MP: Loggers Have Field Day in Burhanpur, But Police, Forest Dept Have Axe to Grind
Sushma Anil More fled into the forest as the police arrived. When she returned her flour mill and general store were damaged in the demolition drive (Photos - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui).
Khandwa/Burhanpur: For 10 days in the month of April, 101 Reporters travelled through Khandwa and Burhanpur districts to check the forest health in the region. Our mission was shaped by the unfortunate incidents that unfolded in Nepanagar, where clashes between old settlers and new entrants over encroachment of forestlands snowballed into a police station attack, eventually paving the way for a demolition drive.
Instead of touching Nepanagar, we decided to enter the forest from Piplod in the Khandwa district to understand the intensity of tree felling and the truth in allegations of rampant logging. On reaching Dehariya, about 15 km from Piplod, we diverted from the main road and embarked on our journey through the forest on a two-wheeler. We had just crossed Old Dehariya when the shockingly ugly images of deforestation unfurled before us.
A footpath here divided Dehariya beat in Khandwa and Bakdi beat in Burhanpur. The forest cover on either side stood denuded. Definitely, thousands of trees have been axed here.
Moving forward to Bakdi village, we spotted a police convoy, about 20 vehicles in them, going in the direction of Patel Dhana. Riot control vehicles (Vajra) and JCB loaders were part of the fleet. When the dust settled, we could clearly see the scene of devastation.
More than 35 houses have been razed to the ground in Talab Dhana, just opposite the forest outpost. As we tried to make sense of the police action by stopping a pedestrian and engaging in a conversation, he simply raced ahead without giving a reply. Later, we learnt that the demolition drive has been happening here for the last three days.
Looking at the debris of about three dozen houses, we inferred that they were all built 30 to 40 years ago. It took us about an hour to capture the entire devastation on our camera, but not a single soul could be spotted during that time. Peeping into a house that stood somewhat safe in the debris, we saw a sick old man lying on the cot and a middle-aged man seated nearby. When this reporter assured that he would not be harmed, the man mustered the courage to come out.
Lease documents that never came
Vikram Gutram had settled in Bakdi, the village to which his wife Raah Bai belonged, five years after his marriage. “I hail from Bhutiyakhedi. When finding work became an issue, we decided to settle here almost 25 years ago. I applied many times for land lease of the plot that I have been cultivating for the last 20 years, but in vain.”
Standing in front of his gutted home, Vikram Gutram promises to rebuild. The mango tree behind him was planted and nurtured by him from seed (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters).
Three years ago, Gutram was told to apply online, and that, too, was done. “There is no land, now the roof above our heads is also gone. They even took away some documents. No questions were asked. Anybody who came in the middle was caught and put in the police van. Like all others, I too escaped into the forest,” he lamented.
As we departed, with a steely resolve, he said, “I will not go anywhere. I will rebuild this house.”
The village has a flour mill and a general store. Police did not spare the shops. Barela tribal Sushma Anil More, who ran them, said she came here after her marriage a decade ago. “We both have no time to cut the forest or encroach upon it. We are in the shop all day long. Our flour mill and general store are doing very well… We also ran away during the police drive. Our house and shops were in a partially damaged state when we returned.”
Asked if they had applied for a lease document, More said, “Yes, we did, but it has not been processed to date.”
Surlibai, the wife of Kotwar (a village authority) Jhanjhar, is visibly upset. Her house in Patel Dhana and tractor were mangled in police action before we entered Bakdi village. Not just that, she lost a calf to the sudden action. Surlibai and her daughter Santu had desperately called out for help, but no one came. The JCB did not spare her tractor, which was kept near a school in the vicinity.
“Three JCBs reduced my house into rubble in a matter of five minutes. Our cow was tied inside when the house was being pulled down. The calf got buried in the debris,” she bemoaned, adding that foodgrains were also ruined.
For 15 years, Sajna Pitha Nanla has been living in Bakdi and sharecropping on two-and-a-half acres of land. “My mother stays with me. She has gone out today to attend the 10th-day ritual of a deceased relative. And now, the house has been torn down. There is destruction in the entire village. Where should we go? We are not allowed to stay even in the fields.” Nanla said.
Nanu Bai, Dongar Singh, Guman Singh and Khajan Singh reiterated that they did not have land, but even the houses they possessed were not liveable now. All the people that 101Reporters spoke to claimed that they have been living in Bakdi for over 25 years.
Ask why they did not oppose the move if they were innocent, Nalna's daughter Sajna Bai said, "No one has the courage to protest when we see so many policemen around."
Complaints rejected, supply cut
A post-graduate student in commerce, Vishnu Solanki belongs to the Barela community. His house in Bakdi’s Talab Dhana has been demolished. He claimed the affected people have nothing to do with the encroachers.
He tried to prove his point by informing that most of them have Voter IDs and Aadhaar cards, and they exercise their franchise without outside interference. In fact, most of the old settlers and some of the new encroachers have got these key documents based on the panchayat's recommendation.
“Bhil, Bhilala and Barela tribals reside here. My house has a government tap water connection. There is a middle school, a health sub-centre and a ration shop. Power supply is also available,” Solanki said, adding that his complaint was not registered when he called up the CM helpline. “Subsequently, we went to the district Collector's office to make us heard but were denied that chance too.”
The ration shop at Bakdi's was emptied out and shuttered before the demolitions.
Radheshyam Ahire, another Barela youth who spent his childhood in Bakdi and is now pursuing postgraduation in mass communication in Khandwa, asserted that tribals are not part of forest or wood mafia. “They cut down the forest, burn the wood there and use some to make huts. They do not sell wood because they know the forest department could take action.”
Meanwhile, Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) leader Madhuri Ben told 101Reporters that the tribals have “greed for the land alone”. “If they had sold wood, they would have lived in palaces and not huts today. The forest department claims to have seized teakwood worth Rs 3 crore in the last few months. The reality is they have failed in preventing tribals from cutting trees. So, they made a deal that allowed tribals to stay in the forest and axe trees. However, the tribals have to hand over the cut wood to the department. Now, the same department calls them the teak mafia to hide their own failure.”
“You cannot harass ordinary citizens to catch criminals. How cruel is it to stop electricity and water supply to the entire village and withhold ration to catch a few accused,” she asked.
According to the 2011 Census, Bakdi has 5,882 residents and 998 houses. Of them, 3,700 are voters. The villagers got benefits from all government schemes until the April 7 flare-up. Village panchayat mobiliser Sunil Nigalwal said over 100 people were working under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act scheme in the village, but the incident halted everything.
“Works related to a housing scheme and Amrit Sarovar's mission were on. All that stopped abruptly from the day the police and forest department swung into action. Most villagers have fled. Once the situation becomes normal, we will restart the work,” he informed.
Third DFO in two months
Anupam Sharma had just assumed office as Burhanpur divisional forest officer two months ago, when he was transferred to Bhopal in the aftermath of the police station attack in Nepanagar. When contacted, he was not ready to comment on the matter due to his transfer.
“The way the forest has been cut in this area, it is a loss to the entire nation,” Vijay Singh, the incumbent, told 101Reporters while citing the sheer volume of deforestation. On stopping power, water and ration supply, he said, “It is difficult to restore them until the encroachers are caught. The local tribals [read old settlers] support encroachers, which is why we are not able to reach the latter. We will maintain strict vigil until the situation becomes normal.”
Repeated attempts to contact Bakdi sarpanch Shankar Sikdar Mehta and panchayat secretary Eknath Patil proved futile as their mobile phones remained switched off in the last several days.
(Mohammad Asif Siddiqui is a Madhya Pradesh-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)
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