The Pench tiger Reserve shares its border between the states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, each side managed by its respective states. The Pench Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra is located in the nagpur district and is spread over a total area of 741.22 sq km. including a core area of 430. 12 sq km.
There were 3 villages within the CTH of the TR, out of which one has been submerged, Bodalzira, another one relocated Totladoh, and the last one, Fulzari, still remains inside of the core area . Besides the relocation issues, which has seen opposition by the local people of Fulzari , the conflict in this tiger reserve has been mostly related to the denial of fishing rights by the forest department within the Totladoh reservoir, located inside the Pench National Park.
The Totladoh reservoir came out as a result of a dam project constructed between 1974 and 1987 as a part of the Pench Hydro Electric Project. The village of Totladoh did not exist before, and came out as a result of the dam construction, when some workers whose houses were submerged by the same dam, settled down on what is today called Totladoh village. Some of these families got employment under the irrigation and forest department, some continued to work as construction labourers, while others remained landless and started to generate a source of livelihood from fishing activities (info from Pravin Mote and Akshay Chettri). Since many villagers were displaced due to the dam a number of 305 fishing permits were issued by the Chief Wildlife Warden of Madhya Pradesh, creating a legal conflict between the conservationists and the Wildlife administration . In 1990 the Forest Department started to demolish their houses and harass the local villagers under the banner of Tiger Conservation.
The conflict escalated and as in 1995, the High Court released a series of restrictions on the reservoir and banned the free fishing activities [2,11]. After a long struggle to demand for their fishing and land rights, on April 22, 2002 the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court came out with a verdict pronouncing the demolition and eviction of Totladoh village. With no proper rehabilitation package, 100 families got evicted. The villagers raised up demanding for land rights, and only later were given residential plots in the Deolapar area of Ramtek tehsil; they are still fighting in the Supreme Court for compensation and means of living [1,2]. After the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, New Totladoh, together with other villages living on the fringe, asked for the recognition of their fishing rights, however, the claims are still pending and the villagers do still live at the mercy of temporary labour work .
In the whole area, the conflict started to shift violently after 2007. In 2008 there was a huge protest organized by the locals against the forest department plan of eviction and violence started to arise. As argued by Anand Gajbhiye, an advocate who has represented the community in numerous cases, “before this date the forest department was registering some false wildlife cases against the community, but after 2007 the forest guards started to register false cases against all the 700 people of the village” .
New waves of protests arose after January 2012, when 17 fishers who were fishing in the reservoir, got injured in firing by the forest department . These series of incidents, which have taken place within the reservoir area since 2007, arrived at their culmination on 1st July 2012 when a forest guard shot a fisher repeatedly with air guns . According to the fishermen, the hostility of the forest guards increased. “Forest officials do not bother to check our permits; they just shoot at us with air guns from a distance,” says resident Nandu Banot. “The incidents are so frequent that we prefer to remove gun pellets from our bodies with the help of shaving blades instead of paying the Rs 100 charged by the doctor to remove one pellet,” he says .
Another accident happened in February 2015, when a group of fishermen entered the prohibited area and in ‘self-defence’ the forest guards shot and killed Harinand Banwari. After this episode, the arms of the set-up Special Tiger Protection Force (STFP) were seized by the police. However, according to a TOI report, the foresters enjoy legal immunity and they cannot be registered till the magistrate probe is over .
The discussion on fishing rights has been going on since more than one decade now, and the people continue to fight for the recognition of their rights. However the government, in complete ignorance of the Forest Rights Act, is continuously denying their rights to the people, increasing violence and poverty in the area. Indeed, when the Sub Divisional Officer (SDO) of the Pench Tiger Reserve, in March 2017 recognized the fishing rights to the fringe villages, the decision was highly contested . Moreover, in August 2017, Mallikarjun Reddy, the BJP Minister of Legislative Assembly declared that no fishing rights can be recognized within the Pench Tiger Reserve, declaring that the illegal fishers need to be accommodated in other reservoirs in order to carry on their fishing activity [5,12].
Besides this, other infrastructural projects are coming up around the national park and the local communities are vocally opposing them. One of the most criticized projects has been the expansion of the National Highway 7 (NH7), which has also seen opposition by the National Green Tribunal. The National Highways Authority of India has been proposing to convert the two-lane road into a four-lane highway, with the protected area of the Pench reserve on one side, and on the other side is the 10-kilometre mandatory buffer zone in which no development activities are allowed according to India’s wildlife law. This project is expected to affect and deforest roughly 49 hectares of land .