BR Hills, Karnataka
Alli nodu dodda nayi (Look, there’s a big dog)!
It cannot be easy living inside a forest. On a bad day, an animal encounter can kill or maim. And bad days, as Soliga tribals around BR Hills count them, are not rare. Still, they go easy on fear, trusting their own jungle sense and natural justice in the wild.
From elephants to wild boars, the mighty animals have long become deities. But between life and death, there is still time for sacrilegious humour. Even a Soliga child knows how to dodge a tiger: just call it a ‘big dog’ when you come across one, and that insult will be enough to drive the tiger away.
Not easy, but simple.
Now try turning the tiger trick on Soligas. Try calling them the vermin eating into this prized forest, the only obstacle to securing a key wildlife habitat. Nothing could insult them more. But no, unlike huliverappa, their tiger god, who, if insulted, supposedly walks away in disgust, Soligas will not concede any ground, forget about leaving the forest.
One cannot fault them if they appear thicker skinned than their deity. Soligas have lived here for centuries and have conceded a lot over time. Originally a cave-dwelling, shift-cultivating tribe of hunter-gatherers, they were forced to settle down in small porus (colonies) when these forests were declared the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary (BRTWS) in 1974.
It was not a smooth transition. For one, recalls Jede Gowda of Keredimbe poru, they lost access to many of their 500-odd cultural sites strewn all over the forest. Each of the six Soliga clans has its own deities representing the five elements: devaru (god, associated with sun), veeru (demon, associated with stone), maramma (mother goddess, associated with fire), abbi (spring or streams) and kallugudi (the spirit of the dead, associated with wind). Each of these clans also has its own saga (burial ground). Confined to different parts of the forest since 1974, Soligas had to reinvent their cultural and religious symbols.
Jede Gowda’s neighbour Sidda Gowda shows the way to the Dodda-Sampige, an ancient champak tree by a stream, worshipped by Soligas as Mahadeveshwara. Around 70 families of two nearby porus—Keredimbe and Gombe- gallu—are its regular devotees who gather here on all auspicious occasions. If Soligas are moved out, wonders Jede Gowda, where will the young get married?
But culture and symbols are not the only things at stake for them. The confinement of this independent tribe to porus also put an end to the practice of shift-cultivation. Forest laws ended the traditional Soliga practice of carrying out low-intensity ground fires to control hermi-parasites and invasive species in the forest understory. This led to lantana invasion, deterioration of several forest patches, and lowered yields of gooseberry, all of which added to Soligas’ livelihood concerns.
Hunting was banned in 1972, but the traditional food system of Soligas and their rudimentary economy continued to depend on non-timber forest produce (NTFP), including honey, gooseberry and lichen, till the BRTWS management prohibited such extraction in 2005, citing a five-year-old Supreme Court order. After prolonged agitation, it was only in 2009, two years after the Forest Rights Act took effect, that the ban on NTFP was lifted.
Meanwhile, the BRTWS management has been eyeing ‘tiger reserve’ status for over a decade. In 2000, the then Union Minister for Environment and Forests TR Baalu put the plan on hold. The Project Tiger steering committee turned down a second proposal in 2005. Karnataka revived the issue again in 2008. Once R Dhruvnarayan, Congress MP from Chamrajnagar, S Pakkirappa, BJP MP from Raichur, and Vijay Mallya, industrialist and Rajya Sabha MP, repeated the demand in Parliament, the current Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh offered an in-principle approval.
In September 2010, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) sought a detailed proposal from Karnataka. Instead of sending the proposal for NTCA ratification, the state went ahead and notified the BRTWS as a tiger reserve this January, placing a question mark on the future of about 6,000 Soligas in the core area of the tiger reserve and another 10,000 in the buffer zone.
No wonder any insult now only adds to the many injuries, old and new. But unlike the tiger, so easily turned away in Soliga myths, BR Hills’ tribals would rather give it back in full measure.
Nobody is sure who deserves more credit for protecting these forests from mining, timber and poaching mafias. The forest department was not in contention until recently. If one asks Soligas, they are not modest. But that may not be fair on the late Veerappan, whose presence made these forests out of bounds for petty plunderers.
