There is a hubbub over rehabilitating encroachers from Sanjay Gandhi National Park in the nearby Aarey Colony. But the bigger debate should be over the myths about human-animal conflict
Man’s association with animals is legendary. So while activists flay development work and infrastructure projects undertaken by the Maharashtra government in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in Mumbai, surely there is some aged leopard roaming near the hamlets inside the park, looking for the stray dog or hen. No one’s minding, either. Tribal inhabitants of the park area have long had an easy relationship with wildlife. In fact, their lore celebrates a cat-deity called Waghoba.
Besides, leopards don’t really seek out human habitation, as the story of Ajoba, an old radio-collared leopard, showed. Rescued from a well in Tikli Dokeshwar, north of Pune, in 2009, the leopard was radio-collared and a microchip was embedded in the tip of its tail before it was released into the forests near Malshej ghats. Wildlife biologists named it Ajoba, meaning grandpa in Marathi. Over 28 days, the leopard provided a pug-by-pug account of its 120-km trek: up from the foothills towards the hilly Ratangarh area, across the busy Mumbai-Agra highway, then across the railway tracks about a kilometre from Kasara station, veering close to Wada village near Dahanu in Thane district, into the Vasai industrial area, and finally reaching the forests in Nagla Block in the SGNP. Three weeks later, he lost the radio collar. And in 2011, when a leopard was run over by a truck near the SGNP, wildlife biologists identified it as Ajoba from the microchip in its tail.
In 2014, filmmaker Sujay Dahake made Ajoba’s story into an eponymous Marathi movie that was quite popular. What Ajoba’s story – and the movie – brought out was that although the leopard was close to human habitation on many occasions, it did not attack humans. In fact, it tried to avoid places where humans lived, and when it did reach them, it spent no more time there than necessary. All the while, it seemed to know its destination – the forests of SGNP, which wildlife biologists conjecture might have been its original home.
There are leopards aplenty at SGNP, and tribals are as used to their presence as the animals are to theirs. Respect is the hallmark of their relationship. After sunset, children are huddled indoors and goats, dogs and poultry safely penned. The leopards rarely attack humans, but if they catch sight of poultry or cattle, they kill them for food.
Now, a peculiar problem is cropping up as the government plans to rehabilitate those who encroached upon SGNP – as opposed to the tribal residents – at the Aarey colony, abutting the park. The idea is to clear the park of human habitation: 50 acres at Aarey Colony will be used to rehabilitate tribals, and 40 acres for encroachers who built and live in slums inside the SGNP. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, in a recent meeting with NCP legislator Vidya Chavan and forest officials, spoke of the programme and added that encroachers who came after 2000 will have to pay a transfer fee to qualify for housing.
It was in 1997 that the Bombay high court directed the forest department to rehabilitate eligible slum dwellers, who would have to pay Rs 7,000 for a flat. Of the 33,000 slum families who paid up the money, 13,500 were rehabilitated at Chandivali on quarry land. The nearly 20,000 remaining families have been waiting for rehabilitation for nearly two decades. More rehab buildings can’t be constructed there as it is in the aviation funnel zone. Hence the Aarey Colony alternative.
Critics say the government is punishing taxpayers and rewarding encroachers. But there is a kinder view: that encroachments everywhere are a social problem and not to be seen exclusively through the legal lens. The courts, too, take this view and while demanding checks to prevent encroachment, ask governments to take a humane approach. As for the rehabilitation of tribals and SNGP encroachers in Aarey, it is all about accommodating the human factor while not putting wildlife at risk.
At the SGNP, the only national park that lies right in the middle of a city, there has been a distinct surge in human activity: walkers, trekkers and groups from schools and colleges find it an ideal escape from the traffic, the noise and the pollution of Mumbai. Besides, people are taking a cue from writers like Richard Louv, who exhorts people to save children from what he calls “nature deficit disorder” or a lack of exposure to nature and a concurrent increase in engagement with electronic devices.
Activists who believe that protected areas should be “only for wildlife” are opposed to such activity, as also to any kind of development. Fifty-eight hectares of forest land in Thane, Dahanu and the SNGP has been cleared by the state government, the wildlife board and the supreme court for the dedicated freight corridor project of the railways. Although the tracks will only pass near the northern tip of a forested zone, activists have been working up a fear psychosis about the damage it will cause. It might cool down things a bit if it is publicised that there’s already a functional Diva-Vasai line near which the freight corridor will come up. Since the supreme court’s clearance of the freight corridor project, however, activists say the focus should be the “mitigation measures mandated on the authorities”, that is, underpasses for free movement of wild animals, chain link fencing to protect and conserve the environment, compensatory afforestation and funds for upkeep and improvement of SGNP.
Activists are also opposing the government’s plans to lay approach roads and build tourist amenities like toilets around the Kanheri caves within the SGNP. These caves, cut into rock, were viharas or monasteries dating from the 1st century BC to the 10th century AD, and contain several Buddhist carvings and bas reliefs.
The basis of all protests at SGNP are derived from the either-or principle: either animals live in the national park or man does. Contrary to populist yet flawed notions, man and wild animals have always lived in harmony. And Ajoba, who passed quietly through human habitation without doing any harm, all the way from Malshej ghat to SGNP. All talk of human-animal conflict and the associated drama may sound good but rob the situation of the objectivity needed to help the park.
(The article appears in July 15, 2018 edition)