Forgotten Sunderkhal

A fresh case of human kill by a Tiger at Sunderkhal has been reported in this third week of February 2011. This will inevitably ignite a fresh wave of hatred against the Tigers at Sunderkhal and the areas in vicinity. It is time; the government relocates these helpless Sunderkhal villagers and creates adequate opportunities for their employment or give them leased land for farming elsewhere.

On the 26th, 27th and 28th of February 2011, along with Hans Dalal and Naved Jamal, I visited ‘Camp Riverwild’ owned by a close friend Abdul Ghaffar Ansari, at Mohaan near Ramnagar. We were there to avail a firsthand report on the five human kills by the gunned down Tiger at the Sunderkhal village on the periphery of the Corbett national park. AGA, is what I call Abdul Ghaffar Ansari when I write to him or about him. He is a naturalist, an owner of a picturesque eco-friendly resort called ‘Camp Riverwild’, a wonderful human being and our host who saw us through the detailed accounts of the Sunderkhal human kills by the Tiger which was eventually gunned down. He took pains in taking us around the human kill sites and helped us with one to one interaction with the Sunderkhal villagers, including the immediate relatives of the victims who fell to the attacks of the gunned down Tiger.

It was evident, that these vulnerable Sunderkhal residents are in a pathetic state with nowhere to go but to reside in the same village that they dwell in now. Surprisingly though, this village consisting of huts made up of mud walls and thatched roofs is a settlement of residents who were relocated on this land by the government some years back from certain areas which are now lie within the limits of the Corbett national park.

AGA drove three of us to the Sunderkhal village where first up we looked for Dhaniram mistry, a carpenter and husband to Devaki Devi the third victim who was mauled and killed near Chulkhani Chaur by the gunned down Tiger. As we inquisitively walked through the small settlement we were attracted to this group of kids, numbering about a dozen, gaily playing in an open grassy patch within the village under the vigil of the village elders. We could decipher that the game played by the children was evidently influenced by the recent human kills. Four of these kids, all boys, had somehow availed a bottle of lacto-calamine (probably a discarded vanity item by a tourist, flung out of a vehicle on the periphery of the village) and had lined up their faces with Tiger stripes, scaring away the other kids. I enticed the kids with a forcible entry into their game and begin my conversation on an adoring note, subject to the ‘Tiger getup’ by the boys. With an initial skepticism they gradually gelled with us, more so attracted to the camera. I slowly led them to disclose their opinion on Tigers and was surprised to learn from the naive children that they had been injected with hatred for the feline which to them is a horrible predator, the eldest of them loudly declaring, “sher acche nahi hote” (Tigers are not good) and the others agreeing with him.

Dhaniram, surviving spouse of the deceased victim, Devaki Devi, was at work and not to be found at home, so as we left for our next site of human kill. As we departed walking through a semi cultivated land towards the highway, we heard the slogans raised by these kids, “gaon gaon me jaana hai, sher ko marana hai” (let us visit every village and kill the Tiger). I later learned from a couple of forest officials who were ‘real workers’ for the cause that the hatred for the Tigers was brought into the kids by the elders who were in turn instigated by some 'small time', ambitious political prodigies of the area.

Walking towards AGA’s car which was parked road side on the highway, I thought about the only two 'G's' that can save the poor Sunderkhal residents from the future onslaught of the Tigers, one, 'God' and two, 'Government'. Pragmatically, I am optimistic about the first and skeptical about the second.

As we drove, AGA showed us two other kill sites, one near Panod, where an unfortunate lady named Nandi Devi, the first victim of the Tiger was mauled and killed and another near Chukam, where a lady named Kalpana Mehra was victimized by the Tiger; she was the Tiger’s second victim. AGA then drove us to a site where a painter, painting a forest sign-board was attacked but fortunately lived to see another day.

As we gave an ear to AGA’s detailed descriptions, he pulled the car over a small ‘tea-stall’ right opposite to Garjia Chauki, on a junction where a dirt road leading to the famous Garjia Temple parted from the main road. Here we met ‘Haria’, son of a 50 year old lady, Shanti Devi, who was the fourth victim of the gunned Tiger. Haria, on and off, does odd jobs for the forest department and works part time at the tea stall when not working for the forest department. He has no land for cultivation and odd jobs are the only opportunities he has to support his family. His mother Shanti Devi, fell victim to the Tiger attack in broad daylight while collecting some grass and dried sticks for the fuel at home, late in the afternoon about 150 meters up-hill from the road. She was then dragged by the Tiger 200 meters further up-hill and into the forest. With no trace of her by late evening, a search party of villagers went out to look for the lady, ably helped by a few concerned forest department officials and AGA himself. The body of the deceased lady was found on the next day.