The state has taken over since the brigand relinquished charge. Today, the conservation stakes are high. This 610 sq km forest (of which 540 sq km is the tiger reserve with a core area of 350 sq km) is the critical link between rich wilderness areas of the Western Ghats and Eastern Ghats. A vibrant combination of six different forest types in varying altitude, the BRTWS is home to most major mammals, including tigers, leopards, wild dogs, elephants and bisons; 245 species of birds and 776 species of higher plants. The loss of this forest will amount to surrendering one of the country’s most important elephant corridors and a prolific source population of tigers.
While ‘tiger reserve’ status mandates the highest level of protection, it also demands the resettlement of villages to keep the core area inviolate. On paper, the scheme is voluntary. Already, 787 Soliga families here have got land titles under the Forest Rights Act. The Chamrajnagar district administration assures the remaining 400 families that they will have their titles soon. But the spectre of displacement has already organised Soligas under the Zilla Budakattu Girijana Abhivrudhi Sangha.
Their argument is simple: rather than harm the forest, the presence of Soligas helps conservation. They cite official census figures to argue how tiger numbers have increased while forest use and cultivation of small holdings by Soligas has continued. They point out how a study by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) has found that the extraction of forest gooseberries by Soligas is within sustainable limits. Over the years, local Soliga institutions have been fighting anti-conservation activities such as granite quarrying, poaching and timber smuggling.
Understandably, the administration is sympathetic. Barring a confrontation during former deputy forest conservator (DCF) Dr R Raju’s tenure, when NTFP rights were denied and a few Soliga leaders were arrested on charges of sabotage (forest fire), relations between Soligas and the forest management have been event-free. DCF R Ravishankar, presently in charge of the BRTWS, says he is fine with Soligas staying within the tiger reserve so long as they cooperate with the department. And, he agrees, the community has been cooperative so far.
Dr Amar Narayan, deputy commissioner, Chamrajnagar, is busy completing the good work of his predecessor Chakravarthy Mohan, who distributed the first lot of land titles among Soligas. Known for his hands-on approach in the state administration, Dr Narayan has promised to settle the pending claims soon. A little hesitant to comment on a “forest issue”, he nevertheless makes it clear that Soligas should not be resettled because he does not feel “they can have a life outside forests”.
Incidentally, a cluster of private coffee estates stretching over 1,600 hectares in the heart of the core forest liberally uses pesticides and chemicals that threaten the sanctuary’s water systems. While the future of these estates is sub judice, confide top forest officials, the department will not be comfortable approaching Soligas with resettlement offers before the ecologically hazardous coffee estates are shut down.
Soligas enjoy strong support from two large NGOs working in the BR Hills area. While the ATREE has been helping them improve their income from NTFPs and monitor sustainable extraction, the Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK) has been working over three decades among Soligas to ensure better healthcare and education. Both organisations are pushing a community conservation model for the BRTWS, drawing on traditional Soliga knowledge.
Even conservationists, often perceived as anti-people, are soft on Soligas. Eminent tiger scientist Dr Ullas Karanth says he had successfully opposed the move to declare the BRTWS a tiger reserve during TR Baalu’s tenure at the Ministry, “to avoid an unnecessary confrontation with the indigenous people”. If the NTCA had to declare another tiger reserve in the region, argues Dr Karanth, Kudremukh would have been a better choice because about 500 families there were keen to relocate, and the forest, clubbed with the Bhadra tiger reserve, formed a vital habitat in the central Western Ghats.
With such unanimity in their favour, then, why must Soligas worry so much about losing ground? Or is their fight about something else?
Gorukana is a unique Soliga narrative form. Like a spider’s web, this ballad is woven extempore by Soligas who take turns to add a few lines each. Traditionally, an entire poru gathers around the evening fire and recounts the day’s happenings in a rhythmic gorukana that, like many subtle symphonies of the rainforest, reveals a lot more than the obvious to a discerning listener.
