Trouble brews in Nepanagar as encroachers incur ire of locals and native tribals over forest cover, law and order

Trouble brews in Nepanagar as encroachers incur ire of locals and native tribals over forest cover, law and order

Trouble brews in Nepanagar as encroachers incur ire of locals and native tribals over forest cover, law and order

Years of unchecked encroachment and tree felling in Burhanpur is pitting tribals against tribals, with the situation now devolving into a law and order problem    

Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh: Tension gripped Nepanagar in Burhanpur district over the weekend, when amidst intensifying protests against them, tribal encroachers used force to free their comrades from police detention and the police retaliated by demolishing their makeshift houses.

Community encroachments (nawads) form the crux of the rift between the tribals of Nepanagar. The Barela, Bhil and Bhilala tribals had migrated and settled here many generations ago. In the last four decades, more tribals from Khargone, Barwani and Khandwa started clearing and occupying forest land as is their traditional practice, though the pace of encroachment has kicked up since the turn of the millennium.

Though the encroachers (nawadis) belonged to the same communities, their acts of rampant tree felling to make way for agriculture and settlements angered original settlers. “The locals have been protecting the forests from the beginning and using only as much land as was required for sustenance. The new encroachers, on the other hand, cleared large tracts of forestland with the blessings of officials in the forest and police departments. Some even have 50 to 100 acres in their possession!” Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) leader Madhuri Ben told 101Reporters.

Madhuri Ben alleges that deforestation at this scale is not possible without collusion between encroachers and the forest department  (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)

Ben, who has been working for tribal rights and forest conservation for almost 30 years, alleged that many officials encouraged encroachment and deforestation by taking bribes. “If the administration had been strict, the present situation would not have arisen.”

But the problem is that encroachments continued, thus stripping the forest cover in nearly 57,000 of the total 1,90,000 hectares. According to the forest department, Asir, Dhulkot, Nepanagar, Navra, Burhanpur, Khaknar, Shahpur and Bodarli ranges under Burhanpur forest division have lost 55,000 hectares between 2005 and 2017.   

Though locals have been opposing the encroachers from the beginning, the protests were unorganised and hence ineffective, says Ben. But last week about 1,000 tribals started an indefinite sit-in protest in front of the Collectorate in Burhanpur on April 5, seeking action against the tainted forest officials. They alleged that the officials took Rs 25 lakh each from the encroachers and allowed them to fell trees on as much as 15,000 acres. Meanwhile, denying the forest-for-bribe charge, Divisional Forest Officer Anupam Sharma said he was ready to take immediate action if the agitators could provide evidence. 

The agitators withdrew from the protest by noon on April 7, but Ben claimed that they had not backed down and would resume the protest after three days.

Drama unfolds

On the same day, a brazen jailbreak incident brought matters to a head between encroachers and the administration.

Around 4 am on Friday, over 60 tribals attacked the Nepanagar station and freed three of their comrades who were arrested recently near Mandwa for allegedly plotting a robbery. The men were suspected to be behind a similar robbery in November last year when a group of unidentified men attacked a forest output in Nepanagar and stole 17 service rifles. The detainees, including Hema Meghwal and Magan Patel, were part of the group of encroachers on Ghagharla and Sewal forests.

The Nepanagar police station where over 60 tribals attacked and injured four police personnel in a bid to free alleged encroachers and dacoits under custody (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)

“Meghwal was arrested a few days ago. Only four policemen were on duty when the police station was attacked, while the number of tribals was more than 60. We are trying to identify the attackers by checking CCTV footage,” said Superintendent of Police Rahul Kumar Lodha. All four policemen were badly injured in the attack.

In the last three years, eight incidents of attack on forest staff and police have been reported. In March, there was a mob attack on a forest range office where four people detained for alleged tree felling were freed. Within a few days of that, forest department personnel and locals on an anti-encroachment drive were injured by bow and arrow and slingshot-wielding tribals. Alarmed by such aggressive behaviour, even local panchayats have shied away from passing a resolution against the encroachers.

The latest incident rattled people to such an extent that all political parties, social organisations and local traders staged a sit-in outside the police station after giving a bandh call in Nepanagar on April 8. Municipality president Bharti Patil then said they would intensify the protest if the accused were not arrested soon.  

Political parties, social organisations and local traders staged a sit-in outside the police station after giving a bandh call in Nepanagar on April 8 (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)

In the face of these escalations, the police and administration swung into action. Indore Divisional Commissioner Dr Pawan Kumar Sharma and Inspector General Rakesh Gupta reached Nepanagar on April 7 itself. In retaliation, the police evicted the encroachers from Ghagharla and Sewal on the afternoon of April 8, mere hours after the jailbreak incident, and demolished over 10 houses. Section 144 was imposed in the entire area and 1,000 police and Rapid Action Force personnel were deployed to deal with the encroachers. The crackdown continued through the week. 

People in Sewal see the latest police drive as an act of revenge. “How can the police justify this? How is justice served when people living here have been rendered homeless? Those who lost their homes have nothing to do with the violence,” claimed Chitabai, a resident of Sewal. Incidentally, the house of a mentally challenged and differently-abled teenager was also demolished in the drive. People claim that his wheelchair was buried in debris during the drive. His sister was arrested on charges of encroachment while the brother was shifted to the anganwadi and is being looked after by the villagers. 

The wheelchair belonging to a differently-abled and mentally-challenged teenager buried in debris during the demolition drive by police (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)

“The encroachers are posing a risk to our lives. However, vote-bank politics dissuades the government from taking drastic steps. Local tribals are the backbone of business activities in the area. Their safety is now under threat,” Sohan Saini, former municipal chairman of Nepanagar, told 101Reporters.   

The forest department has distributed land titles to many older settlers, after Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan promised pattas to the tribals who settled here before 2005 in the run-up to the 2016 Nepanagar bypoll and 2018 state Assembly elections. Meanwhile, with Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections around the corner, local tribals have been exerting pressure for the award of forest rights leases to them. They claim over 10,000 applications have been pending with the government. 

Cover photo - Members of the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan gheraoed the collector's office in Burhanpur for two days (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)


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