“Our entire life has been spent in darkness, but at least our children get the light.” These are the words of Nandi Devi and Basanti Devi, residents of Aam Danda Khatta forest village. Their village of Ramnagar Vidhan Sabha constituency in the state of Uttarakhand has remained deprived of basic facilities like electricity, water, internet, and pucca road even after more than seven decades have passed since independence.
Even today, given the unpaved road, every pathway to reach the village becomes muddy during the monsoon.
Geeta Devi, a woman from the same village, says that “in the rainy season, the water fills up to the knees of our children. It disrupts the children from going to the school.”
Both Suresh and Geeta are engaged in paid work. With great difficulty, the couple has been sending their children to a private school (English medium) four-five kilometers away from the village. Due to the closure of schools given the COVID19 pandemic, their children’s schooling and monthly examinations have shifted to the online mode which they access through mobile.
However, due to bad weather in the rainy season and fog in the winter, the battery of the solar panel cannot be charged because of which online education of their children is constantly interrupted. This time the monthly examination of the children has also been missed.
Bahadur Ram, a village elderly, questions, “there are frequent announcements from the government that basic rights and facilities should be given to the residents of the forest village. But will mere announcements bring any change in our lives?”
The government makes announcements and gives assurances only to win elections, but it never looks back.
Like when children start crying a lot, a toy is given to them to make them silent. Similarly, from time to time, the government gives rattling assurances, announcements, and solar panels in our hands to silence the voice of our rebellion.
Bahadur Ram says that “we were settled here to maintain and protect the forests. We were allotted land on lease by the forest department. For 200 years, we have been in possession of the forest department’s land. And in the year 1991-92, the said area became under the control of Aam Danda Forest Village, Corbett Tiger Reserve Ramnagar Nainital from the Forest Department. The result is that we are deprived of basic facilities to date.”
Village residents Prakash Thapliyal and his daughter Mansi Thapliyal say that ‘it is such a bad condition due to summer, the roof drips in the rain, but we cannot even build pucca roofs. Nowadays solar panels are not getting charged during rainy days.
If we use this light and fan (electricity) charged with solar energy during the day, then the battery will run out by night, which makes cooking difficult.
“During elections, all these leaders come to ask us for votes, take votes from us promising to get us fundamental rights, but after that, they do not even show their appearance in our hundreds of memorandums and demonstrations.”
The battery of Ganesh Ram Arya, a resident of the village, is running bad for a week, the whole family is facing this heat and darkness of day and night.
How many times do villagers have to go to the city even to get their phones charged?
Tired of fighting continuously for a long time, some hopeful elders of the village say that “the government only makes election rhetoric. While the entire Corbett Park is in the hands of foreigners, what will the government do now? Taking advantage of the illiterate and oppressed, the government employs rhetoric to win the election. Unless we have the consent of the Wildlife Board, we cannot get our fundamental rights at any cost.”
With a spirit to not give in to this over looming hopelessness, most of the people of the village are still struggling tirelessly for a long time for their basic facilities.
Post Independence: Memorandums and Empty Assurances
Neelkamal, Lalit Thapliyal, the struggling youth of the forest village, and Chinta Ram, the convener of “Village Aam Danda Khatta Sangharsh Samiti”, have been continuous informing the administration about these problems through memorandums.
So far, he has given hundreds of memorandums to many top officials including Corbett Tiger Reserve, Kumaon Commissioner, Deputy District Magistrate, Governor, DFO, Chief Conservator of Forests.
On the 8th of February, under the leadership of Chinta Ram, convener of “Van Gram Aam Danda Khatta Sangharsh Samiti”, a memorandum was given to Corbett Tiger Reserve demanding basic facilities and gherao was also done.
The residents of the forest village, protesting outside the Ramnagar Corbett Park Reserve office, demanding basic facilities, have clearly said, “we have been living in these forests for years and protecting them. For 200 years, we are in possession of the forest department’s land. But today we are not getting basic facilities like electricity, water, internet.
The Prime Minister of the country has said that wherever one is, they should be given the freedom to live there. But even after so many years of independence, we are at the receiving end of step-motherly treatment by the state.”
Recently, on the 7th of August, the residents of the forest village had sent a memorandum to the Governor, through Ramnagar Tehsildar, informing them about the lack of basic facilities in the village and that they generally have to make do with solar energy. The residents further added that due to bad weather or fog in winter, they are mostly unable to charge it because of which they have to struggle with no electricity and other necessities.
Earlier, kerosene oil was available to them at cheap prices through government shops but at present, this too has stopped. On top of that, they are at risk of attacks by wild animals remain at risk. Tigers are seen in the area in broad daylight. In the memorandum, there is a demand of the villagers that necessary steps should be taken as soon as possible to catch the tiger, and bushes must be cleared.
The residents also say that a clear announcement has been made by the Chief Minister regarding Tehsil Ramnagar that basic facilities should be provided to the forest villages like Aam Danda Khatta, Tedha Khatta, Sunderkhal, etc. A meeting with the officials regarding the same was held at the DFO office of the Western Forest Division.
In the meeting, PC Gorkha, Vice-Chairman of the SC/ST Commission, had given instructions to provide basic facilities to 24 forest villages of Ramnagar area after interacting with the forest department, administration, and electricity officials.
It was decided that the file would be sent to the administration after completing the necessary formalities after conducting a joint survey within a week. But to date, no action has been taken.
Recently, on 7th August, forest village residents have sent a memorandum by the Deputy District Magistrate to the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand and have mentioned that being a forest villager, the Government of India and the State Government’s schemes like houses under Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Self-employment under Toilet Chandra Singh Garhwali Yojana and employment under MNREGA remain out of reach from the villagers and they remain deprived. A collective demand has been raised to the government to provide the residents’ access to public schemes.
But till now the residents of forest villages have been given only assurances by the government, administrative officers, MLAs, etc. in return for these memorandums and demonstrations.
Ramnagar is an assembly constituency. All the political leaders of Ramnagar have started their activities, meeting people, and making their contacts. Now it remains to be seen who will solve the problems of the Vangram residents of Ramnagar before the elections? Who will give them their fundamental rights?
A few days ago, the Aam Aadmi Party had promised and claimed to provide free electricity in Uttarakhand this time. Will the Aam Aadmi Party (or any other party) give electricity to the people of Vangram? This still remains a lingering question for the residents of Vangram.
The report was first published by Worker’s Unity.