Raipur: The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change has sought a reply from the Congress-led Chhattisgarh government in connection with the livestock holding facility constructed in the core areas of designated Achankmar Tiger Reserve (ATR) of Mungeli district.
Taking cognisance of the issue after a local journalist flagged the alleged 'illegal' construction of cowsheds inside a designated tiger reserve, in the letter, dated February 19, 2021, addressed to the Chief Wildlife Warden and the Government of Chhattisgarh, the Union environment ministry has sought a factual status report in the matter by February 25, 2021. NewsClick possesses a copy of the letter.
Spread over 914 square km area, ATR was designated as a tiger reserve in 2009 under the ‘Project Tiger’ initiative of the Central government. It is linked with the forests of Kanha National Park through the hilly Kanha-Achanakmar corridor. ATR is part of Amarkantak-Achanakmar Biosphere reserve. Achankmar made headlines in May last year when officials euphorically detailed the sightings of a rare black panther.
The Gauthan (cowshed) scheme is an intrinsic part of the Congress government's ambitious multi-pronged project named, Narwa Garwa Ghurwa Badi. Under the scheme, the state government plans to build 7,408 Gauthan at a cost of Rs 1,603 crore, each with a cost ranging Rs 17-20 lakh. Till date 4,178 sheds have been built to provide shelter to the livestock of the village, stray animals and to facilitate cow-dung collection for vermicomposting among other uses.
The two cowsheds in question -- Jakadbandha and Mahamai -- that fall in the core zone of the ATR are part of the project. The scheme has been fruitful in breed improvement, production of vermicompost, and rearing of dairy animals in many parts of the state. However, the construction of cowsheds in the core areas of ATR has raised serious concerns for wildlife.
Confirming the construction, Collector Mungeli PS Elma said: "Two Gauthan (cowsheds) have been constructed under the scheme to protect cows and ensure that the people living in the area do not face any problem and also get the benefit of government policies."
The tiger population in Chhattisgarh dwindled by 59% during 2014-2018. The state, which had 26 tigers in 2006, touched 46 tigers in 2014, which plummeted to 19 tigers in 2018.
At a time when there is already a danger to the tiger population, the construction of Gauthan (cowsheds) in the ATR has raised questions over the “seriousness” of the state government in safeguarding, maintaining, and improving the status of protected areas for wildlife conservation.
Both the sheds lie in the heart of ATR, which has a tribal population dominated by the Baiga tribe. Nearly 16 villages need to be rehabilitated because of the tiger reserve to ensure the safety of tigers and avoid human-wildlife conflict, as per the plan.
"The proposal for the rehabilitation of the villages under ATR is pending. We are trying to expedite the process. Also, while building these structures (cowsheds), we ensured that we do not encroach too much into the territory of ATR and pose dangers for the wildlife," the Collector added.
The Collector claimed that the sheds had been constructed under the scheme, but the Chief Conservator of Forest, Bilaspur, told NewsClick that the cowsheds had been built without informing the tiger reserve authorities.
The construction of cowsheds inside the ATR and varied responses from two top officials raise concerns over communication issues between the authorities concerned.
A similar allegation of constructing a cowshed in the forest area was raised by residents of Kamarima village in the Jashpur district of the state recently. Villagers had staged a protest against the move to construct cowsheds in the jungle and demanded an immediate halt to the process.
Nevertheless, construction inside the tiger reserve or the areas falling under the ‘Project Tiger’ list without requisite permission from the National Board for Wildlife and the National Tiger Conservative Authority is not only “illegal”, say conservationists, but also wastage of the state’s resources.
“Allowing Gauthan construction inside the core areas of the ATR is kind of regularising illegal cattle camps, which may pose a danger to the tigers' habitat. It shows the government apathy in saving tigers,” said Meetu Gupta, environmentalist and member, State Wildlife Advisory Board.
The Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has also raised the issue and has complained to the District Collector. “ATR is a protected area and the construction of Guathan is totally illegal... They have just pushed the low-rank worker to take the grind while those who gave orders are enjoying elsewhere. We have raised the issue with the DM and have asked for stringent action to be taken against the real culprits” said Shailesh Pathak, Mungeli district president of the party.
Rehabilitation of 19 tribals who have been living near the cowsheds is also pending as is the issue of resettlement. Since 2009, only nine villages have been resettled.
“The pertinent issue of rehabilitation is underway,” said a local journalist, adding that constructing Gauthans will further add to the conflict of rehabilitation.
Over 3,000 families are to be rehabilitated from the core zone of ATR. The Baiga tribes in the area don't want to leave their ancestral homes and the state government has failed to persuade and relocate them.
When asked about the encroachment inside the tiger reserve, Collector Elma said: "The tiger reserve is protected, but till people are living there, we would have to take care of their needs."
"The proposal for the rehabilitation of the villages under ATR is pending at the government level. We are trying to expedite the process. Also, while building these structures, we ensured that we do not encroach too much into the territory of the TR and pose dangers for the wildlife," he added.
DD Sharma Deputy Director, ATR, didn’t respond to the calls and messages. The story will be updated once we get a response.
The writer is an independent journalist.
(With inputs from Kashif Kakvi)