Before this Tiger was shot dead following its fifth and final human kill, that of a male named Puran Chand, AGA, on an individual front, ably supported by a couple of brave, honest and helpful forest officials (both posted at one of the park gates), gave in their best to save the Tiger from being shot dead. All these gentlemen knew that the location of the village was more of a problem to the Tiger than the Tiger to the village. Couple of times they even drove the tiger away from the area. AGA shared his thoughts with me stating that if the authorities would have had relocated the village earlier, the tiger would have been spared, as it was a normal animal which was wary of humans as it lived on the periphery of the national park. It inevitably attacked the humans as it thought that the humans would attack it and then fed on the spoils, naturally as it had a kill to feed on, right there. The trickiest part of this series of sad events was that the Tiger was taken to be a Tigress throughout, owing to the pugmark that it left behind, the pugmark of the left hind leg. This pugmark gave a female imprint, probably because of a physical defect and fortunately for the Tiger, this mistaken identity prolonged its life as the officials ignored its presence and continued searching for a female.

Undoubtedly, relocation is the only possible solution for the Sunderkhal residents and other small villages in the vicinity. I don’t deny the fact that it is a tedious process which cannot be done overnight, especially with the monotonous bureaucratic processes in this part of the world. Here, we are talking of villagers who have no proper land or steady source of income. Most of the youth work either on daily wages with the forest department or are employed with the private resorts and hotels in the vicinity. Over the years they have been deprived of what was promised to them as ‘lease land for cultivation’ (locally known as ‘patta’) and therefore when it comes to relocation, they are 'once bitten twice shy'. Adding to the woes, is the interference of many self acclaimed ‘messiah’s’ for the cause whom we know as the NGO's, each having its own agenda en-route to ‘fame’. Relocation of villages in India is a drink that is well and truly brewed by the bureaucracy, administration and self acclaimed ‘messiah’s’ for the cause. The end result is a distasteful product, which often is a ‘forgotten cause’, as fresh and enticing issues sprout up on the decayed old causes and on these new issues, the bureaucracy gets busy with sedation, the administration with corruption and the NGO’s with popularity, while all that is needed is simple, ‘relocation’.

I began the write up with a recent human victim by a different Tiger at Sunderkhal. This kill was made on the same site where the fifth and the final kill, that of a male named Puran Chand was made by the gunned down Sunderkhal Tiger. This particular site has a thick growth of tall teak trees and is on the periphery of Sunderkhal village. It is assumed that Puran Chand was talking on his cell phone immediately after attending to the natures call, right on the periphery of the Sunderkhal village. Understandable enough as these villagers are deprived of basic necessities in life, let alone affording a proper toilet. Probably the Tiger heard him talking on the phone and then stalked Puran Chand who was caught by surprise. This fifth kill site is located between the highway and the river. Facing Ramnagar while on the highway, this location is on the left and comes under the Ramnagar division, while on the right is the Corbett national park. Though the small outgrowths were cleared up after Puran Singh fell victim to the Tiger, this place is yet again turning out to be a horrific graveyard for the Sunderkhal residents. The fresh human victim that we are now talking of was known to have an ‘instable’ mindset and had dozed off under a teak tree. Unfortunately for him this area is often used by Tigers and other ungulates to walk down across the highway on to the river bed to quench their thirst.

We are aware that the Tigers are doing what they are supposed to do with the set of circumstances and that to an animal, especially feline, attacking instincts do come naturally, therefore they are certainly not guilty. The Sunderkhal residents have been betrayed in the past by the administration on the grounds of unfulfilled promises and therefore their skepticism on relocation is quite understandable. Taking firsthand accounts of the kills on the sites, along with AGA, we talked to ‘a few good men’ from the forest department of Corbett national park. As we talked to them over the camp fire in the cover of the dark night, I was educated with the fact that these men had risked their jobs by facing the wrath of their seniors in addition to the wrath of the villagers, accusations of NGO’s, politicians and the press, and despite all this, these ‘men of honor’ had done all they could to help both the Tiger and the Sunderkhal residents. Such men deserve the honor to be called ‘the real heroes’. I would not name them for they have families to support.

The question that arises now is who then is at fault? The answer is the ‘government’, both in the state and at the centre. It is they who have the powers to allocate land to the villagers; it is they who can pass orders for relocation of the villagers. We all know that the government has enormous powers of execution and that’s where we expect the change to come from, that’s where we expect the help, aid and justice for the poverty stricken residents of Sunderkhal to come from, that’s where we expect the relocation orders to come from, the faster the better and I hope and pray that the help does come in time, before this second string of human victims takes its toll.