in Rahu village, situated at the fringe of the TR, which got its CFRs recognized in 2016 for an area of 1300 hectares; the community is looking after 4.500 hectares of forest land and harvesting bamboo and other resources for their livelihood; the activities are coordinated by a CFR management committee .