Bhopal: The Great Indian Bustard was last spotted in Karera sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh in 1993. But 16 years hence, while the bird may be long dead here, it continues to control the destinies of more than 25,000 residents of 32 villages inside it.
Notified in 1981, the sanctuary in Shivpuri spread over 202.21 sq km does not have an inch of forest land. As much as 146.66 sq km is private land and the rest is revenue. However, since they live inside the sanctuary, the official population of 23,670 can’t sell their lands and are prohibited from activities like digging and transporting material.
“Ek chidiya ke chakkar me hazaron log barbad ho rahe hain (Thousands of lives are getting ruined because of one bird),” says BJP Karera MLA Ramesh Prasad Khatik. “Crores of rupees have been spent and forest officials continue to make money.”
Convener of Janandolan Manch Girish Sharma calls it “one of the biggest frauds by the forest department”, accusing them of misleading the government and public for years. Noting that villagers desperate for money can’t even sell their land, Sharma, who practices in the Gwalior bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, says he has never seen the bird, only its photograph.
Since the bustard as well as the black buck found in the sanctuary are endangered species, the villagers also constantly live in fear of having cases lodged against them under the Wildlife Protection Act. The villagers had even boycotted a by-election to the Lok Sabha in 2007 as a mark of protest.
After years of struggle and protests, the government has finally agreed to consider denotification of the sanctuary. Forest Minister Rajendra Shukla said the Rajasthan Wildlife Board has sent a recommendation to this effect to the National Wildlife Board.
However, that’s after years of ensuring that the sanctuary retained its status, irrespective of whether or not it had the Great Indian Bustard, the bird to which it owed its existence.
If not the rare bird, the tourists were wooed in the name of black bucks, which abound in the sanctuary, inviting further wrath of villagers because the crop they lost to the marauding animals.
“The last few years have seen even the migratory birds stay away because it hardly rained, robbing the sanctuary of whatever attraction it had,” admits a forest official based in Karera.
Till some time ago, the Forest Department even ran a scheme promising to give villagers coming with the bird’s eggs Rs 5,000 in cash. “They are desperate to keep the sanctuary going,” Sharma says.
With the government finally agreeing to consider the villagers’ request, the National Wildlife Board is in the process of sending a two-member team to visit, a top forest officer said. The two-member committee will send its report on whether the sanctuary should be denotified to a standing committee, which in turn will submit it to the Central Empowered Committee set up by the Supreme Court, a process expected to take long.
A half-hearted attempt to denotify parts of the sanctuary was made a few years ago when the state government set up a committee headed by former forest minister Harvansh Singh. However, Singh ruled against it. “I admit the sanctuary is causing inconvenience but I am not for denotification,” Singh said. “This way greenery will be maintained.”
But the villagers beg to disagree. “Why should villagers suffer when the bird is no longer seen and the land is private?” asks Sharma.
P M Lad, who retired as Chief Wildlife Warden and is considered an authority on birds, recalls how the sanctuary once helped increase the Great Indian Bustard’s population to 32 by 1985. But the loss of habitat and use of insecticides started eroding their numbers. A severe hailstorm in 1987 was the final blow, killing many birds, mostly young. The small population could never recover.
In the local parlance, the Great Indian Bustard is still known as the Son Chiriya. Once, it was for the hint of golden hue on its beak. Now, some see the reference to the precious metal as more to do with the bird’s rarity. For the villagers, though, it is a cruel irony they would rather not be reminded of.