Tiger in Buxa – A mirage
There have been doubts about the presence of tigers in the Buxa Tiger Reserve (BRT). According to the latest tiger census, there are three remaining in the forests of North Bengal, which include Chilapata, Jaldapara, and Buxa. Since the tiger census is now based on scat analysis, the last census report indicating the presence of three tigers must be taken with a pinch of salt.
Many senior officials of the forest department, as well as former members of National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), have already opined that the BTR has not witnessed any tiger for quite some time. “In fact, Buxa today has no tiger and it seems this has been the case for many years,” said Balmik Thapar, a former NTCA member. “Buxa never had viable tiger population. Now they talk of the presence of three tigers in BTR, but in the last 10 years, sighting is zero,” said PK Sen, a former project director with BTR.
Regardless of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, it is still being explored whether the BTR could be made free of human habitation. In an attempt to ensure the same, Azim Zaidi, State Wildlife Warden, had earlier commented, “We have to talk to the local people first for that purpose”.
The Forest Minister is not ready to accept the fact that the BTR if free of tigers. He is planning to install many more trap cameras in the hope of establishing the presence of tigers in BTR. However, will Buxa lose its importance and attraction if no big cats are found? It is widely acknowledged that the biodiversity found in Buxa is incomparable.
There are places like Mahakal, Pukhri, Tasigaon, Bhutanghat and Sikiajhora that are worth visiting, from the perspective of nature tourism. The location of Buxa Fort in the core area of BTR is a place of historical importance. Many important freedom fighters were imprisoned here during the freedom struggle. All the forest villages in and around Buxa are inhabited by a particular hill tribe called “Dukpa”. The place which is located at the centre of BTR called “Jayanti” mostly has non-tribals. In fact, Jayanti came up as a commercial place with the advent of dolomite mining. Although mining has been banned after the Supreme Court’s intervention, the population continued to persist, many of whom have switched over to “home tourism”.
Jayanti is called “Queen of Dooars” because of its scenic beauty and pleasant climate. It attracts a large number of tourists, mostly from South Bengal every year paving the way for dwellers of the forest villages to opt for “home stay tourism”. Hence, Buxa has always been a place of attraction regardless of its conversion to a Tiger Reserve in 1983.
The location of the check-post at Rajabhatkhawa on the PWD road is considered to be a stumbling block by all those who are associated with home stay tourism since tourists are made to pay an exorbitant fee per head and per vehicle. This badly affects tourist flow to Jayanti and other places in BTR. While it is widely felt that Buxa can come up as a major tourism hub if various restrictions are withdrawn, there is desperation on the part of Department of Forest, Govt. of West Bengal, to prove that Buxa has not become tiger-free as Tiger Reserve status fetches some central assistance on a yearly basis.
The present crisis in relation to tiger population in Buxa has, therefore, been attributed by the forest officials to the fact that due to lack of congenial atmosphere, there is no breeding taking place. As a result, the tiger population is getting diminished.
To make the atmosphere congenial, it is now being contemplated to relocate the forest villages that are in the midst of core area, although, with the promulgation of FRA in 2006, these forest villages have already been converted into revenue villages rendering them non-relocatable. Since the forest officials are also aware of this fact, a situation is being created so that the villagers themselves may decide to desert the places of their dwelling and agree to get shifted as offered by the forest officials.
The plight of the villagers who are residing in this BTR could be best understood by an episode, which was narrated by Mr. S. Subbaiya, the then District Magistrate of Jalpaiguri. On his visit to Sadar Bazar, one of the 17 forest villages in Buxa, he came across a woman with a child on her lap. When he wanted to know as to who has taken the delivery of this child, the woman replied, “the father of the child”. Leave alone having a hospital in the vicinity or a BPHC or even a sub-centre, the area does not have even a trained ‘Dai’ to take care of the pregnant mother at the time of delivery. Mr. Zaljardukpa, the village chief of Chunabhati, narrated that they have to walk a distance of 4/5 km on a hilly track to fetch drinking water.
The main stay of the villages of Buxa was to grow orange and to get them sold in the local market place called Santhala (orange) bari. On the pretext that orange happens to be a non-forest tree, each of them had been chopped off by the officials of BTR being oblivious of the fact that orange trading was the main source of income for the inhabitants of 17 villages which are located in the core areas of BTR.
A survey was conducted by a national level NGO called All India Centre for Urban & Rural Development encompassing 9 out of the 17 forest villages of Buxa Tiger Reserve to (a) ascertain their willingness to get relocated & (b) to identify the status of the socio-economic condition that they are being put to being the dwellers of the forest villages. The study has revealed their unwillingness to be relocated despite the denial of many of the amenities that should have been available at their doorsteps.
Although these villages have been brought under Panchayati Raj Institutions, they don’t have access to health care, potable drinking water, electricity and education for their children. Since the relocation of the villages is no longer a possibility, with the introduction of FRA, what is imperative to ensure now is that they are allowed to have all basic amenities of life. If this needs to be achieved at the expense of the status of Tiger Reserve of Buxa, we may agree to opt for the same, as sighting tiger in Buxa has already become a mirage.
(The author is a former MP. Views are strictly personal.)