These days, however, few in the sanctuary appear to be in the mood for gorukana. At Gombegallu, Sarpanch Made Gowda tells the story of how his grandfather saved the Maharaja of Mysore by gunning down a tiger at close range. The feisty grandson vows to shoot down any proposal to displace his family. Will his land title suffice for all his children? Made Gowda refuses to worry about the future since “all one can take care of is the present”. If worse comes to worst, he says, the entire poru will drink poison.
Sidda Gowda of Keredimba has eight grandsons and land title over 25 acres. Since additional land will not be available inside protected forests in the future, he is worried about how the next generation will get by. Four of his grandsons work for the forest department, but he knows that the availability of such jobs will not keep pace with population growth.
After a check-up at a VGKK medical van in Purani Poru, Rangamma closes her wrinkled eyelids to consider the issue of limited resources and a rising population, and wonders if that is not a problem all over the world. Chhluwadi Yogi, disappointed that the VGKK doctor has not found any problem with him, joins in to point out that with proper irrigation, the same land can support a lot more people. He does not understand why irrigation facilities cannot be provided inside a protected forest.
Dr H Sudarshan, a veteran social worker and founder of VGKK, explains at length how the health implications of a life outside forests can threaten the future of Soligas. On the sustainability issue, he argues that better healthcare will eventually reduce birth rate. But better healthcare will also reduce mortality. In any case, concludes the good doctor, the growth rate among Soligas has never been too high and need not stretch forest resources in the near future.
At Kanneri colony, one of the biggest porus, Soliga district committee president Konure Gowda sounds less cautious. An amiable leader, he is not ready to make concessions even for community deities—bisons and wild boars—if they damage crops. He demands effective power fencing and ditches. He is upset that the construction of a 10-km-long power line is yet to take off. He is candid that if enough jobs are not created, future generations will have to occupy more forest land.
The irony is obvious. Thanks to NGOs like the VGKK and ATREE, Soligas have a better life today. With healthcare and education, came awareness. With better returns from NTFPs came buying power. The coffee estates employ hundreds of Soligas at a reasonable daily wage. In recent years, most porus have started growing coffee in their backyards. Coffee does not attract wildlife and fetches good prices. Around 40 families at Keredimbe alone make more than Rs 8 lakh per annum selling the coffee they grow.
This surplus seasonal cash, coupled with exposure to the outside world, has its consequences. Though money has started trickling in, the concept of money management has not. So alcohol abuse is rampant in most porus. The larger picture is even more unsettling. Awareness, exposure and money have triggered new aspirations. While perfectly legitimate, these are threatening to change the near-zero-ecological-footprint lifestyle of Soligas that made them the poster boys of sustainability.
At a meeting chaired by the deputy commissioner at Chamrajnagar, the loudest Soliga voices were not against resettlement, but for power, roads and water. Dr Narayan is used to such demands, but he could not promise bijli-sadak-paani deep inside a protected forest. DCF Ravi - shankar assured them he would provide water by diverting a few streams, but couldn’t promise power lines and blacktop roads inside a tiger reserve. The Soliga leaders were not amused.
While Dr Sudarshan insists Soligas are fine with solar lamps and fair weather roads, leaders like Konure Gowda do not seem to agree. With a younger, more impatient leadership waiting to take over, the limits of coexistence and sustainability may soon be tested at the BRTWS. The social fabric of Soligas is already strained by alcoholism and will be stretched thinner if private coffee estates are shut down anytime soon.
A resettlement of the porus from the 350 sq km core forest at this stage may safeguard this critical wildlife habitat against those eventualities. But such an attempt would convert the BRTWS into a battlefield overnight. For all the churn their lives have undergone, Soligas still cannot do without forests. They will fight any resettlement effort tooth and nail because it is still a question of their very survival.
A not-so-distant future, however, may unfold a different story. Over time, the younger generations of Soligas will determine the course of their ancient community. If they indeed outgrow their forest someday, they may drop their resistance to a rehabilitation scheme that’s lucrative enough.
But this buzz may pass, and there may still be enough voices and stories for gorukana. If these children of the wilderness do not lose their soul, the idea of community conservation may yet work at the BRTWS, a first in India on such a scale. Soligas and their forest surely deserve that chance.