A 67 sq km enclosure is under construction at the sanctuary to house cheetahs from South Africa, leading to loss of grazing land of over 25,000 cows in Chainpuriya Block village
By Sanavver Shafi
Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh: ‘There are several problems, including the shortage of electricity, water for irrigation and land rights leases in our village, but the clouds of crisis are looming over our livelihood now. The place where our cows, goats and buffaloes used to graze is being enclosed by a stone wall and wire fence to make way for the cheetahs,’ said Dinesh Gurjar (30), a dairy farmer from Chainpuriya Block village.
Cheetahs had ceased to exist in the country 70 years ago (1952). On September 17, 2022, on his 72nd birthday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released eight Namibian cheetahs into the quarantine enclosure at the Kuno National Park in Sheopur district of Madhya Pradesh. On February 18 this year, another 12 cheetahs arrived at Kuno from South Africa. In the last week of March, Namibian cheetah Siyaya gave birth to four cubs, of which three died later. Meanwhile, six cheetahs also died. At present, 14 cheetahs and one cub are present at the Kuno National Park.
There is a plan to bring a new consignment of 10 cheetahs from South Africa next January. Preparations are on to settle them at the Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary, situated on the border of Neemuch and Mandsaur districts of Madhya Pradesh. Here, an enclosure of 67 sq km is under construction at a cost of Rs 30 crore. According to the forest department officials, the work will be completed by next month.
On the other side of the road is Chainpuriya (Ravalikudi), coming under Chainpuriya Block village panchayat in Manasa tehsil of Neemuch district. Earlier, there used to be three villages — Chainpuriya, Ravalikudi and Pathar — which the administration had merged into Chainpuriya Block village.
About 2,500 residents of 452 families live here, with their main occupation being animal husbandry and agriculture. Every villager has 70 to 100 livestock, but the number of buffaloes and goats is less against the over 25,000 cows.
Dinesh said the government was opening cow shelters and running many schemes for them in every village panchayat, but was unconcerned about their cattle. Taking his point forward, his wife Sudha Bai said, ‘Milk business is the livelihood of our family, which includes my husband, mother-in-law and two children. We have 55 cows. The rest 25 are goats and buffaloes. If they do not get food, all of us are in danger of dying of hunger.’
Seated on a stool made of mud outside her house, Kajri Bai (75) questioned why only the poor paid the price of development. ‘Fifty years ago, during the construction of Gandhi Sagar Dam, we had to leave everything because our land came in the submergence area of the dam and the administration displaced us. Since then, we have been occupying this place, earning a living through agriculture and dairy business. If the government does not leave space for our cattle, we will once again face the brunt of displacement, which we detest,’ she said.
The family of Savra Gurjar (38) has been living in the village for 50 years. ‘We have no objection to Project Cheetah. Our only demand is that when our ancestors were displaced here, the forest department had reserved compound numbers 35, 36, 40, 41, 42, 43 for grazing in Rampura range of Neemuch forest division. The department has now wrongly demarcated this land for Project Cheetah.’
Samrat Dixit (33) said the villagers have written to Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Governor Mangubhai C Patel regarding their problems and have submitted a memorandum to Neemuch District Collector Dinesh Jain. ‘We have also protested. Yet our problem remains the same. You tell me, if the forest department covers up our pastureland, where will we take our cattle to graze? We have only one grazing spot, whereas the forest department has other spaces that can be utilised,’ he said.
In this connection, Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary Superintendent Rajesh Mandavlia told 101Reporters that wire-fencing work began on a war footing after the department reached an agreement with the forest committees. ‘We have received the villagers’ consent. We have left out 300 hectares of forest land for grazing,’ he claimed.
Dixit confirmed that talks were held with the department officials through forest committees, where the department agreed to give up 300 hectares. However, no consensus was reached because the area provided was inadequate.
‘During the talks, the department officials were ready to give up only 300 hectares at first. As we did not agree, the officials said they could leave 1,080 hectares in three of the six grazing compounds. But the reality is that the land offered is not enough to accommodate our 25,000 cows. Our cattle can graze at ease only when we get about 3,000 hectares,’ Dixit elaborated.
Aseem Srivastava, Madhya Pradesh Forest Department Chief Wildlife Warden, told 101Reporters that the six grazing compounds were not part of the sanctuary, but belonged to the general forest division of Neemuch. ‘Right now, except for that part, chain link fencing is being done. Negotiations are progressing with villagers through the forest committees. We hope a solution to this problem will be found soon,’ he said.
‘Our fathers and grandfathers have also lived here. One side of the road has been covered by fencing and preparations are on to cordon off the area on the other side of the road. If that yet-to-be fenced area is given to us for grazing cattle, our problem can be solved. We also need the forest to rear such a large number of cattle. We have jointly complained many times and met the officials, but our problems remain the same,’ said Prahlad Gurjar (32).
Prabhulal Gurjar (45) said if a solution is not found through talks, they would approach the court. ‘We are in talks with fellow villagers and lawyers,’ he said.
The progress so far to house the cheetahs
Mandsaur Divisional Forest Officer Sanjay Raikhere told 101Reporters that an enclosure is being made for cheetahs at one end of River Chambal in the sanctuary. ‘Here, 12,600 pits have been dug and iron pipes installed at a distance of every three meters for supplying water to them. A wall of 28 km in length and 10 ft in height is being built. Three ft above the wall, solar wire fencing is being installed to stop the cheetahs from crossing the fence,’ he said.
Raikhere said the department’s earlier plan was to bring six cheetahs from Kuno, but now 10 from South Africa will reach the sanctuary by January. ‘Gandhi Sagar sanctuary is spread over 369 sq km. Over Rs 17 crore has been spent in installing a mesh in the 28-km enclosure, while cameras have also been installed in the forest area,’ he said.
He claimed that officials associated with Project Cheetah were happy about the preparations made at Gandhi Sagar and the presence of chinkaras, the favourite prey of cheetahs, in good numbers.
‘Water sources are being set up at every two km distance in the enclosure. Water would be lifted from the Chambal in the forest area of Karanpura and Chaurasigarh. At both places, four water tanks with 10,000 litre capacity each are under construction. Totally, eight tanks are being constructed in the enclosure,’ Raikhere said.
Sanavver Shafi is a Madhya Pradesh-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.