The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Metropolis on one side, maneaters on the other

Mumbai, Oct. 23: Residents are advised not to look too close. For if they do, the pretty picture changes into a savage scene.

Close, very close to swinging Mumbai, so close that it’s uncomfortable, live a forgotten people. They are remainders of the Warli tribe, living scattered in the hills of Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

While the lush green miniature hills of the national park form a pretty backdrop to the highrises of Thakur village in Borivli — one of the many trendy suburban localities that have come up in recent years — just three or four km away, the tribals spend every waking hour thinking of ways to ward off poverty, hunger and extinction. And leopards, who snatch the children away.

Some of them don’t mind having too many children, because they may have to sacrifice one or two to nature anyway. So while their neighbours in Thakur village sit enjoying the stillness and darkness of the woods, the tribal women and children lock themselves up in their huts. The men start beating an instrument to keep leopards away.

A trek to Pata sa Pani, a Warli hamlet on top of a hillock directly facing the blatant highrises of Thakur village, shows what the tribals have to battle daily. There are 36 tribal hamlets in the stretch of the national park that falls into the Mumbai district.

The “road” ends in the “entertainment zone” of the park. The climb up is through a track in the forest. Sometimes there is no track. It is not dense, but with enough trees and shrubs to hide an animal very well, say the tribals, who keep sniffing the air for the “tiger smell”.

There is an attack every month. Just 15 days ago, there was an attack on a woman who had gone to fetch water. The leopard pounced and closed its jaws around her neck, but two women who were with her attacked the animal with their sturdy sickles. It fled. The woman was badly injured, but she survived.

Most attacks take place while the tribals go to fetch water from a place where springwater collects, for that is also where the animals come to drink. Municipality water is an unheard concept. Electricity is not unheard of, because it is stolen from an immense stone quarry below, but it does not work. The path to the watering hole is past a small “shrine”, where “bagheya”, the tiger god, is worshipped.

But not all attacks occur at the pool. A little boy was snatched, and killed, two-and-a-half months ago, while he was playing outside his hut.

“This is only this village. Around 120 tribals alone have been killed in the past 10 years from leopard attacks,” says Vitthal Patel of Jaag, an NGO that works for tribal welfare. They run a “school” for toddlers in the village. Most of the tribals are illiterate. “If we earn Rs 50 a day from selling our vegetables, bhindi, lauki etc., and wild flowers, we are lucky,” says Babu Umbarsade, a tribal.

Jaag, which has been working on the rehabilitation of the national park tribals numbering around 15,000, says the government policy has been harmful. The government and many environmental agencies have labelled the tribals, who have lived there for generations, with subsistence farming as livelihood, as “encroachers”, Vitthal says. “Yeh nirmanushyabadita hai (This is environment at the expense of humans.”

The leopard attacks increased during the last 10 years because forest authorities started to release more animals from zoos and circuses into the reserve forest area, says Vitthal. The animals that grew up in cages have less hunting skills and humans are easy victims for them, says Patel, seated inside a hut, the walls of which are done up with traditional Warli patterns in white paint.

What makes it all the more absurd is that the 25-storey buildings of Thakur Complex are again visible right ahead.

Jaag says the tribals want to be rehabilitated in the forests, which is their natural environment, and not in the distant suburb of Kalyan, which the government has planned.

Government officials deny that more animals have been released into the forest area, but agree that rehabilitation of the tribals is a problem since they belong to the forests. “They are caught between some people telling them to stay here,” says A.R. Bharti, deputy conservator of forest. He also says these tribals are like the other encroachers, who live in the slums, because they, too, have migrated from other places. “In Kalyan, the government has spent Rs 10 crore for rehabilitation of encroachers. We have asked the tribals to go there. Some of them are ready to. But only because of some people telling them to stay in their natural place of belonging, they are being misled,” says Bharti.

But for the moment, the tribals remain caught between development and government policies, fighting nature’s forces feebly.

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